Remembering a Beloved Author

Toni Morrison (1931 – 2019)

Toni

She made me think about our country’s dark history of slavery, the American identity tied to these atrocities and other acts of emotional and physical abuse against nonwhite Americans, and the legacy of these events. She made me think hard and deeply. Her words pierced my body, compelling me to comprehend the pain of those oppressed.

I don’t remember where I first heard about the novel Beloved, but I tried to read it twice and had to put it down. Morrison’s words were incomprehensible, full of such power and generational pain I was not accustomed to at the time.

In 1993, I was a working adult determined to complete my B.A. at the University of Washington, Bothell. I elected to take an Independent Study course on Black American Literature. Reading The Bluest Eye introduced me to Morrison’s literary ethos and gave me a context for appreciating and completing Beloved.

Here’s an excerpt from a response paper to Beloved for that class:

Can any form of violence, even one based on a mother’s love, be a real solution? In this novel, Sethe chooses one form of violence (death) over another (slavery) and ends up with another form of violence that harmed all the people she loved (Baby Suggs and her children) with alienation, fear, and mistrust. And yet, given the history of violence that is synonymous with slavery, which was the context for her decision, did Sethe really have any other choice? Furthermore, what does this history of violence against blacks say about America and present-day problems that black Americans confront?

Reading Morrison is often challenging. She asks readers important questions, some they’d rather not think about or might not have ever considered before. She requires critical thinking beyond her characters and stories, often pushing readers into uncomfortable places, forcing their minds and hearts to open in new ways.

Reading and re-reading her words are often necessary to appreciate the complexity of her characters and the unfolding story.

Morrison writes about black lives that hold true for many people of all colors. She appeals to our humanity while revealing our inhumanity to each other. Her truth-telling often promotes discomfort, yet it’s a necessary discomfort that can result in transformation. She gives us darkness so that we can recognize the light.

I, like so many, have been changed and blessed by Morrison and her fearless commitment to the truth about our violent history, women’s lives, and issues of equality that still haunt us.

In a Washington Post article (August 9, 2019), Michelle Obama says:

For me and for so many others, Toni Morrison was that first crack in the levee — the one who freed the truth about black lives, sending it rushing out into the world. She showed us the beauty in being our full selves, the necessity of embracing our complications and contradictions.

Here’s a link to an interview of Morrison with Pam Houston from Oprah.com: “Precious Moments a Writer Lives For.”

Note: Thank you to artist Nina Krebs for giving me permission to post this portrait–a painting/collage with book titles on Morrison’s blouse and excerpts from pages of her books haloed in the background.

Aging & Going Rogue

In The New York Times Book Review, Garrison Keillor admitted:

“As for putting books down without finishing them, I do that all the time. When you pass 70, you are no longer obligated to finish what you’ve started, not a book, not a meal, not even a sentence.”

Is Keillor saying that getting old is something to look forward to? This what-the-hell attitude–I don’t have time for this. Next! I can imagine walking away in mid-sentence. “As I was saying….” But this might be more concern for senility and not just newly-found orneriness.

And is it possible to abandon the clean-plate imperative drummed into me from childhood? Not only were me and my siblings harangued by the plight of starving children in China, we six children were competing for that often non-existent extra piece of pie or seconds of stew. As a large family we certainly didn’t starve, but we were a ravenous group.

Maybe at 70, I too might be more acutely conscious of my time left on the planet. And less patient with reading something difficult to understand or just not my style. But with so many good books out there, maybe I should adopt this attitude now and not wait. Time is already too precious.

Or I can invoke my mantra: Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

Perhaps Keillor’s comment stirs me most poignantly as a writer and a reader.

As a reader, I usually feel compelled to read a book to the end. Most of the time, I’m happy that I continued reading even though it didn’t engage me in the first 20-30 pages. Some works have a slow start, but come together and take hold of me eventually.

I remember trying to read Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Some of the slaves’ experiences were so visceral, so intense that I had to put it down. Twice. I finally finished it when it was assigned for a class–and happily so. The instructor’s notes and insights helped immensely and just having others grappling with the the narrative and characters fortified me to handle the story. A communal spirit really made a difference.

Sometimes I put a book down and go back to it later. Sometimes I don’t. We all do this, right?

As a writer, I have started essays and stories that sit unintentionally abandoned in my files. No problem there in not finishing them as I became involved in other projects that I did complete. But what to do with these bits and pieces?

I imagine most writers have this problem. Perhaps it’s not really a problem, but just part of the process of writing. We have to start somewhere. I know I’ve started a piece of writing to experiment on something like dialogue. Or I wanted to see what it feels like to construct a fictional character. These were exercises.

Other times I started writing a piece, then discovered a kernel of an idea I was more interested in pursuing, and took off in that direction. Writing is often about discovery. Like starting a piece and having a sense of where it’s going only to find out it needs to go somewhere else. This is the joy of writing. Letting the writing take you somewhere unexpected.

This is the practice of writing: not everything will be finished. Not everything will be good or even close to good. This is life.