Bernardine Evaristo on Lessons Learned From Toni Morrison
“As a writer, Morrison asks us to do some of the work.”
As soon as I read The Bluest Eye in 1981, I was hooked on Toni Morrison’s writing. How I loved her lush prose in this, her first novel, and the quietly intense dramatic storytelling style that centered young Black females, especially the storyline around colorism, with Pecola, the dark-skinned Black girl longing for blue eyes in a country that elevated white beauty and deemed blackness ugly. I still have that now extremely mashed-up copy of The Bluest Eye on my bookshelf, alongside every other book she published.
I first read Beloved, Morrison’s fifth novel, soon after it was published in 1987, and found it more difficult than her earlier works. Yet, even when it seemed oblique in parts, there was enough drama and tension to captivate me. There is a giant leap, however, in the scope and sophistication of this novel compared to The Bluest Eye, which is a shorter and simpler read. This past week I re-read Beloved in order to write this essay and I spent a few days on my sofa, summer rain falling outside, relishing the deep pleasure I have always experienced in savoring her fiction. I read slowly, allowing its gorgeous language, vivid descriptions and sensory atmospheres to sink in. Reading Morrison always feels like coming home, as her writing connects me to my emotions, my imagination and my soul.
She was clear in her intention with this novel, which was to resurrect America’s slave narrative through the stories of the individuals who had endured it. Let us remember that slavery in America lasted 264 years, from 1619 to 1863, and that this aspect of American history is also British history, because from 1607 until the American Revolution of 1783, the country was a British colony and known as British America. Even after it had dispatched its colonial master, British slavers continued to transport Africans to America as slaves.
In Britain we never seem to take responsibility for American slavery, yet it is as foundational to British history as this country’s own multinational business in the trade and enslavement of Africans who were taken to the Caribbean as slaves. My point is, let’s not make any bones about it; Beloved, the novel, is about the legacy of Britain’s extremely profitable investment in enslaving Africans and transporting them to America. We cannot take the moral high ground and distance ourselves from it. In reading this novel, not only was I connecting to Black history, but also to the more unsavory aspects of British history.
Beloved was inspired by the true story of a woman called Margaret Garner, who escaped slavery in 1856, only to be hunted down by slave catchers. She killed her small daughter with a knife, rather than have her raised as a slave. Shocking and tragic, this act should be seen as an indictment against the horrors she knew awaited her girl child, rather than as a moral judgement upon Garner. This notorious, national news story was Morrison’s starting point. The novel itself elaborates on the question of why a woman would choose to do this, and the consequences.
The book plunges us into the legacy of slavery through the lives of people who had been enslaved and were now living during the period known as Reconstruction (1863-77), which took place after Abolition, when the country was acclimatizing to a new infrastructural reality and recalibrating its identity, especially that of its former slaves and slave-owners. The novel’s protagonist, Sethe, is a former slave who lives in a haunted house with her eighteen-year-old daughter, Denver. When two other people join the household, Paul D and a strange young woman called Beloved, their intertwining relationships seethe with unresolved desires and resentments.
Fragmented and repressed memories creep into the minds of the characters so that the past is constantly contaminating the present. They have endured the daily terrors of slavery and emerged from it profoundly scarred. One hopes for catharsis, and the novel demonstrates that it’s only when the past is confronted that these characters can begin to release its shackles and move forward.
Great literature such as Beloved has the potential to reveal more of its riches through re-reading.Great stories have the potential to soak into our very being and subconsciously shape us through osmosis.
When I was younger, I didn’t fully appreciate the depth of the interior life of Morrison’s characters. My own experiences were still quite nascent and my world view of human behavior overwhelmingly simplistic, as my principles were founded on the polarities of good versus bad. Yet I believe that I still absorbed Morrison’s much more mature comprehension of people as multidimensional, even though I probably didn’t recognize it as such. Great stories have the potential to soak into our very being and subconsciously shape us through osmosis; a book such as this one has the potential to transform our perceptions about who we are in the world. Reading Beloved at an early stage in my adult life expanded my emotional knowledge beyond my own limitations and enabled me to engage with the extremes and profundity of human experience Morrison imaginatively recreates.
