Editor’s note: This is essay is excerpted from Bound to Last: 30 Writers on Their Most Cherished Book, published by Da Capo Press. About a month after I finished the piece, my middle daughter, nineteen, read Sula for a college class and called me while I was on a book tour in Memphis for my latest novel; while I stood beside the blues bars on Beale Street, she told me that the rich language and metaphor in the novel changed the way she looked at the world.
The Virginia Quarterly Review recently devoted a special issue to the price of e-readers and technology – the endless frantic mining for the raw materials that will power up Ipads and Kindles. I don’t live on a street where anyone has e-readers, and I’d been thinking old school for a different reason: How could I give away or bequeath an e-reader?
Looking around at my hundred-year-old house, a former farmhouse on a dead end street of tiny bungalows and stucco cottages in inland southern California, and having attended seven funerals in the past two years, I’ve already thought about my most prized possessions: What would I want my children to have?
I have so little. There’s the handwoven piece of material shaped like a folder, with thread ties, enclosing green felt pages which hold needles. My great-grandmother made it, in Switzerland, in the early part of the century. My girls have seen me use it countless times, to mend their clothes.
My brother has been dead eight years now – he bequeathed me, unknowingly, his Mexican fighting chicken, named Coco, who is ten years old and still lays eggs. Also his sheepskin-lined Levi jacket, with a spatter of ragged holes from where someone threw battery acid at him, which I wear when it’s very cold or I miss him.
A cast iron frying pan given to me by my mother-in-law, who had been told that a blonde girl might not be able to cook properly for her son, but who believed in me enough to give me the pan, show me how to season it, and then teach me how to fry chicken.
And my books.
Because I still live in the same city where I was born, and no one in my family has ever loved books, the walls of my house are lined with them, including all the volumes of my childhood.
My three girls have read most of them: the ragged, much-handled copy of Little Women, illustrated with bonneted sisters; the ancient copy of Heidi which meant so much to me as I imagined my mother living that life, in the Swiss Alps (she spoke very little about her childhood except to say that when she was ten, her mother’s body lay on the dining room table until the funeral in the tiny mountain town. (They refused to touch Alfred Hitchcock’s Daring Detectives, circa 1969, which used to scare the crap out of me and which I still love for the gory illustrations.)
I waited years to hand it to her, a great reader like me, waiting for the right moment to put it on her dresser or in her palm and have her say reverently, “This is the book you read every year, the one we always tease you about.” But not until she was twenty, a junior in college, did I succeed in having her actually pick it up. And of course, she said with utter incredulity after she’d finished it, and handed it back unceremoniously, “Yeah, the mother lights her son on fire. And the women all end up alone. Thanks, Mom.”
Was I fourteen? I had just met my future husband, in junior high. It was summer. I went to the Riverside Public Library as often as I could because it was quiet and safe. The paperback on the revolving wire rack, with a pencil-marked A on the inside first page. A for Adult? It was for sale. 75 cents.
I picked it up because the young woman on the cover looked so much like my high school friends. Brown skin, a cloud of black hair, a dark-blue floral print dress that looks ’70s Qiana-fabric slinky, and a birthmark over one eye. Above her the words say—
SHE IS DIFFERENT,
SHE IS MAGICAL, SHE IS
Until then, every adult novel I read had come checked out from this library or the bookmobile that came to the grocery store parking lot in my neighborhood. I thought it was a book for a girl. I didn’t know Sula would drown a child, watch her mother burn without running to help, steal her best friend’s husband, defy her town, and die alone at thirty.
This slim novel—149 pages, the paperback published in 1975—became a dark and luminous icon for me. It was like a premonition. It made me into a writer, it colored how I became a mother, and images and words from it unfurl themselves in my mind—like dye dropped into water—nearly every day, as I stand at the sink, as I drive a car, as I look at my children. Its cheap pages darkened to marigold, Sula remains on a shelf near my desk, except for the days that I read it again, annually. I have read the book at least once a year for the last thirty-five years. I married at twenty-two, and every year my husband would see the paperback, the girl’s implacable gaze on him, her hand under her chin, and he would say, “You reading that book again?” I would say, “You watching Shaft again?” We had memorized large portions of the dialogue of each.
