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Fiction and the Incompleteness of History

Toni Morrison, V. S. Naipaul, and Ben Okri

Ying Zhu

With reference to Paul Ricoeur’s conception of the interconnectedness of history and fiction, this comparative literary study examines narrative strategies that three contemporary writers of fiction – Toni Morrison, V. S. Naipaul, and Ben Okri – have devised to counteract the incompleteness of historical representation. In her novel Beloved Morrison redefines the slave-narrative tradition and reveals an alternative history of slavery by unveiling the interior lives of her characters. Through a hybrid prose that mixes fiction with history in the novels The Enigma of Arrival and A Way in the World, Naipaul illuminates «areas of darkness» in the diasporic world of East Indian Trinidadians and provides new ways of transforming English literary and cultural history. Focusing on West African identity and community, Okri brings a mythic and fantastic dimension to postcolonial fiction as a way of giving a voice to people who are generally without power and almost without any place in a world of inequality and injustice. Probing into historical incompleteness, this study underscores the indispensable role of fiction in representing life, rectifying history, and enlarging reality.


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Chapter Two - A shadowless participation: Toni Morrison’s Beloved and discredited history 43


Chapter Two A shadowless participation: Toni Morrison’s Beloved and discredited history Past lives live in us, through us. Each of us harbors the spirits of people who walked the earth before we did, and those spirits depend on us for continuing existence, just as we depend on their presence to live our lives to the fullest (John Edgar Wideman, Sent For You Yesterday). With this remarkable perception of the interdependence between past and present, John Edgar Wideman prefaces his prize-winning book Sent For You Yesterday published in 1983. In no way coincidentally, his particular insight of envisioning the past through the present is shared and heightened by Toni Morrison four years later in her widely acclaimed novel Beloved. However, the significance of quoting Wide- man’s passage as a prologue to this study on Morrison goes beyond an obvious intention of displaying certain continuity and renewal in African-American literary and cultural tradition, in which slavery is a central metaphor. This commentary provides a context for and a dialogic framework within which subsequent discussions on Mor- rison’s work may draw out points otherwise unnoticed. The discredited shadow of Africanist presence For one thing, both Wideman and Morrison have realized the im- portance of paying homage to their ancestors. In the cited passage, Wideman emphasizes our indebtedness to an ancestral past as its spirits live in and through us. Morrison echoes Wideman in her much- anthologized essay ‘Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation’ (1984) that ‘[w]hen you kill the ancestor you kill yourself’...

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