I know that some of the readers of this blog, sorry website, used to be my classmates or seniors at St. Xavier’s College, where I spent three years studying and falling in love with English Literature. Those readers will remember that in the third year there would be certain mornings where the thirty of us who were also getting a degree in functional English would settle down for our American Literature class where two mornings a week we would spend an hour reading and discussing Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Those classes were not classes. They left us exhausted, emotionally drained and completely disoriented. We would talk, we would listen, fall silent and mull over feelings that were alien to our 20 year old selves – feelings of loss, anger, displacement, regret and pain. One particular class, the scene when Sethe’s milk was stolen, a girl broke down and cried. As a reader, I’d always been amazed at how words could move me despite myself, but never in my life had I experienced something like those classes, nor, I venture to say, will I ever. With Morrison, and right through those American Literature sessions that thirty 20 year olds sat through, I knew unfailingly I was in the presence of genius.
I’m at a loss to explain just how much of an impact Toni Morrison, who was christened Chloe Wafford, has had on me. I own a copy of the bluest eye and beloved but I have also read, actually devoured, Tar Baby. Each time I pick them up I experience awe, definitely, but mostly wonder. What’s great about each of these books in their own ways is that they voice the fears and aspirations of a community against a socio-political background, without overtly doing so or making a big deal out of it. Incidentally, this book, the authors first, was written at a time when America was awash with slogans like “Black is beautiful.” “I was trying to say, in The Bluest Eye, wait a minute. Guys. There was a time when black wasn’t beautiful. And you hurt.””
In The Bluest Eye, you read a scene about a girl wanting something she can never have, but you see, through other characters and several powerful scenes, why she wants it. The basest human action (spoiler alert)- a drunken father raping his youngest child, or a mother brutally murdering her newborn – is portrayed with the “why” firmly in place. There is still a sense of justice, an overwhelming sense of “but this is wrong”, but we are made aware, very subtly, that this wrong is a result of what man has made of man.
Toni Morrison baulks when gushing journalists call her work poetic, but seeing as she’ll never meet me personally to slap me for doing this, I’m going to go out on a limb that it is. Not in terms of the language,(her novels aren’t prettified prose, in fact, the idiom in dialogue is downright grassroots) but in the structure. Events unfold with the imagery and subsequent back story of an epic. In Beloved, Sethe is relieved of the baby ghost by the arrival of the an image of four horsemen from the Apocalypse. Sweet Home, belying its restful name, was a plantation where all manner of unspeakable things happened. 124, (the number 3 conspicuously absent) was a house where these unspeakable things came back. There is a kind of depth, a complexity, to the way novels present themselves to the reader. Call it whatever you like, say its too difficult, but it’s awesome and you can’t escape it. She’s awesome. Toni Morrison is AWESOME.