Column: Reaching Toni Morrison

Image credit: Zarateman

Toni Morrison is one of those names that has been floating around my head ever since I began paying attention to intelligent people. After years of not having any strong compulsion to engage with her writing, I only got around to Toni Morrison this year. Arguably one of the most, if not the most, prolific black writer of our time, I find it fairly shocking that schools (or at least the schools I went to) don’t put more of her work on the curriculum and that she isn’t talked about in society alongside the likes of Steinbeck and Fitzgerald, and other writers who so greatly harnessed the voice and feel of the 20th century.

I’m (semi-)ashamed to say that the boost I needed to finally go out and discover Morrison’s writing was an episode of Girls where Hannah was in a writer’s apartment and she saw a photo of him with Morrison. If Hannah Horvath loves it, I’ll love it too, went my impressionable, millennial’s mind. Such is the slightly terrifying influence of popular culture on my life that the next day, I went out and bought Beloved and Song of Solomon, as they were the two titles I had heard of – I have no intention of being niche here – plus, things get famous for a reason, right?

Cut forward to now, having read several of Morrison’s books and it’s been a life-changing time. I read a phenomenal article on the New York Times Magazine by Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, titled “The Radical Vision of Toni Morrison”. Honestly the article itself was something of a radical vision, so its beneficial contribution to your life is twofold. The main comment that stood out, that I have really become aware of in Morrison’s writing, was that there is no feeling, no emotion that Morrison cannot encapsulate and emulate with her words and narratives. She doesn’t just create and navigate characters and stories, she inhabits and portrays souls.

Her work includes such fabulous passages about grief, joy, fear, desire, confusion, belonging… Morrison allows her characters depths that very few writers grant their stories in a tone that is utterly inimitable; she delves wonderfully into imagery and metaphors, fleshing out the smallest of ideas, without ever being indulgent. The writing is in fact so good that even when I have lost touch with the plot, I can still relish in every word. Morrison’s language manipulation is complex and highly intellectual, but it remains accessible. I seldom miss out on the meaning or intricacies of sentences, but I am consistently blown away by turns of phrase and her ability to draw out such beautiful images from the simplest choice of vocabulary.

More than ever, Morrison needs to be read for her presentation of black Americans. Whilst Beloved and Song of Solomon are situated around the end of slavery and the era before the Civil Rights movement, she never relies on the drama of historical events to define her characters. Instead, she alludes to the socio-political climate in an informed manner that explains the characters’ lives. Her protagonists are so complex and access such a range of emotions and statuses; she gives a profound voice to a range of very human black people, something we just don’t see enough in literature.

A trait that distinguishes all of my favourite books is when the author allows themself the time to reflect, in the context of the novel, on the larger world and society as a whole. It is something I love in the likes of Steinbeck and Donna Tartt’s work, and something that Morrison does spectacularly well. So much of her writing reminds me why we bother to write and read. Some of the most valuable moments serve very little for advancing the plot, but they let the Morrison develop universal themes and ideas, from the perspective of the anonymous narrator, giving us moments of sheer enlightenment and images that embody sheer wisdom and literary beauty.

You must read Toni Morrison’s novels because she has established herself as an iconic, classic writer, whose work deserves to be proliferated in decades to come. Read her for the flawed, inspiring characters, the harrowing, moving stories, the universal, poignant themes, and above all for the absolutely exquisite writing. 

blog comments powered by Disqus

Related Stories

In this section

Across the site

Best of the Rest