At the War, Literature & the Arts conference in Colorado last month I read a paper titled “The Black Aesthetics of War Trauma: Toni Morrison, Larry Heinemann, and Contemporary War Fiction.” In it, I compared Toni Morrison’s 2012 novel Home, about a black Korean War veteran’s post-war ordeal, with Larry Heinemann’s 1987 Vietnam War novel Paco’s Story, about a white veteran adrift after coming home. Here’s part of it:
…Home unites Morrison’s interest in black veterans and her interest in personal healing and national coping strategies for dealing with trauma, almost as if she had deliberately taken characters, plot points, and narrative styles from Heinemann’s Paco’s Story and merged them with the ideas and ethos of her own 1987 novel Beloved. Points on which Home and Paco’s Story resemble each other include:
-the plight of the war-torn-and-haunted veteran dramatized by means of a long journey, with many scenes set on public transportation or in diners and rooming houses.
-a heavy emphasis on survivor’s guilt, brought about by having outlived friends and comrades in combat.
-an even-more intense trigger involving sexual desire for a young Asian woman followed by actively taking the woman’s life or being complicit in murder.
-the interest in the ability of small-town America to accept and nourish returning veterans.
-the inadequacy of the medical, legal, and policing apparatuses, which effectively criminalize erratic behavior by veterans.
-the wise counsel of fellow veterans, especially elders, who are portrayed as the only ones who can connect with other veterans.
-a similarity in tone, particularly in the italicized interludes in Home, in which Frank Money cajoles and taunts the reader/writer in a bristling street/folk-idiom very much like that of used by Heinemann in Paco’s Story, which is narrated by the collective ghosts of Paco’s now-dead fellow soldiers.
Does it matter the stories resemble each other, and that Morrison composed her story after Heinemann and may have consciously drawn plot-and-style points from it? I don’t think so, and more importantly, I don’t care; in fact, I’m glad it has happened….
I went on to suggest that Morrison is not just interested in Heinemann but the corpus of war-fiction published about the same time as Home and featuring psychologically distressed white veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan:
What Morrison has done is excavate the pre-history of the troubled, war-torn veteran and relocated it from the domain of white veterans of the contemporary era to that of black veterans in the 1950s, whose alienated wandering was more fraught than modern white veterans might imagine. Mindful that the Korean War is often called “The Forgotten War,” as well as being the first American war in which blacks fought in integrated front-line units, and also mindful that African-Americans fought and suffered casualties out of proportion to their population, Morrison uses Home to make a strong statement about the centrality of black Americans in the American history of war, as well as the American history of trauma. In so doing, Home serves as a prism that refracts present-day understandings of war trauma through an historical race consciousness that challenges assumptions, adds detail, and expands context….
I continued by suggesting that in retelling the story of the psychologically distressed veteran from an African-American perspective, Morrison has not only related an overlooked chapter in American history, her book itself constitutes an historical event that might well be looked back on in the future as game-changing. I used the conference keynote speaker, African-American playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, to explain:
As such, they reflect Suzan-Lori Parks’ formulation of a black theatrical aesthetics, in which she states, “Since history is a recorded or remembered event, theater, for me, is the perfect place to “make” history—that is, because so much of African-American history has been unrecorded, dismembered, washed out, one of my tasks as playwright is to … locate the ancestral burial ground, dig for bones, find bones, hear the bones sing, write it down.”
The same sentiment of “made history” is afoot in Home, I feel. Home asserts that a whites-only story of return-from-war is at best a partial truth, true only so far as it goes. Not only does it exclude black veterans, but its entire premise is built on and borrowed from one of the nation’s ur-trauma narratives: 500-years of racial oppression the result of which has forged an African-American population scarred physically, mentally, and emotionally, individually and collectively.
Finally, I considered what I call the “intriguingly upbeat ending” of Home:
But rather than imagining a downward trajectory for her war-torn veteran protagonist and an irredeemably debilitating social-political milieu Morrison in Home (as she does in Beloved) transcends the trap of victimhood by offering a more resilient version of the traumatized survivor. Morrison suggests that for poor African-Americans in the Deep South in the 1950s, embracing family and community, not running from them, is a means for surviving poverty, racism, and the persistent squelching of individual dreams and opportunities. Within that embrace, failings and sins can be forgiven and made secondary to the collective endeavor to maintain dignity and fellow-feeling.
Home thus stands as a counterpoint to the generic convention of the veteran psychologically-damaged by war on behalf of a nation that doesn’t know what to do with the victims it has created. It’s not to blame white veteran-authors for writing works that don’t acknowledge the Africanist presence in the American history of war-trauma I speak of. Instead, it is for alert readers and the authors of the future to understand the full range of possibilities and stakes. One such reader and author, Jesse Goolsby, one of our hosts here at the conference and the author of an excellent post-war novel himself, reminds us:
“There are blank pages in front of all of us. If one wants a different war story then go write it, and I wish you well.”
Home is a great example of the “different war story” Goolsby speaks of, not one that merely confirms or rebukes familiar tropes and themes, but offers a variation on them from the point-of-view of an author as perceptive and as uniquely marked by her life and times as is Morrison.
Thank you to my fellow panelists Liam Corley, Hilary Lithgow, and Lydia Wilkes, as well as to our moderator Gregory Laski. Special thanks to the United States Air Force Academy and the Department of English and Fine Arts there for sponsoring the conference. Reading lots of Toni Morrison, Larry Heinemann, Jesse Goolsby, and Suzan-Lori Parks (as well as the other conference keynote speaker, Robert Olen Butler) over the summer has been a pleasure. I previously wrote about Home here.
Suzan-Lori Parks’ quote can be found in an essay titled “Possession,” published in The America Play and Other Works (1995).
Jesse Goolsby’s quote can be found in an AWP Roundtable conversation published on the Sundress Publications website as “Duty and Dilemma: 100 Years of Writing About War” (2018).