"We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives."
These succinct sentences spoken by Toni Morrison when she won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1993 reverberated in my mind when I learnt of her passing away earlier this week. It gave me solace in my sorrow to know that even though she is gone, she will live beautifully and infinitely in her works.
The indomitable Miss Morrison was a writer extraordinaire who wrote her first novel ‘The Bluest Eye’ in 1970 at the age of thirty nine as a divorced, single mom of two sons. At that time, she was working as the first Black female editor of fiction at Random House in New York City. She went on to have a literary career that spanned the next five decades.
In total, she wrote eleven novels, five children’s books, several non-fiction works and a libretto. 'Song of Solomon’ written in 1977 received much literary acclaim and ‘Beloved’ which is perhaps her most celebrated work won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1988. Some of her other notable novels include 'Sula', 'Tar baby', 'Love', 'Home' and 'Jazz'. She was a professor emeritus at Princeton and was awarded the presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama in 2012.
I read ‘Beloved’ a couple of years after I moved to America in the nineteen nineties. I knew about slavery, the civil war and the technical aspects of the history of my new country. Yet, I was unaware of the depth and magnitude of the human experience of slavery. This book opened my eyes to the emotional consequences of continuous and horrendous abuse. Sethe, the protagonist of this book was a slave in Kentucky and suffered whippings and torture at the hands of her sadistic slave owner named Schoolteacher.
She now lived as a free person in Cincinnati with her daughter Denver. Even though she is physically free, mentally, she is still held hostage by painful and recurring flashbacks of her earlier life. She remembers how her husband Halle lost his mental faculties after witnessing a brutal attack on her. She remembers how she killed Beloved, her third child, a daughter, so that the little girl would not have to live the life of a slave which would be a fate way worse than death.
In the present, Sethe perceives her house to be haunted by the ghost of Beloved and this ghost is malevolent. It’s hard to tell if the house is inhabited by an actual ghost or if it is an imagination of Sethe’s wounded mind which is collapsing by the weight of her trauma. The supernatural element is skillfully interwoven into the story and it gives the reader goosebumps.
This book shook me to my core. It made my heart hurt. It was very painful to read and comprehend the utter dehumanization of slaves, and the deranged atrocities committed against them. I cannot even imagine how terrible it was for them to actually live this life.
I have not read all of her works but I aspire to do that someday. Her art imitates life and she is unafraid to venture into the difficult themes of racism, sexual assault, incest, and gender inequality in her books. Reading her works makes me introspect and contemplate. Her words stir my soul.
I looked forward to watching her on the Oprah show. I completely agreed with her when she said that Oprah’s book club was causing a “reading revolution.” Toni Morrison was an embodiment of empowerment. She was unapologetically Black and spoke truth to power. I admired her straightforwardness.
In 1998, the Australian journalist Jane Wendt interviewed her for the program Toni Morrison: Uncensored. When she was asked why she does not write books that incorporate White lives she said, “You can’t understand how powerfully racist that question is, can you? Because you could never ask a white author, “When are you going to write about black people?” Whether he did or not, or she did or not. Even the inquiry comes from a position of being in the center…..Being an African-American writer is sort of like being a Russian writer, who writes about Russia, in Russian, for Russians. And the fact that it gets translated and read by other people is a benefit. It’s a plus. But he’s not obliged to ever consider writing about French people or Americans or anybody.”
I absolutely loved her response. She was unafraid of telling it like it is. As an immigrant I could not help but chuckle when she told The Guardian in 1992, “In this country American means White. Everybody else has to hyphenate.”
Miss Morrison has taught me many life lessons. In 'Beloved', Paul D said to Sethe, “You are your best thing” This quote taught me self-reliance. I learnt from Song of Solomon that, "If you wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down." She taught me that “definitions belong to definers, not the defined” She taught me that when you are free, “you need to free someone else” and when you have power, "your job is to empower somebody else." Lastly, the words which will always stay with me is her advice to aspiring writers, "If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it."
Writers like Toni Morrison are not born every day. She was a phenomenal woman, an epitome of beauty, strength and resilience and a literary icon who was larger than life. The world will miss her. She will be reunited with her son Slade who is in heaven. We are fortunate that she has left behind a legacy of books and quotes and her wisdom will inspire generations to come. Miss Toni Morrison- our queen- rest in peace- you will always Be loved.
Click here to browse a book list of her works available at Richland Library.