TONI MORRISON – February 18, 1931 — August 4, 2019
The first Toni Morrison novel I read was Tar Baby. At the time, it was considered to be a lesser work in her oeuvre because it was a love story. It was marketed as such — as it was about a black model and her ‘untameable’ Heathcliff-like paramour. My mother, who mostly read romance, had a copy of it, in among her stacks of Danielle Steele and Janet Dailey. I don’t think Mom enjoyed the book. She thought it was too weird.
I remember dipping into its pages and immediately being entranced by the language. It was dense, allusive, and mythic. It was also experimental, profane and erotic. It was a love story, yes, but it was also about decolonization and identity. The novel moved between contemporary scenes and the long, rich shadow of cultural history. Gods and goddess, both disguised and not, appeared in the text. Ghosts were both metaphorical and real.
Tar Baby was my first Morrison novel, but it was far from my last. The Bluest Eye brutally shows the horrors of a colonized mind. Sula made the lives of black women into an epic. Song of Solomon is a magical realist tone poem for the black gaze. And Beloved laid bare the profound evil of America’s past. Morrison used and shaped forms and language itself to create a black American literary cosmology. She was and remains a deep influence on my work, and indeed, on world literature at large.
The Rabid Puppy brigade have gamed the Hugos again. At least this time, there was some humor involved—see the Chuck Tingle entry. But for the most part, it’s underwhelming and sigh-inducing, rather than shocking and hateful. I’m reminded of a quote that Toni Morrison made about racism (see below), though you could substitute just about any bigotry/ism in for racism.
I’m just going to focus on creating my weird, diversity filled fictional worlds, and reading and supporting the same. The Puppies’ antics are just a distraction. So much good fiction—some of it written by Straight White Men, no less– is coming out now. We are in a Golden Age, with tons of stories and many unique voices being heard, both in the large and indie presses.
Let’s keep our focus there, and away from immature provocateurs.
When I was in Junior High, I interned one afternoon a week at the Chesire Cat Children’s Bookstore. Located in upper Chevy Chase, on the DC side, it was like heaven for a nascent bibliophile like me. (Side note: my version/vision of Heaven would be an endless library of books). The highlight of my time there was when one of the favorite authors did a reading. I was “off the clock” at the time, and to me, writers are rock stars. I was nervous as I presented my copy of her then new book, gushed how much I loved her writing. Then she said something that kind of disappointed me. (And I learned that all idols have feet of clay). She remarked that it was interesting that I was even buying her current book, because it was written for girls.
I remember walking away from that meeting feeling a mixture of “So what?” and a feeling of shame. Junior High is a caste system, where gender roles are rigidly proscribed. I already had been the victim of bullies and if I wasn’t called “faggot” then, it was only because the kids didn’t know the word. Fortunately, I went with the first feeling, and read the “girly” book. And was quite pleased that I had. The novel was one of the author’s best and I heartily recommend it to anyone of any gender for insight into sibling rivalry.
This is a terrible idea, and boys will miss out on some great literature. If I had followed reading along “appropriate” gender lines, I would have missed books by LeGuin, Joan Didion,Flannery O’Connor, and Alice Walker. Toni Morrison’s underrated novel Tar Baby was, at one point, marketed as Women’s Fiction, since it featured a love story. If I had paid attention to that, I would have missed the rich, mythopoetic subtexts in the novel.
As I grew, I read everything that interested me, whether or not it was written for boys or for girls. One of my favorite books was The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, by Patricia McKillip. When I was researching the author in the library (to write a fan letter), I came across a bit of criticism about the novel being ‘girly.’ It was ‘girly,’ presumably, because the main character is a powerful female wizard who isn’t an ass-kicking action girl. “So what,” I said to myself, thinking that the critic was afraid of girl-cooties and therefore had missed the point of the story.
If women authors have girl cooties, I want to collect said cooties.
Whatever happened to Randall Kenan? If you like magical realism, you must read his first, and to my knowledge, only published novel, A Visitation of Spirits. The book follows a young closeted black nerd (comic books are his obsession) named Horace. He wants to transform into a bird to escape the religious, homophobic community where he lives. He believes that his desire is the result of demonic possession. The novel chronicles a season in hell, to borrow Rimbaud’s phrase. Keenan’s prose soars and he uses all manner of narrative techniques to convey Horace’s interior emotional landscape. It’s what I would call an alchemical novel, one that transcends the limitations of realistic fiction to reveal greater truths. A Visitation of Spirits is a masterpiece of magical realism and belongs on the same shelf as Toni Morrison and Ben Okri. It is also a seminal work about black gay lives. Anyone who loves lush, surreal language should hunt down a copy! I wish Kenan would write another book!
Beloved may be the only horror novel to win a Pulitzer Prize. And it is a horror novel, in my opinion. It makes use of the tropes supernatural gothic fiction (in this case, a vengeful ghost) to examine the dehumanizing effects of America’s great sin, the Peculiar Institution of slavery. Beloved is, of course, also a historical novel that takes as its jumping off point a historical footnote about an escaped female slave who murdered her own child rather than have her be raised in slavery. But Beloved, the spirit of the murdered infant come back as a young woman forms the bulk of the novel.
Sethe (perhaps her name alludes to Lethe, the Greek river of forgetting) has escaped with her four children from Sweet Home, a hellish plantation where slaves are routinely tortured. When the foreman, the sinisterly named Schoolteacher, finds her in Ohio (a slave-free state), he witnesses her slitting the throat of her unnamed infant daughter. He declares her a wild animal and not fit for slave service. The murdered child becomes a poltergeist, driving away both her sons after a few years with her wild antics. When a fellow escaped slave, Paul D, arrives at Sethe’s house, the ghost child is temporary banished.
Beloved comes back in corporeal form, as a young woman. Forget Samara (the video ghost girl of the Ringu trilogy) or the possessed Regan McNeil (The Exorcist) or even telekinetic terror Carrie White. Beloved could have them for a light lunch. Because Beloved is a cipher, and her agenda is never clear. She is endlessly hungry, for Sethe, for love, for experience, for sweets. Does she want to possess Sethe—both figuratively and literarly? Or does she want to destroy her? Beloved is every wrong thing about slavery and racism given form, and she will do anything—to fill her endless, aching and damaged need. Beloved is beautiful, seductive, perverse and brutal.
Morrison’s Faulkner language quivers and fractures in her attempt to capture the essence of this spirit. The imagery she uses is violent and disturbing—light, blood, sugar are invoked. Because Beloved has a strong historical subtext, its horror is even more powerful.