“I Know How to Write Forever”: Toni Morrison and Fiction as Being in the World
Photo credit: Jack Mitchell/Getty Images
In a 2015 New York Times interview, author and Nobel laureate Toni Morrison explained the reason she insisted on doing the audio for her book, God Help the Child, herself. She didn’t hear her sentences in any other voice, so Morrison sat down in the narrow audio booth, which her interviewer, Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, describes as a “sarcophagus-like space,” making sure to bring a pillow for her back. As I listen to her read those lyrical sentences, those ink-black words that press into the hollow space at the base of my throat, I’m left breathless. I consider the weight that she transferred to those sentences, which fly like birds but also carry the weight of Black American history and experience on every syllable. Watching the video of her interview, I glimpse briefly her coquettishness when she purses her mauve lips to kiss at the camera even as her eyes fill with delicate tears. This is what a fiction writer should be, I think—one who inhabits her words, who carves space for the words of others, and most of all, one who speaks—and writes—even when it’s hard.
Toni Morrison wrote literature that breathes life into the American canon. It feels nearly impossible to capture the breadth of Toni Morrison’s work. She was a professor, critic, theorist, and an editor, among many other things. However, I emphasize her vocation as a fiction writer, not to diminish her other accomplishments, but rather to make her title of “novelist” ring with the versatility and power of the work she has done. Morrison’s work as a fiction writer elevates a genre that is often dismissed as frivolous to a site of testimony. Her work testifies to realities of racism and institutional oppression that cut through the everyday lives of Black Americans, even now.
Morrison reminds us that the literary realm is a site of cultural conflict, rife with spaces of silence where the words of the oppressed, particularly people of color, have been erased—something any fiction writer should be aware of in their own works and in the works of others. In one of her most famous books of essays, Playing in the Dark, Morrison describes the “dark, abiding, signing Africanist presence,” the Other, that has been created in the glare of the white gaze in order to organize “American coherence through a distancing of Africanism.” This Africanism is wholly imagined by white writers, but imagination is by no means frivolous. Through her work, Morrison proves that it is the means for achieving “intellectual domination.”
One of the ways Morrison challenged the white imagination of the American literary cannon was by prioritizing not only black experiences, but also the black gaze. Throughout her career, Morrison described her fiction as for the black community first and foremost—and then, only secondly, for the body of literature as a whole. At 39, Morrison wrote The Bluest Eye simply because a story that spoke to a little black girl from Ohio (i.e. a younger Morrison) didn’t yet exist. When asked about why she wanted to write novels, she said that she “was eager to read about a story where racism really hurts and can destroy you”—and no stories like that existed yet, so she decided to write one.
The Bluest Eye (1970) details the tragic rape and impregnation of young Pecola Breedlove by her own father. Pecola’s experience is narrated largely by bystander Claudia MacTeer, who witnesses Pecola’s descent into madness as a result of her desire for blue eyes. In the novel’s foreword, Morrison articulates the ongoing project of her fiction—one that seeks to express what are at times unspeakable realities of internalized racism and self-hatred. She confesses that this project “as difficult today as it was then [at the time of the novel’s conception in the 1960s].”
Elaborating on her continual struggle to write for the silenced, Morrison asserts that she wrote to shape silences while breaking them, to “transfigure the complexity and wealth of Black American culture into a language worthy of the culture” (xiii), a process that she didn’t ever see as quite complete. “Transfigure” evokes a bodily significance of word and flesh—Morrison makes clear the necessity of testifying to the bodily experience of Black Americans, which includes the darkest shadows of the Black American psyche. She points to the power of words to either cut like razors or become bodies of work. The artist becomes what Lisa Williams in Bloom’s Guide to The Bluest Eye (Infobase 2010) deems both a survivor and storyteller. Through Claudia’s narration, Morrison is able to write Pecola’s experience into literature even as her descent into madness haunts the novel’s final pages. Claudia essentially transforms loss and suffering into language, which is Morrison’s project.
