What is race and why does it matter? Why does the presence of Others make us so afraid? America's foremost novelist reflects on themes that preoccupy her work and dominate politics: race, fear, borders, mass movement of peoples, desire for belonging.
This is a book not about racial difference (there is, after all, as Morrison notes, only one human race) but about the possibilities and responsibilities of literature. And what linger in the mind longer than Morrison’s arguments are her bold and delicate literary juxtapositions ... Though only slightly more than 100 pages, the book makes room for long quotations from other works, including Morrison’s novels, which she revisits with a characteristic sensitivity to how things are said, to what is left out of a work of art, and why ... Morrison will not let herself or anyone else off the hook, and the autobiographical moments in this book are among the most interesting and ambiguous ... Morrison gives an unusually concise demonstration of how truth in fiction works, or doesn’t, of where the line is between a self-serving distortion or reduction of someone else and an imaginative leap in service of a different and important form of truth.
Refusing polarized narratives, The Origin of Others takes up this more nebulous task of understanding what it means to encounter the Other, to estrange or render familiar, to discard as foreign or to bring home ... In some ways, the most striking aspect of The Origin of Others is a catalog of 20th-century lynchings Morrison includes — with names, dates, and bare facts about the accusation of a crime, and the form of the attack ... Such spare prose requires no further exegesis, just the facts ... Reminiscent of such previous efforts as Edward Said’s Orientalism, Chinua Achebe’s 'An Image of Africa,' and Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, she pulls back the flesh of the racist and the racialized alike to try to unearth some common humanity without discarding realities of power and privilege.
Despite the title of the book, Morrison does precious little to examine the origins of this propensity to differentiate in manners that lead to brutality, negligence, and the reduction of the Other as a means to an end. Even if she suggests that harmony across noted difference is a logical possibility, she seems to feel that inequity and violence are a nearly inevitable correlate of the search for difference ... Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions. But clearly something is amiss in the logic of her assertions. Her laudable sympathy for the historical and current victims of Othering combined with her conviction that literature irremediably shapes experience, leaves no room for an authentic confrontation with Otherness, a non-coercive and honest experience of difference ... Saying nothing while seeming to say everything does not encourage an openness of experience, it forecloses it altogether.