Toni Morrison remembered: ‘Her irreverence was godly’

0

The Nobel prize-winning novelist, arguably the greatest American writer of her time, has died at the age of 88. Here, leading contemporaries pay tribute to her

Toni Morrison remembered by French novelist Édouard Louis

Tracy K Smith: ‘What consoles in the wake of her death is the monument she has left us, a lifetime of work’

The 22nd poet laureate of the US, from 2017 to 2019, Smith is the author of four books of poetry, including the Pulitzer prize-winning Life on Mars (2011)

The realisation has recurred in various forms now that Toni Morrison has died. There will be no more novels, no more essays, no more occasions where her living voice reaches across time and space to pierce us with insight. I feel the collective mind wrestling with disbelief, the way my own mind did in the days after my father died. Maybe this is a mistake. Maybe someone will tell us very soon that she has come back.

What consoles in the wake of her death – which I want to think of as her ascension – is the monument Morrison has left us here on Earth, a lifetime of work in inspired exploration of selfhood and nationhood as informed by notions of race. In America, a country whose founding fallacies of white versus black, dominion versus enslavement and superiority versus inferiority reverberate ceaselessly through the fabric of daily life, there is no topic more urgently relevant. And yet, there is no topic that has been more consciously and unconsciously eschewed, mishandled or contested.

In the preface to her 1992 essay collection Playing in the Dark, Morrison writes: “Until very recently, and regardless of the race of the author, the readers of virtually all of American fiction have been positioned as white. I am interested to know what that assumption has meant to the literary imagination.”

Across her celebrated career, in terms both critical and creative, Morrison went to work upon the question of what race has done to the American mind. “My project,” She wrote in that volume’s closing essay, “is an effort to avert the critical gaze from the racial object to the racial subject; from the described and imagined to the describers and imaginers; from the serving to the served.”

Her critical project empowered readers to recognise that it is the needs and fantasies of whiteness that determine the manner in which blackness is depicted in the canon of American literature. And her novels chose black lives as their central subjects, enthralling readers with her commitment to the inner lives of black characters.

I was in Morrison’s presence just a few times. I joined Princeton’s creative writing faculty just as Morrison was retiring from teaching, though she remained a presence on campus, and returned occasionally to the classroom. One afternoon, as I sat with my own students in what was essentially the anteroom outside Morrison’s office, she walked through the space. I had been making some point about poetry. I had been very confident in the moments just prior to the sighting, then I felt myself grow small, afraid in the way that certain mountains, even from a distance, can make one feel the fear of falling.

Once, before a reading on campus by a young black novelist in whom Morrison had taken an interest, the three of us sat on a bench smoking cigarettes. Stupefying awe having already set in, the most I had mustered to say was: “It’s an honour to meet you.” I sat silently as the two of them chatted, thinking it remarkable that Toni Morrison could do just that – chat – so easily, so naturally, like an ordinary mortal.

Ten years later, I interviewed her onstage. I cringe recalling how I kept asking her, in each of my questions, to solve our nation’s moral problems, to predict its future, when perhaps what she had wanted to talk about were her characters, her sentences, her ways of capturing the very real voices of her –our – richly varied people.

I didn’t know Toni Morrison. But in another sense – one everyone who has read and loved her work will recognise – she and I were intimates. Near the end of my first marriage, I read Jazz, a novel about passion and violence, transcendence and futility. A part of me grew pained and alert when, in the final pages, the narrator admits to the wish to say, openly, “that I have loved only you, surrendered my whole self reckless to you and nobody else. That I want you to love me back and show it to me.”

During the year between the death of my father and the birth of my daughter, I sat in a different marriage, surrendering myself to the layers of feeling and consequence which speak directly to the condition of motherhood in Morrison’s novels. If they had been visible to me before, now they stirred a layer of spirit I hadn’t previously understood myself to possess. The new life dawning in me, ghostly and mysterious, was touched and classified by Morrison’s voice. “I’m here. I lasted,” says Sethe once she has claimed Beloved as her own true daughter returned from the dead. “Now I can look at things again because she’s here to see them too.”

Great novels enter us. They reconfigure our sense of who we are and what we feel. They urge a part of ourselves to take flight, to merge with something alive outside of us, the proxy for which is often the novelist herself. In this way, great literature helps us to feel recognised, comprehended, accompanied.

In the days after Morrison’s death was announced, I sat down to reread The Bluest Eye. It’s a first novel and yet – astoundingly – everything is there. The voices, nimbly alive, don’t just mimic or signal black life, but, rather, invoke and rejoice in it. The clarity and urgency of characters is telegraphed through indelible gestures: three pennies guarded in a child’s shoe, the poor hunched shoulders and tilted head of the girl Pecola, who’s lived her whole short life with an internalised sense of ugly unlovability. The various forms of rage that rise up in the face of lack stand revealed, as do the barbarous social conditions in place to perpetuate such lack – not just in America but everywhere that difference between people is recognised and leveraged.

