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!