I remember the first time I read Toni Morrison’s masterpiece, “Beloved.” (I say ‘first time’ because it took me three reads to fully absorb it.) She changed all my ideas about what writing was all about. She went ahead and set the bar so high I couldn’t even see it. Not to suggest that before there were no writers of her caliber. Of course there were. Take James Baldwin, for instance. If you’ve read “The Fire Next Time,” or “Go tell it on the mountain,” then you have read two of the books that informed me that a writer was something to aspire to be. James is my role model. I was young when I first read Baldwin and though he too had set the bar really high, I just knew if I kept at it I could put together an idea as well as he someday. Same with the writer of my favorite book, “Their eyes were watching God”. a writer by the name of Zora Neale Hurston. I just knew I could do what she did.
I still do. Only not in any way, shape or form similar to the way they did it. I have my own voice…still finding it but I think I know where it is now.
But, again I was young when I was introduced to Zora.
I was already an adult the first time I read Morrison, and the first book I read of hers was “Beloved.” Needless to say, by the time she’d written Beloved she was at the top of her game, so to speak, and would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the Nobel Prize for Literature. I should have read The Bluest Eye or Song of Solomon before hand. Then I would have had some inkling of what I was in for with Beloved.
I’ve only been jarred a few times by fiction. Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” put the fear of God in me. And Bret Easton Ellis really shook me up with American Psycho. In fact, I have yet to finish reading it after several attempts… just too damn disturbing, too close to home, so to speak. it wasn’t the killing that got me though. It was the mundane and doldrums he’d lose himself in. In these present tense stream of conscious narratives about renting a video or picking up the dry cleaning, or he’d turn that voice on the reader, like a scalpel, and ramble on and on criticizing Genesis– with and without Phil Collins– and Whitney Houston, whole chapters of this shit…and it reminded me so much of how I must sound when I talk to my friends about Prince- before and after The Revolution– or Stevie Wonder – before and after Songs in the Key of Life.
Toni’s prose is disturbing, too. Her prose is so poetic and layered, like mountain lakes formed of melting ice and snow emptying into streams that have been violently grooved into the mountain side leading down to a raging river that pushes through, blazing a watery path to the sea. This sea is the accumulation of human experiences, of joy and tragedy. Somehow she understands it all and yet she is one of us, one of the spectators, one of the assailants, one of the victims, telling us the stories we already know, because we’ve lived them or we’ve lived them vicariously, but in a way we’ve never heard them so that the story takes on a life-force of its own. When I read her Beloved I forgot who I was, and for a sweet moment of sky-blue clarity I ceased to exist within the constraints I’ve constructed. I was liberated of the burden of self-dom, sojourning in her realm of truth, following a majestic voice through a pathless forest with the assurance that though the wilderness is writhing with peril, and I was indeed lost as I’d never been lost before, I would emerge on the other side scathed but more alive than when I”d entered it.
Well, I’m currently reading Toni Morrison’s latest novel, “A Mercy” and I am being Toni’d again. That’s what I call it. It’s the Toni effect. Like a panacea, or a venom, made of the music of living things and things long dead; of revived things and things that will never be retrieved. Of nameless things and things with names that have been forgotten. Of love, of fear and pain, and of nothing, the indifference of the space between stars. The title is ironic. Toni is merciless. She can turn a cockroach into the most beautiful of the Creator’s creations and find the pure undiluted evil in a butterfly. And sell it. I mean, you will never see cockroaches or butterflies the same way again. Never. She understands things on a level that ought to be reserved for demigods. She can see the connectivity of everything and isn’t afraid like most people, like me, to make the connections.
She is part of the reason I don’t like to write but I feel I must. She instructs me that writing is part storytelling , part self-immolation and part torture. I read once that art is like two cannibals on a deserted island– it’s eat or be eaten. I can see the truth of it. I feel that writing, and all art, is releasing from restraint many feelings and thoughts harbored or held captive, at the writer’s and reader’s expense.
I love Toni because she reminds me why I write and why I wanted to become a writer in the first place.
She makes me want to write something beautiful.