She was herself even then.

What is she now? I find myself asking these days when the reality of her absence remains tenuous. Today, I believe her to be an abiding source of insight and force, coaxing still, from wherever she has gone.

Jason Reynolds: ‘She told those of us who would grow up to become black writers that we were free’

Acclaimed American author of novels and poetry for young adults. His 2016 story Ghost was a National Book Award finalist in the US for young people’s literature

I didn’t encounter Toni Morrison’s work until I was in my early 20s. I wasn’t much of a reader as a kid, let alone a reader of something as complex as Toni Morrison’s work, so I came to it a little late. The first book I read was The Bluest Eye, which I found while working in a book store, and I loved it. After that, I read Shula, which is probably my favourite of her novels, but it took me much longer to read Beloved. I felt like I had to grow into it. I would try it over and over and it would fit a little better each time, and eventually it fit perfectly.

For me, there is an audacity to her work. She was a maverick and she had an ability to write really complex and painful things in a way that felt boundless. For so long, we had been told how writers were supposed to write – this is the way it’s supposed to sound, to look, to move – and she up-ended all those things, in Beloved in particular. I’m thinking of the way she bleeds and conflates time, and the idea of spirit – how in our tradition, spirit doesn’t necessarily mean something that is gone, but something that is present, that is always there.

She really pushed the limits and told those of us who would grow up to become black writers that we were free – free to write however and whatever we wanted to write. There is only one other person that gave me that same feeling of freedom, and that’s James Baldwin, but Baldwin pretty much kept with the concrete, whereas Morrison bled into the surrealism and the magic – the magic that makes us who we are.

If you are a writer, and specifically a black writer, it feels almost impossible not to be influenced by Toni Morrison. There’s that line in Beloved, one her most quoted sentences, where a character says: “She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man.” I think about that sentence all the time. It speaks to her ability to describe a man who is trying to express love. How does he articulate this love with limited language? Actually, that language is not so limited: it becomes expansive because he’s forced to get creative in his explanation. So in trying to describe love, he says, “She gather me.” None of us could ever come up with that.

For a lot of us now, when we’re approaching the page, we don’t have to be afraid of our poetry. We don’t have to be afraid to stretch language. And in being stretched, the language becomes more real. In my own book, Ghost, a young person is trying to describe his anger and he says: “I got so much mad in me.” I don’t get to say that without Toni Morrison – I don’t get to have the freedom to make the language feel familiar and fantastic at the exact same time.

I wish I’d met her. I’ve got a lot of friends who knew her, but unfortunately I was never in a situation to shake her hand and say thank you. Several years back, I was at an event where they were auctioning a first edition, mint condition, signed copy of Beloved. I bid for it and won the bid, and I remember my friends saying: “You paid way too much money for that.” But I looked at that book last night and thought, man, what a treasure. That’s the closest I’m ever going to come to her.

I think she’ll be remembered as someone who loved us – and loved us enough to scare us. I know that she scared the white establishment, and that made me feel safe. It made us feel bigger. She was unafraid.

In a 1993 interview with Charlie Rose, she said: “What are you without racism? … If you can only be tall because somebody is on their knees, then you have a serious problem. And my feeling is that white people have a very, very serious problem and they should start thinking about what they can do about it.”

As a kid of 18 or 19 watching that, and even now as a 35-year-old repeating that, I feel emboldened. Toni’s irreverence was godly. Her irreverence felt miraculous. And I think it helped to spark the magic in a lot of us, who had been told over and over again, by every other faction in life, that we were less than and that we deserved invisibility.

Bryan Stevenson: ‘She was fearless. She said you can be black and great. And she never stopped saying that’

Campaigning lawyer and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, which has overturned the wrongful convictions of 135 prisoners on death row in the American south. Stevenson, 59, chose words by Toni Morrison for the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, the first official monument to the 4,000 black Americans murdered by lynching

The first book of Toni Morrison’s I read was The Bluest Eye, and what amazed me about it was the honesty with which she expressed what it is like to be black in a world that so clearly values whiteness. I was 17 or 18, just heading to college. In the previously segregated school where I grew up in Delaware we were not exposed to black authors. I had to go and find Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man for myself, for example.

I think because Morrison had worked as an editor in publishing she was mindful of an absence of a particular voice in that literature, a way of thinking and a way of talking. Storytelling is such a rich part of the tradition of any child of parents who grew up in the south; you were surrounded by adults who told stories with a particular kind of melody and magic. When my mother and her sisters and the neighbours in our community got talking together it would have that quality to it – there was nothing more entertaining or engaging than being at the table while these black women spoke to each other and expressed their fears and their sorrows and their joys and their insights. It was a truth-telling space. Toni Morrison brought that voice out into the world.

