Tag Archives: literary fiction

How Toni Morrison’s works Inspired me to Write

Her rich narratives inspired me to write with depth and without constraint.

When I recently saw Toni Morrison trending on google my stomach flipped. How likely was it that she was trending because she had broken the internet with a controversial picture or been involved in some tasteless topical scandal or a public spat with a peer? Highly unlikely. Toni Morrison was a Nobel prize winning writer who stood on the platform of her integrity to inspire others and scatter her gems of wisdom among us literary types. So when I saw her trending, I thought the worse and sadly I was right. Her recent passing has really saddened me, not only because she was arguably one of the greatest writers whoever lived, but because stumbling on her work as a child is what inspired me to write. It might sound odd but for the longest time I always considered it a privilege that my favourite author was still living and breathing while I was.

An Early Introduction

My introduction to her work came through a copy of the novel Paradise which I found laying around one of the spare rooms in my grandmother’s house. At my young age, a lot of the sentence structures and dense metaphors were beyond me. I was unfamiliar with words which read like art. My first encounter with how she wove her words together so abstractly intrigued me and I hoped to one day access her stories.

I was second time lucky when the motion picture of Beloved was released. A part slave narrative about a woman named Sethe who (now freed) is haunted by the child she sacrificed in her infancy. Sethe lives with her surviving daughter Denver When a mystery woman named Beloved appears out of nowhere and wreaks havoc on their household. Oprah Winfrey bought the rights to the novel and  starred alongside Danny Glover and Thandie Newton in the 1998 motion picture. I was captivated by it and it soon became one of my favourite films. Of course, the novel was even better.

A Life’s Worth of Writing

Toni Morrison did with words, what I hadn’t thought possible. She wove intricate portraits that humanised the suffering of a historically oppressed people. She brought the narratives alive that compelled people of all backgrounds to sit, up, take notice and empathise. Moreover, she inspired me to gather my experiences and spill them onto blank pages through one of her most memorable quotes:

“If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”

I absolutely adore this quote. It’s nurturing and yet earnest about the need for us writers (arguably the biggest procrastinators) to be proactive in creating the art that we want to consume instead of waiting for what may never appear. She did exactly this with her own work and thank God she did! I can’t imagine a world without her stories in it. Morrison juxtaposed the traumas of slavery with the infinite possibilities of newfound freedom in Beloved, she liberated her characters without minimising their suffering.

In The Bluest Eye, which I discussed in this previous post, she holds up many mirrors which enable us to see how little black girls view themselves both internally and externally, how their beauty and worth is viewed both within and beyond their own communities and the external factors which help to either shape their strong sense of self-worth (Claudia McTeer) or lack thereof (Pecola Breedlove).

Her works serve as historical artefacts; fictional ethnographies that speak to the very real socio-historical experiences of black women and yet can engage everyone. Her stories are many things at once: harrowing, brutal, awakening, educational, honest, beautiful. I’m just grateful that she inspired me to pick up something that I love- painting pictures with words. And for that I am truly grateful.

Have you ever read anything by Toni Morrison? If not, which writer’s work has inspired you the most? Let me know in the comments below!

Why I Love Literary Fiction

There are so many reasons to love Literary Fiction, the first being that it does not fit inside the distinct markers of a genre such as Science Fiction or Romance. Literary Fiction does not come complete with the plot conventions of some of our well-loved commercial fiction. Take Romance for instance: boy meets girl, they fall in love, something or someone gets in the way, a struggle ensues and they find themselves in each other’s arms again. I mean they don’t all go specifically like this but you get the general gist of the plotline. You can pick up any Romance novel and expect to see the same linear narrative plot- nothing wrong with that and millions of avid Romance readers would definitely agree that there is comfort in the predictability of a certain type of storyline. However, with Literary Fiction you get to go down the rabbit hole of gritty realism and what could be better than that? You get to let yourself go without any expectation about where the storyline will go. It reads like a sobering fly on the wall documentary and really offers food for thought in its best moments.

It Acts as a Panoramic Lens

Literary fiction zooms a panoramic lens into the mind of the protagonist and we see how they deal with the challenges that they face. Take Pauline Breedlove in The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison for instance. She is the burdened wife of redundant and abusive drunk, Cholly Breedlove. Trapped in a loveless marriage, she takes refuge in the cinema and immerses herself into the romanticised notions of love offered by white Hollywood movies with their glamorous starlets and debonair suitors. The escapist glamour procured from her cinema trips ends abruptly however, when she loses her tooth, an apt symbolism of her youth and beauty. She finally gives up on this notion and focuses her attention on being a superlative domestic servant for a white family, whose home she appropriates as a new source of romanticism. It is the focus on the human condition and mapping out the way in which characters navigate their social landscapes that makes Literary Fiction so compelling as a genre. Getting firmly between the pages of a Literary Fiction novel, you potter about in the character’s shoes, begin to hate their nemeses and even taste their supper. You get to assume a warts and all position firmly within the lives of the characters and as a reader, that is a very privileged place to be.

It Can Get Uncomfortable

Of course, as with any other genre, there are downsides to being an avid reader of Literary Fiction. It requires having an unconditional relationship with a story that often has a bumpy ride and this can be uncomfortable. Take for example a scenario in the world of Romance or Chick Lit: Rosie has had a series of unsuccessful relationships and has given up on love. We observe her quest for such through a series of comical mishaps with a chatty best friend in tow and a hypercritical but somehow harmless mother. Rosie however, is lucky because she is the main character of a Romance or Chick Lit novel and so these genre conventions dictate that she finally gets her man in the end.

Now let us envision the sombre world of Marta. She has had a string of unsuccessful relationships owed to the fact that she had an abusive father who often spent all of the family’s earnings at the bar or in the betting shop. She suffers from severe bouts of depression and lives life through a gloomy lens. The story is littered with constant descriptions of squalor and poverty. As a reader there is little to find funny about her predicament and to make it worse, just when you think she has found Mr Right it turns out that he has a family on the other side of the world and by the end of the novel has left her to return there. Sigh. This is what I mean about Literary Fiction requiring you to have an unconditional relationship with the story. We may not like the dark twists and turns that it takes. Moreover, these moves are downright unpredictable and I can understand the predictable plotline patterns that genre fiction enthusiasts have come to love and look out for over and over again.

The heaviness of the themes in Literary fiction may be unsettling to some and that’s why I as a booklover enjoy mixing my genres depending on my mood. Not everyone wants to be forced to witness the trauma of human hardship and strife, often without a tangible happy ending but one that’s often centred on the main character’s melancholic reflection on their grim predicament. For me however, it is the flouting of a perfect end resolution that makes Literary Fiction so attractive. It makes it all the more real and thus more interesting.

It Zooms in on the Ugly Underbelly of Life

When I was a child, I would spot someone in public and wonder who they were, where they were going and who was waiting for them to come home. Reading a novel within this genre is like zooming in on a real person and for a curious being like myself, it’s an alluring factor. That there are a million Pauline Breedloves in the world makes the novel a more attractive read. It isn’t a far-fetched tale that requires me to use my imagination when I’m too tired before bed or acts as a light read that leaves me wanting to know more of the nitty gritty. Literary Fiction gets into the ugly underbelly of a novel and doesn’t succumb to the pressure of tying the ends into a neat resolution at the finale. It is this sense of unapologetic realism that makes it so attractive.