What do you get when you take the themes of female friendship, the Black American experience in the 20th Century, family, love, jealousy, sex, and betrayal and put them in the hands of a brilliant, lauded writer?
Answer: you get Sula.
Before Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, or the prize of having your book made into a movie starring Oprah, she was an employee at Random House with one novel (The Bluest Eye) under her belt. That's when she wrote Sula, a novel that would bolster her reputation as a phenomenal talent in the world of American letters. It was nominated for the National Book Award, and the world began to be aware of the force of nature that is Toni Morrison.
The novel tells the story of a friendship between two Black women: Nel and the titular Sula. Their friendship starts out intense—as children, they're joined at the hip and love spending each and every minute with each other. But as they grow from children to teens to adult women, a series of events—the death of a young boy, Sula's habit of sleeping with married men, Nel's adherence to societal norms, a debilitating illness—threatens to destroy their friendship for good.
Like much of her other work, Sula offers commentary on the lives of Black Americans and the hardships wrought by racism, on issues of gender, on the relationships between mothers and daughters, and on the ways men and women relate to each other. Morrison has said that she's invested in recording African-American history, and while Sula mostly focuses on Nel and Sula, we also get a look at the community of which they are a part, of the customs and traditions they share, and of the ways they deal with pain, fear, love, sex, and death.
So, while Morrison is better known for books like Beloved and Jazz, you should absolutely crack open a copy of Sula. Not only because reading this literary master's early work helps you appreciate her more, but because Sula's a stunning, heartbreaking, and fascinating novel.
We're going to go ahead and quote Angela Flournoy, author of the National Book Award finalist The Turner House, on why Sula is worth caring about:
“I remember the first time I read it, I had never really read a book that was pretty plainly just about black female friendship. Toni Morrison said there’s always multiple layers of meaning, but it’s really about Sula and Nel. I imagine [Sula] as someone who carries herself very confidently in a world that doesn’t necessarily encourage that, not for a woman in general but specifically not for a black woman.” (Source)
We couldn't have said it better.
Sula is about friendship—the things that can make it stronger and the things that can complicate it. Sharing secrets that no one else knows, jealousy and betrayal, getting angry and losing touch: they're all in here.
Most of us have had to deal with friends hurting or disappointing us. While our problems might not have been as monumental as those between Nel and Sula, they may have seemed so at the time. Sula shows the depths of friendship and devotion that two women are capable of, and that's encouraging. It's true that they go through a lot of heartbreak, but each continues to care deeply for the other, overcoming fights and anger and feelings of betrayal.
But it also cautions us about waiting too long to deal with these issues. People move, go off to college, and get new jobs, and we could find ourselves left behind with the same unresolved feelings that Nel has at the end of the novel. Sula comments on the things we all deal with when it comes to the people in our lives; it challenges misconceptions about friendship and makes us think twice about holding onto anger.
The Nobel Foundation
This is a link to Morrison's biography and 1993 Nobel lecture, along with a sound recording.
This is an interesting interview with Morrison about her family, how she views the reception of her work, and her thoughts about some of her books.
This is exactly what it sounds like – a cool description of a day in the life of Toni Morrison.
Morrison answers question submitted by readers about her books, politics, race, and gender.
The Salon Interview
A Salon.com interview with Toni Morrison.
"You Still Can't Go Home Again"
A New York Times review of Sula.
Populated by Ghosts
Toni Morrison being interviewed on NPR in 2004.
Her Own Voice
Toni Morrison reading from some of her books.
Purchase and download the Audiobook from Random House Audio
Time Magazine Photo of Morrison
This picture of Morrison is from a Time article called "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman."
Princeton University Photograph
This photograph is from the Princeton University announcement of Morrison as graduation speaker in 2005.