The New Yorker: “Sweetness” by Toni Morrison

2015-02-09-400February 9, 2015: “Sweetness” by Toni Morrison

This is an excerpt from Morrison’s new novel, God Help the Child, due out in April this year. In this excerpt, the narrator, who is in her sixties and lives in a modest nursing home, recounts how she was tough on her only child, a daughter, Lula Ann, largely because of how dark-skinned the daughter was. The narrator herself came from a light-skinned black family—including some who passed or could have passed for white—so having a very dark daughter was a shock. Because she didn’t want people to assume she was the mother of that child, she had the girl call her “Sweetness.” The shock was enough to break up her marriage, as well, which made things even harder on mother and child.

She was so hard on Lula Ann that the girl left as soon as she could. The mother doesn’t even have an address for her, although the daughter does regularly send money and has just sent a note to say she’s expecting a baby. The narrator doesn’t know what Lula Ann—who now goes by another name—does or who the father of the child might be.

And that’s about all we can say about this fiction. It certainly doesn’t make a great story by itself, but it does suggest an intriguing novel. (Here’s the Publisher’s Weekly review of the novel.)

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  1. Like the story “Breadman” by J. Robert Lennon in the last New Yorker, this exerpt from Toni Morrison “Sweetness” is told, not shown. I know all rules are made to be, and often should be, broken, but I’m wondering if the trend is that future writing will more and more whittle away at that old, venerated “rule.”

  2. Raymond, thanks for your comment. I’m not sure I agree that “Breadman” was mostly “told” rather than “shown.” Although in past tense, the reader joins the narrator in the bread queue and follows him right up to the end. “Sweetness” is pretty much told, I agree, but that’s a matter of point of view. This narrator is looking back on her life, and we’re looking back with her. It’s also hard to tell from a novel excerpt whether it’s representative of the whole work.

    In any case, the “rule” has never been “show” to the exclusion of “tell”–we almost always get a mix of showing and telling depending on what the author wants us to focus on, where he/she wants to change the pace, etc.

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