Morrison’s 1993 Nobel Prize acceptance speech begins—fittingly—with a story. She tells of a wise old blind woman who is visited by a troupe of young men that toy with her at first, asking her if the bird in their hands is dead or alive. The blind old woman only replies that “the bird is in your hands.” The young boys beg her to give them something, to “think of our lives and tell us your particularized world. Make up a story.” In their incomprehension, in their struggle for words, the boys tell the story themselves. They strive towards the ineffable—as Morrison claims writers should do—by telling of the darkest moments of black history, of the “placenta in a field” and the snow-bitten slaves. They also tell of a warmer night—one in which hungry slaves were given warm cider and bread by a merciful couple at an inn. After they finish their story, the blind old woman breaks her silence: “I trust you now. I trust you with the bird that is not in your hands because you have truly caught it. Look. How lovely it is, this thing we have done—together.”
Morrison explains that she reads the bird as language and the woman as a “practiced writer” who is worried about whether it is a dead language, one that is given over to censorship. As a consequence of this dead language, “children have bitten their tongues off and use bullets instead to iterate the voice of speechlessness.” Morrison asserts that “oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence”—language is capable of ripping a black body open and leaving it to die in the field, of taking the master’s bastard child away from a dying slave-woman. Yet language is also the only way to cultivate hope for new life, to testify what is true. Morrison elaborates in her speech that “Language can never ‘pin down’ slavery, genocide, war. Nor should it yearn for the arrogance to be able to do so. Its force, its felicity is in its reach toward the ineffable.” Writing must be struggle, or it is not writing at all.
Although Morrison’s work speaks directly to the black community—and should be recognized first and foremost for this—she also uses fiction as a way of knowing and being in the world, a model that can be universal for all fiction writers. She told the New York Times in 2015, “I don’t think I could have happily stayed here in the world if I didn’t have a way of thinking about it, which is what writing is for me.” For her, writing was a way of being, an extension of thought on daily realities from the most violent to the most mundane. She went on: “It’s mine, it’s free, and it’s a way of thinking. It’s pure knowledge.” Writing was not only a space for her to recognize a communal black struggle, but also one to cultivate her own identity as an author.
Writing for Morrison was perhaps like walking down the street to Outkast’s “West Savannah” was for Ta-Nehisi Coates in Between the World and Me (2015). Writing allowed Morrison to move freely, to walk out into the dark streets of experience and tell the stories she wanted to tell. She describes the journey of Bride in God Help the Child into “becoming a three-dimensional human being”—she made sure that her characters are not disembodied caricatures but living beings with bodies and hurts. She wanted to feel what it is like to be them, to create empathy and sorrow through imagination. Her fiction presents ways of thinking of the world and its inhabitants, especially the dispossessed and the silenced who have been pushed to the margins of American literature. She shows us the depths of experience fiction can evoke, from the most singular to the most universal, and the ways we can imagine those who are different from ourselves.
Following Morrison’s passing, it is important to remember that her life is an ongoing story—one that hasn’t been finished yet. Touchingly, Morrison explained in the 2015 NYT interview that she knows “how to write forever.” I would like to think that she has given young writers the space to continue the work she began, to make language alive with what has not yet been said, to strive towards the unspeakable while saying what we can about the realities of today’s world in which people cut out their own tongues and use bullets to speak instead. Language can mean struggle, pain, and loss—its absence can be a deadly silence—but we continue to pick up our pens, because language is also living. Morrison offers the fiction writer a reason to write, to do “word-work,” even when it’s unspeakably hard. Morrison’s example of what a black fiction writer should do should allow us to appreciate the work that fiction does, as well as the lessons she has for whoever wields a pen. She leaves us with these words: “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”
About the author: Hannah Hinsch is a junior at Seattle Pacific University. Hannah studies English literature and creative writing. She is the editorial intern for Image journal. When she isn't studying, you can find her at Seattle Meowtropolitan, Seattle's first cat café, or huddled in the corner of a bookstore with a cup of coffee.