Friday, February 4, 2011

Black History Month Spotlight: Toni Morrison

"Introduction" excerpted from Toni Morrison: A Biography by Stephanie Li

Novelist, editor, scholar, teacher, public intellectual, mother, and contemporary griot for the African American community, Toni Morrison is one of the most influential writers in American history. Though nearing eighty years old, Morrison continues to produce eloquent, groundbreaking novels. Her wide-ranging additional pursuits—which have included decades of teaching, editing key African American texts, organizing collaborative artistic projects, and publicly commenting on important national issues—supplement a collection of novels that the Swedish Academy, which bestowed the Nobel Prize on Morrison in 1998, described as “characterized by visionary force and poetic import.” Despite her varied projects, Morrison insists that all of her work is united by a single concern. As she explains, “I know it seems like a lot, but I really only do one thing. I read books. I teach books. I write books. I think about books. It's one job.”

For Morrison, who began writing novels in her thirties, writing has become essential to her very existence. She has stated that “the only one thing that I couldn't live without is the writing.”  This fundamental need to write highlights Morrison's deep commitment to the African American community as well as to the radical possibilities of narrative. She has explained that it is through story that we best understand others and hence recognize our role in and responsibilities to society. Stories nurture and enliven us, providing us with ways to make sense of both our world and ourselves.

Despite having published nine remarkable novels, Morrison continues her commitment to charting the contours of African American life through fiction. On days that she devotes to writing, Morrison gets up very early, often before dawn. In the dark, she makes coffee, drinking a cup as she watches the light come. Although this habit developed as a practical necessity when she was a single mother raising two boys and thus often needing to steal a few hours of her own, she later discovered that this practice complements her natural tendency to think best in the morning. She has observed that she is “not very bright or very witty or very inventive after the sun goes down.”

This ritual of watching the arrival of the light is crucial for Morrison to enter the state of mindfulness necessary for writing. Because she has penned most of her books while holding a nine-to-five job, Morrison has learned to work through and around interruptions. Continuous time for writing is a luxury she has rarely enjoyed. Consequently, she learned to adapt to the demands of her work and family life, perfecting a sentence or an image while washing dishes, preparing lunch for her children, or tending the garden. Morrison works her language carefully so that “the seams don't show.” In fact, this labored process of revision is the secret joy of Morrison's writing process:

I love that part; that's the best part, revision. I do it even after the
books are bound! Thinking about it before you write it is delicious.
Writing it all out for the first time is painful because so much of the
writing isn't very good. I didn't know in the beginning that I could
go back and make it better; so I minded very much writing badly.
But now I don't mind at all because there's that wonderful time in
the future when I will make it better, when I can see better what I
should have said and how to change it.

Morrison still starts to write by using yellow legal pads and sharp number two pencils. Because she does not actually like the act of writing, meaning the formation of letters, using pen and paper encourages her to be more economical in her writing; in order to limit tiresome handiwork she must capture an image or idea as succinctly as possible. Eventually, she transfers her work to a computer. Although she does not write every day, she thinks about her characters and their experiences constantly. She has stated that her fictional personalities become real for her at the point in which she falls in love with them. While she does not always agree with their choices, her love for them is absolute.

Though Morrison may not know where she will begin a novel, she always knows where it will end. Unlike many writers, she does not draw upon personal experience to write her books; as she explains, “I will use what I have seen and what I have known, but it's never about my life.” The imaginative process is key to her fiction, especially the way in which a single description can capture the complexities of human relationships. She frequently uses images to trigger an entire dramatic episode and to highlight essential qualities of certain characters; Pilate's lack of a navel illustrates her powerful will, Pecola's delight in drinking milk from a Shirley Temple doll reveals her desire to imbibe a new persona, and Sethe's black eyes suggest a woman who has seen far too much.

However, while images enliven and ground her writing, questions fundamentally drive her prose; she writes in order to understand certain dynamics or the nature of specific relationships—how does a child come to hate herself? What will a mother do to protect her child? How does a man achieve self-understanding? What is required to make paradise a livable reality? For Morrison, storytelling and the process of writing are ways to explore the central challenges of human existence—how individuals both flourish and hurt one another, how oppression operates, how communities sustain generations. Despite these myriad concerns, Morrison insists that her novels are unified by one central issue:

All the time that I write, I'm writing about love or its absence. ...

About love and how to survive—not to make a living—but how
to survive whole in a world where we are all of us, in some measure,
victims of something. Each one of us is in some way at some
moment a victim and in no position to do a thing about it. Some
child is always left unpicked up at some moment. In a world like
that, how does one remain whole—is it just impossible to do that?

Morrison's novels may be read as a sustained exploration of the nature of love, for it is love that motivates both her characters and her writing. In her work, love is never a simple matter of romance or familial
commitment, but is instead composed of all the weaknesses and beauties of human need. Love can damage and heal, can nurture and destroy. Such too is the nature of Morrison's fiction; its power lies in language that moves readers to evaluate and even change their own lives. She has created a body of work that has inspired both sharp criticism and high praise, while also fundamentally transforming the American literary landscape.


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