Toni Morrison, Remembered By Writers
On Monday, Toni Morrison died in New York, at the age of eighty-eight. In the days after, we asked writers to reflect on her life and on their experience of reading her work. This post will be continually updated.
What I cherish most about Toni Morrison’s work is the way that she used the English language: to its fullest, across its entire range, from the poetic to the profane. When you read her work, the world changes, becoming more beautiful and expansive and complicated via every sentence. You are in contact with a great soul, and you know this because the soul has infused every line; there is nothing common or unconsidered or small in them; her largesse is present in every phrase. I turned to her, as so many writers have, the way a painter might turn to Picasso: to see what true greatness looks like and to gauge the distance between it and me. I will miss just knowing she is out there, as an artistic presence and a moral force. But she is far from gone and will be tremendously loved as long as there are readers hungry for beauty.
My wife, Paula, and I were lucky enough to know Toni personally; Paula had been her student and, it seemed, once you were her student, you were her student forever. She was an incredibly generous mentor who, no matter the circumstances (after a reading, at a large public event, up at her house in Nyack), always took the time to relate to Paula as a fellow writer—asking about her work, nudging, encouraging, lightly teasing. What was remarkable to me was the quality of her attention, her devotion to the continuity of the teacher-student relationship. She seemed to show up as needed and be there, with the perfect observation or question, clearing obstructions, making what had seemed difficult suddenly easy, and, above all, inspiring, by which I mean: reminding us of the urgency of the word.—George Saunders
I was young enough to be an idiot but old enough to know it when I drove to fill in for a chum who’d been teaching Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” which I’d lied about having read. It was a tony, buttoned-up college, and I was hardly sober. The department chair was sending a professor to judge my classroom act, a sort of audition. (I’d been told but didn’t quite believe that they might hire me.) In the parking lot, the car full of Marlboro smoke, I opened the book and stumbled onto a magnificent stroke of luck: I fell in love. Through the mystery of Morrison’s voices, I got siphoned out of my own throbbing head and lowered elsewhere.
In the first three paragraphs, Morrison takes the exact same piece of language and changes it to conjure three separate beings. The first narrator sounds like a chirpy, disaffected school primer:
The voice is generic, bleached. Let’s face it: the language enacts the ethos of the whiteness about to torment the novel’s central character into oblivion. The very names manage to feel like trouble, for what can a Dick be but—bluntly speaking—a dick. (Yes, that’s foreshadowing.) And what can Jane be but plain. But she wants to play, and that simple desire for love fuelled me to read on. In the second paragraph, Morrison just hacks out the first paragraph’s punctuation. The result transports us into a child’s living head:
Because the words are the same as before, the passage gets taken in faster, in a gallop of fear and flight. The girl runs, and we run with her, sometimes stumbling onto phrases grown rife with meaning. To enact this shift in character solely by taking out punctuation struck me as sorcery. I needed to tackle Morrison’s third paragraph. Same words, same lack of punctuation, but this time Morrison destroys the spaces between words, collapsing them together:
The child’s harried voice had devolved into the word salad of the psychotic. Authors like Dickinson or Joyce or Hopkins had slowed me down before, with pyrotechnic vocabulary or serpentine logic. Morrison was drawing me in with a block of fairly simple language. She’d packed the words in so tight that I couldn’t help making mistakes. I halted. I stumbled and went back, fighting for purchase. At the end, I followed along with my finger as I had at age four. Through this exercise, I almost entered the cramped mindset of the girl in the novel.
I say “almost” because Morrison wrote for black people, though there’s no propaganda in her work, nothing reductive. I can testify that her books might have always—to varying degrees—called me out, but (to borrow a phrase from the poet Kaveh Akbar) they have more often called me in. After I’d pored over the opening of “The Bluest Eye” in my car for an hour, I crossed the quad in a daze. I couldn’t even fake to the class that I’d read the whole book. It turned out that some students hadn’t either. We dug through those first pages together, and I got hired in part because the professor who observed me felt I’d been pedagogically sneaky to pretend I hadn’t read the book. I failed to correct her mistake, but I corrected mine that night, going to bed with a wet face. Beauty can make us better. I was still an idiot, but less so with every book of Morrison’s I read.—Mary Karr
If it hadn’t been for Toni’s Morrison’s “Sula,” I would never have been able to write the book that is “Another Brooklyn.” If not for the many readings of “The Bluest Eye,” half of the books I’ve written for young people would not be in the world. So many writers, so many writers that are women, so many writers that are black know this to be true—because of Toni Morrison, we are. Because of her, I am.—Jacqueline Woodson
I first read Toni Morrison as a college student—first “Sula,” then “The Bluest Eye,” then “Song of Solomon.” It was exhilarating to see black women’s lives taken seriously in such an unapologetic, matter-of-fact fashion. Morrison created characters who struggle against attempts to destroy their humanity; in doing so, they show precisely what it means to be human. In her work, the inner lives of black girls and black women speak to the human condition in ways both universal and specific. Achieving that delicate balance is the mark of all great literature. And this was always done from the unique perspective of the African-American experience. What a gift to the world Morrison was, and her work is.—Annette Gordon-Reed
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Toni Morrison, the Teacher
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My first experience with Morrison was through “The Bluest Eye,” back when I was a student at Wesleyan University, in the late nineteen-eighties. I had never read a novel like it, and the vision it gave me—not just of Pecola’s life but of her world, made of white standards of beauty—reoriented me in time and space. I remember thinking, afterward, “So this is what a novel can do.” Especially when the vision stayed with me. Before that encounter, I was the experienced reader of white literature I’d been taught to be. But I had not read American novels like this, novels that had thought down to the ground and back about the way we are shaped by the racist history of this country, more than we might ever know. “The Bluest Eye” told me to expect such thinking—of other writers, and of myself.
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Also, the novel included poetry within its pages. It was written partly in the first-person present tense, and it used that tense to engage in a fierce scrutiny of this world. It told a story of Pecola’s sexual abuse that inspired my own attempts to write about the subject. When I wrote my first novel, I was using lessons that Morrison taught me. Like many, I’m the writer I am in part because of her.—Alexander Chee