The first time I kissed him was on the asphalt basketball court down the street from my house. At fourteen, I had understood little of the scene where Sula is making love with Ajax, but I never forgot what she saw:
…the golden eyes and the velvet helmet of hair…If I take a chamois and rub real hard on the bone, right on the ledge of your cheek bone, some of the black will disappear. It will flake away into the chamois and underneath there will be gold leaf.
Even then, on the school playground, I studied his face, trying to define it in word-images. His skin was the color of palm-bark, brown with red underneath; his black eyebrows were narrow crow feathers; on his cheek a complicated scar like Chinese script from where someone had hit him with jagged rock.
Months earlier, I’d been walking down a street with my best friend. She blithely agreed to hitch a ride in an ancient Buick like a dirty white boat. I followed her into the backseat, and a few blocks later, the young men inside turned menacing.
At fourteen, I had understood exactly what happened when Sula and her best friend Nel are confronted by four Irish boys on the way home from school, boys who have been hunting them as sport, and Sula pulls out her grandmother’s paring knife—
Sula squatted down in the dirt road and put everything down on the ground; her lunchpail, her reader, her mittens, her slate. Holding the knife in her right hand, she pulled the slate toward her and pressed her left forefinger down hard on its edge. Her aim was determined but inaccurate. She slashed off only the tip of her own finger. The four boys stared open-mouthed at the wound and the scrap of flesh, like a button mushroom, curling in the cherry blood that ran into the corners of the slate.
Sula raised her eyes to them. Her voice was quiet. “If I can do that to myself, what you suppose I’ll do to you?”
The first time I’d read it the metaphor and simile went into my brain like the vapor of the PCP-soaked Kool cigarettes my compatriots were smoking that summer. I studied my fingertips. Button mushroom. Cherry blood.
In the Buick, I told the men an elaborate story about my stepfather who was a sheriff’s deputy. I described his shotgun, fearlessly looking into their weed-reddened eyes, and said, “Do whatever you’re going to do, but when you drop us off, he’ll find you and kill you.”
My stepfather owned three Laundromats. We cleaned them on the weekend. He had no gun.
They left us on another corner, and my friend said, “You just lied and lied.”
Thirty years later. My friend Nicole and I sit at my kitchen table, and while she heats a straightening comb on the burner to tame my middle daughter’s hair before a dance, I am reminded of when Sula returns to town after being gone for ten years, visiting Nel’s kitchen—
Nel lowered her head onto crossed arms while tears of laughter dripped into the warm diapers…Her rapid soprano and Sula’s dark sleepy chuckle made a duet that frightened the cat and made the children run in from the back yard, puzzled at first by the wild free sounds, then delighted to see their mother stumbling merrily toward the bathroom, holding on to her stomach, fairly singing through the laughter: “Aw. Aw. Lord. Sula. Stop.”
I am the one burying my face while Nicole says, “I looked at this brotha’s picture, the one, you understand, he thought best to put up on the dating site, and I see these rings around his face, and I look again, and he’s got his damn driver license photo on there. That’s the best he can do and he thinks I’m about to give him a call. Cause he’s a catch. With his lazy broke ass.”
My girls hover in the doorway and narrow their eyes, a little afraid to come in.
The business of loving and buying and reading books is not a zero-sum game. In my daily life, I know no one with an e-reader. It’s not that kind of neighborhood. And you can’t give away a book on that “platform.” Thousands of people might only read on their iPads or Kindles in the future; they may never buy another printed-on-paper novel. Thousands more will never have books; they will tell their stories by firelight and kerosene lamp in a circle of people as they always have (or in our family’s case, standing around the oil-drum cooker in my father-in-law’s driveway, the barbecue smoke drifting over all the cousins as they talk about a shooting that happened in 1921 or a shooting that happened last weekend, as they talk about how much a nephew loves the wrong woman and she’s certain to ruin his life). And thousands more of us will only read books we can hold in our hands and pass on.
Nel and Sula. “We were two throats and one eye and we had no price.”
The book was on the couch again, while I wrote this. My youngest daughter, fourteen, said, “What’s Sula about anyway?”
She has seen it on every table, bed, and couch in the house, her entire life. The solemn, hooded eyes of the young woman study her. Does she recognize the guarded, evaluating stare as the one she’s seen countless times in the gaze of her aunts, my friends, and me? At a school function surrounded by white parents, at sports events where people study us, at the store where the security guard frowns slightly?
She picked it up and looked at the back cover.