We never met but we had hoped to honour her at our annual dinner for the Equal Justice Initiative in New York next month. When we opened our museum and memorial in Montgomery we had these monuments and sculptures and descriptions of the lynchings, and I felt like we needed something powerful to say to people when they left this really intense experience. I had read a little book Toni Morrison had put out just a couple of years ago of a lecture she had just done at Harvard, “The Origin of Others”, and there was a quote from Beloved in it that was just so perfect for what we wanted to say. When we approached her for permission she could not have been more supportive and encouraging of us using it there, and was hoping to come to see it for herself. The quote contains an exhortation: “And O, my people, out yonder, hear me, they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight. So love your neck… hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize.” This idea that if you have survived this violence and terror you can’t just run and hide, you are actually going to have to dig deep and love the parts of yourself that other people would exploit and brutalise and injure – I just thought it was such a powerful way of suggesting how you could recover from that history.

She was fearless, always an activist. Even in simply saying “I am a black woman writer” she was rejecting the opportunity to be swallowed up by all of these institutions and spaces that might have wanted to embrace her talent but minimise her race or gender. I think that modelled an identity that has been hugely important for many of us who have been made to think that we have to choose between being a great lawyer and a black lawyer, or a great writer and a black writer. She just rejected that dichotomy. She said you can be black and great. And she never stopped saying that. Right to the end she concerned herself with the day-to-day experience of people; I think what was going on at any moment in the lives of black people always shaped her writing and her vision for what was necessary. At a time when we are engaged in a new struggle over the narrative of our history of bigotry she showed what America can be. I loved her for that; we all did.

Kwame Kwei-Armah: ‘She is magnificent. Her emotional intelligence is second to none’

Artistic director of the Young Vic. In 2017, while Kwei-Armah was artistic director of Center Stage theatre in Baltimore, he directed an adaptation of Morrison’s 1992 novel, Jazz

She came into my life in the late 80s when I was given a copy of Beloved. That was the first book of hers I read and in truth I was stunned by it. I didn’t quite know how to negotiate it, in fact. At that point, there was so little literature about slavery and very little literature about people in slavery making huge decisions. From then on, of course, she became the thing, the being that you went to when you wanted absolute truth and poetry.

She was an influence in that she affected my ability to not see myself as a minority when it came to writing, to not always centralise my fears around reaction to my work from, as she called it, “the white gaze”. Also, I felt that while some of her contemporaries placed the black male as the antithesis of goodness or had [their characters]having to negotiate their way to freedom through or over the black male, Toni Morrison treated me – a black man – like a mother would, like a sister or a lover. She loved me for my flaws and explained them and the reasons for them to me and that’s why she was my go-to writer. Every time she had a new novel I couldn’t wait to read it because I knew there would be a part of my story that was new to me.

My favourite book is Jazz because she’s not writing for the audience. Song of Solomon is similar. Most people I knew had to pick up Jazz three or four times before they got through it, but when you did there’s a complexity to the storytelling. I think I read it maybe six times and then I directed its world premiere on stage. Right at the beginning of the process, she said: “Listen, theatre’s not my thing so… off you go. Don’t worry about me.” Which was just magnificent for the writer and magnificent for me as the director and producer of it. Later, she sent a beautiful message congratulating us on finding a way to tell our version of her story.

When I met her at Princeton, she thanked me personally and I didn’t know what to do with myself. I was with a group of writers who were involved with The Princeton Slavery project, where the university was doing an investigation into it’s links to slavery and asked us to take a moment in that history to write about. There were six of us, we each wrote a play and Toni introduced them.

I have only been completely overawed by two people in my life – one was August Wilson and the other was Toni Morrison. As I was about to be introduced I tried to hide a bit. I wanted to observe her rather than meet her, but she was extraordinarily warm. She had this twinkle in her eye like she enjoyed being her. She had nothing to prove to anyone.

For me, her legacy is total excellence. Technically, she is magnificent, her emotional intelligence is second to none and her bravery – she didn’t care what people thought, be that the reader or not, she just told the truth as she saw it – was equal to her artistry.

As my own little tribute, to celebrate her life, I’m going to carry a different Toni Morrison book in my bag every day. Today, it’s Song of Solomon. That’s what I’m walking with today.

Remembering Toni Morrison – Shared Readings in Celebration of Toni Morrison’s Life and Work is at the Young Vic, London, SE1, 5 September, 6.30pm

Share.

About Author

Leave A Reply