“In a way, her strangeness, her naiveté, her craving for the other half of her equation was the consequence of an idle imagination. Had she paints, or clay, or knew the discipline of the dance, or strings, had she anything to engage her tremendous curiosity and her gift for metaphor, she might have exchanged the restlessness and preoccupation with whim for an activity that provided her with all she yearned for. And like an artist with no art form, she became dangerous.” – Toni Morrision, Sula
For black writers and lovers of literature alike, Toni Morrison is the messiah, the godmother of black fiction, a figure to be studied, discussed, envied, loved and worshiped.
Morrison’s prose captures the richness of the black American experience in a language that is divine and lyrical. Her stories are dark and dreamy and poetical and political. The themes she explores are unforgettable and uncomfortable. They get under your skin, seep into your consciousness and ooze out of your pores inducing chills of delight – and angst. That’s what a “good read” does. It changes you. Reading Morrison changes you. Her books can be difficult to access but are insanely popular nonetheless. Morrison sycophants boast of rereading her works multiple times. Her quotes inspire scribes to audaciously push forward and stand a bit taller as writers: “I wrote my first novel because I wanted to read it.”
Morrison, the first black woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, has written children’s stories and essays. Her novel, Beloved, was turned into a motion picture featuring Oprah Winfrey in 1998; and last year, she was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
As an editor for Random House, Morrison, who is also a Pulitzer winner, produced books by Toni Cade Bambara, Gayl Jones, Muhammad Ali, Angela Davis, and Huey Newton.
To salute this great black American editor, writer, professor, MelaNated Writers Collective, a group of writers of color based in New Orleans, is hosting a virtual book club and facilitating a guided reading (rereading for some) of Morrison’s entire 10-book catalog. For this yearlong endeavor, dubbed the Toni Morrison 2013 Novel Challenge, MWC is discussing the books in the order in which they were published as well as posting thought-provoking questions and reading tips online via Facebook, Twitter (#morrisonchallenge) and melanola.com.
Morrison has changed and continues to shape not only the canon of black literature, but also that of the craft as a whole.
My favorite Morrison work is her second novel, Sula, published in 1973.
Sula is the tale of a woman who lived on her own terms regardless of the consequences. She lived during a time when women were confined to roles as homemakers and mothers, when they were not allowed to have desires or goals or define themselves. Sula was neither wife nor mother. She would not allow her spirit to be crammed into a box of other people’s visions for her. No emotion – lust, pain, or fatal curiosity — was off limits for Sula. She was free and unbound to anyone or anything other than her own whim.
Sula gave the townsfolk of her early 20th century Midwest community, the Bottom, a reason to live, even if it was just to band together against this loose woman who was considered a witch because “when she drank beer she never belched” and who they didn’t trust around their husbands, lovers or little kids.
The motif of loss luxuriously weaves its way in and out of Sula. Morrison describes loss of life, loss of friendship and loss of love so deliciously you taste it, you crave it and if you’re not brave enough to want it for yourself, you long to be close enough to the fire of loss that you feel the heat but don’t get burned.
The romantic flowering of Sula and Ajax’s affair, her kindred soul, equally unburdened by convention, is made all the more tender when he leaves her: “Every now and then she looked around for tangible evidence of his having ever been there. Where were the butterflies? the blueberries? the whistling reed? She could find nothing, for he had left nothing but his stunning absence.”
In Sula, there is a peculiar beauty in loss and even death as evidenced in Sula’s death scene. Although engulfed in a constant stream of pain, Sula indulges in her own dying with all the calm and steadiness needed to thread a needle: “While in this state of weary anticipation, she noticed that she was not breathing, that her heart had stopped completely. Then she realized, or rather she sensed, that there was not going to be any pain. She was not breathing because she didn’t have to. Her body did not need oxygen. She was dead. Sula felt her face smiling. ‘Well I’ll be damned, she thought, ‘it didn’t even hurt. Wait’ll I tell Nel.’ “
Sula feverishly bedded men just as feverishly as she loved her best friend, Nel. Sula’s connection to Nel is so intense and intimate she considers Nel to be an extension of herself, which leads to a casual encounter with Nel’s husband that ultimately destroys their sisterly bond. On her deathbed, Sula thinks of Nel and carries the loss of their relationship with her into the afterlife.
Morrison employs her genius so well, she makes you want to lose something just to experience its wonderful, melancholy ache.
“I never asked Tolstoy to write for me, a little colored girl in Lorain, Ohio. I never asked [James] Joyce not to mention Catholicism or the world of Dublin. Never. And I don’t know why I should be asked to explain your life to you. We have splendid writers to do that, but I am not one of them. It is that business of being universal, a word hopelessly stripped of meaning for me. Faulkner wrote what I suppose could be called regional literature and had it published all over the world. That’s what I wish to do. If I tried to write a universal novel, it would be water. Behind this question is the suggestion that to write for black people is somehow to diminish the writing. From my perspective there are only black people. When I say ‘people,’ that’s what I mean.” – Toni Morrison
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jewel bush, a New Orleans native, is a writer whose work has appeared in The (Houma) Courier, The Washington Post, The Times-Picayune, New Orleans Homes & Lifestyles Magazine, and El Tiempo, a bilingual Spanish newspaper. In 2010, she founded MelaNated Writers Collective, a multi-genre group for writers of color in New Orleans dedicated to cultivating the literary, artistic and professional growth of emerging writers. She is currently communications coordinator for Service Employees International Union Local 21LA. Her three favorite books are Their Eyes Were Watching God, The Catcher in the Rye, and Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.
Photo by Thomas Sayers Ellis.