“Our lives have no meaning, no depth without the white gaze. And I have spent my entire writing life trying to make sure that the white gaze was not the dominant one in any of my books,”
18 February 1931 – 5 August 2019
It is rare for a writer to deserve the label ground-breaking pioneer, yet that’s what Toni Morrison was in a writing career that spanned 11 novels, two plays, a libretto, essays and, with her son Slade, five children’s books, for which she won numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, the first African American to do so.
Toni Morrison grew up surrounded by books and stories – her father, George Wofford, passed on anecdotes he had heard growing up in the American South – and, after gaining an MA at Cornell University, she taught at Texas Southern University and then at Howard University before moving to New York to take up senior editor’s position with Random House. By this time, she had married and divorced Harold Morrison and was a single mother to two sons, Harold and Slade. Aged 12, she had changed her original first name, Chloe to Anthony, shortened to Toni. In a 2014 interview with NEA Arts Magazine she said “It was really the reading impulse that got me into the writing thing”. One of her best-known pieces of advice to writers is “If you don’t see yourself in a book, write it.”
Her novels were multi-layered and could be summed up as encompassing memory, trauma, spirituality, inequality, the civil rights movement, colonialism, conformity and rebellion, witnessing both the brutality of wounded women and the ancestral pain of black lives through slavery. But she did so through compelling writing, often inspired by jazz rhythms, exploring the textures of black lives with moral strength and integrity. Frequently she didn’t define her characters through their skin colour or virtue signal; her focus was the story and how it was told. Her novels showed others that they could write as they saw things. Black writers did not have to conform to a white lens or stick to tired tropes for a white readership. Writing was one area she refused to compromise. She wanted to create stories which would read long after she had passed on with a strong historical and cultural base and lyricism which would sing on even when the book was closed.
Toni Morrison was generous with advice to writers. She told students to work out when they were at their best creatively rather than worrying about creating a habit or an ideal writing routine. She was a firm believer in letting characters say their lines, the importance of capturing voice even for minor characters and not forcing them into a situation dictated by plot. Her work demonstrated her assertion that the blank spaces and what wasn’t written was just as important as the words on the page. She described the reader as if they were listening to a story on the radio: the pictures they create as just as much part of the story. She was keen that stress writers shouldn’t stick to what they know and pushed students to write from others’ viewpoints and see themselves through strangers’ eyes so they didn’t just end up writing and editing their own lives. From an editor’s perspective, she encouraged her students to read their writing as if seeing it for the first time, to recognise and fix failures rather than abandoning a story because a scene didn’t work.
The first novel of Toni Morrison’s I came across was her 1988 Pulitzer Prize winning “Beloved” when I was still a teenager. The UK city I went to school in had its own legacy of colonial slavery so reading Sethe’s story rang true and resonated. The image of the chokeberry tree of scars on Sethe’s back from whippings still is intensely powerful and captivating. Her own trauma leads her to believe her child is better off dead than re-possessed by the slave owner who had possessed Sethe becomes credible. The story becomes more powerful as Sethe’s family continue to be haunted by the murdered child to the extent where Sethe is estranged from her surviving daughter, Denver. It’s rare I read a book more than once but that’s how magical Toni Morrison’s writing still is and how her stories will continue to outlive her.