Maja Milatovic is a PhD Candidate in African American Literature at the University of Edinburgh. In the latest in our Academic Inspiration series, Maja discusses how Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Audre Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name have inspired and motivated her engagement with African American women’s literature, critical race and whiteness studies and intersectional antiracist feminism.
Choosing one particular book as a “favourite” represents quite a challenge for a literature scholar. Yet, when thinking about the works which inspired my academic path, two books instantly come into my mind, one leading me to the other. The first one is Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved. I discovered this incredible work as an undergraduate studying English and French Language and Literature. It captivated me upon first reading with its poetic, hypnotic and deeply emotional narrative, making me return to its resonant pages again and again over the last six years. Beloved, dealing with the devastating effects of slavery on its survivors, questions and challenges notions of choice, motherhood, memory and the trauma of the Middle Passage through its protagonist Sethe and her family. Based on the true story of Margaret Garner, a woman who killed her own baby to save it from a life of enslavement, Beloved is truly haunting. It is one of those novels that invites re-reading, where each renewed exploration uncovers hidden depths. The character of Beloved filled me with both dread and sorrow, as the embodiment of a daughter murdered in slavery and a medium for collective memories of those lost during slavery and the Middle Passage. It is this very novel that inspired my doctoral research in African American women writers’ neo-slave narratives. Despite examining its many complexities, symbols and narrative structure, there is something about it which escapes the analysis, something which cannot be contained with definitions and words. For me, this unspeakable aspect makes the novel a continuous discovery as I return to its pages in various stages of my life.
It was Toni Morrison’s literary genius which lead me to another inspiring artist, feminist, writer and activist: Audre Lorde. More specifically, Lorde’s biomytography Zami: A New Spelling of My Name inspired and facilitated my development as a feminist academic. I often jokingly comment that every conference paper I give contains a quote by Audre Lorde (a joke which does contain a great deal of truth). Zami, a beautifully written, poetic and erotic work exploring Audre Lorde’s evolution as a Black feminist, poet and activist underscores the importance of intersectionality, or the diverse ways in which categories of race, gender, class, ability and others intersect and interact. Refusing to separate her diverse “selves”, Lorde embraces her difference as a source of strength and empowerment. She highlights an acknowledgement of difference as a necessary prerequisite for forming alliances. However, she also underscores the dimension of power present in the act of bonding through her critique of “false” sisterhood and white privilege. This makes Lorde’s feminist thought an important precursor to whiteness studies as she relentlessly critiques the dimension of power present in forming feminist movements and alliances. For instance, Lorde critiques positing white middle class women’s experience as normative, failing to consider various differences between women in terms of class, race, gender and their particular historical and cultural backgrounds.
Apart from its visionary feminism and challenging of white privilege, I particularly appreciate Zami as a political work, reflecting on the effects of historical amnesia surrounding the legacy of racism, colonisation and slavery. For instance, Lorde describes dealing with internalised racism and self-rejection in her diverse relationships with other women. She also critiques hegemonic versions of history which silence and marginalise black people’s experiences. Placing emphasis on black women’s lives and perspectives, as well as transracial and transcultural alliances, Lorde disrupts oppressive ideologies which continuously work to obstruct her progress in a society which privileges white men. Lorde’s spelling of the word “America” without capitalising is another example of her deliberate re-inventing, breaking proscriptive rules whilst her disillusionment with the country, constructed through hegemonic cultural discourses and exclusionary notions of national belonging.
Both Toni Morrison and Audre Lorde’s works have inspired and motivated my engagement with African American women’s literature, critical race and whiteness studies and intersectional antiracist feminism. Although my list of favourite books keeps growing almost daily, it is these two fascinating works which followed me since the beginning of my academic journey, and I return to them to re-discover, drawing new insights upon each reading.
Maja Milatovic is a final year PhD Candidate and Teaching Assistant at the University of Edinburgh. Her doctoral thesis focuses on African American women writers’ neo-slave narratives and the post-Civil Rights discourses surrounding the legacy of slavery, relationships to ancestry and figurations of culturally-specific African American traditions such as domestic work, blues music, writing and quilting. Her wider research interests include critical race and whiteness studies, Indigenous narratives, postcolonial, feminist and trauma theory and pedagogy. Read more reviews by Maja.