The mechanics of Morrison’s craft were impenetrable to my younger self—a poet and dramatist who had not yet written any fiction. Fast forward a few decades and I can see beneath the surface and deconstruct her technique. From the very beginning of the novel, she is unrelenting in describing the cruelty of slavery and its impact on the lives of the enslaved. Barely a page goes by without another shocking revelation, another punch in the gut. It’s hard not to be appalled at the suffering we witness, and to feel empathy for those whose post-traumatic stress stops them finding peace in their post-enslaved lives.
Morrison utilizes multiple perspectives that fade in and out of an often elliptical text with temporal interruptions through which we witness characters relive the past. The non-chronological structure sees the past and present slyly segueing into each other so that the reader has to constantly adjust to shifting time sequences. Yes, the text can be oblique and ambiguous, but that was Morrison’s intention. She asks us to do some of the work. In 1984, in an interview in a book called Black Women Writers at Work edited by Claudia Tate, Morrison said:
My writing expects, demands participatory reading . . . It’s not just about telling the story; it’s about involving the reader. The reader supplies the emotions. The reader supplies even some of the color, some of the sound. My language has to have holes and spaces so that the reader can come into it.
Some of the most startling moments in the novel are made even more graphic because Morrison holds back just enough to force the reader to visualize what’s happening in our imagination. We are required to go from passive to active, which deepens our engagement with the story. We are no longer just in the audience; we’re helping to construct the narrative for ourselves.
Writers often do the deep thinking for us. Morrison was no exception. She provided substantial insight into slavery while illustrating the crimes done unto Black people in the service of capitalism. This was through the exploitation of an unpaid labor force over hundreds of years, and she showed us the impact of this on those who were stripped of their basic human rights, and who weren’t always able to retain their dignity. She helps us see that, when people in power are desensitized to the humanity of their fellow human beings through a racist ideology that relegates them to a kind of semi-sentient sub-human, then they, the powerful overlords, are capable of perpetuating the worst atrocities, even as they self-justify their behavior as morally commendable.
Morrison, the supreme craftswoman, was called an “African-American or Black writer.” It’s exactly what she was and the culture from which she wrote. For her, it was not limiting or liminal, but limitless. She enjoyed the endless possibilities of being Black in this world, of being African or descended from Africans. The appellation was and is a political statement, yet while white writers are rarely identified as such, nobody would ever consider them to have somehow reduced their intellectual and creative options when their perspective, subject matter and storytelling are all, in effect, steeped in white narratives. The truth is, in white majority cultures, white literature is the norm. Morrison also said in 1984:
When I view the world, perceive it and write about it, it’s the world of black people. It’s not that I won’t write about white people. I just know that when I’m trying to develop the various themes I write about, the people who best manifest those themes for me are the black people I invent.
How inspiring it was for me to hear those words from an elder who was validating Black voices in literature. When Morrison and her generation proudly proclaimed their Black, female identities, they empowered their younger sisters over the pond to do the same.What I eventually came to understand is that we need to learn from them the importance of cultivating our own practice and aesthetics.
The vast Atlantic lay between me and my lodestar, but Morrison was instrumental in my own development as a young writer and became a role model. She interrogated cultural memory and society through fiction that delved into and encapsulated African American psyches and strategies for survival, while blending a supreme mastery of craft with psychological complexity and uncompromisingly political writing. Her books were the gold standard. At first I aspired to write like her, a typical rite of passage when we want to emulate those we most admire, and inevitably fall flat on our faces because our writing is derivative, a pale imitation of the real thing. We should acknowledge that writers’ sensibilities don’t just appear out of nowhere. We are molded by our circumstances.
With this in mind, Morrison’s practice came out of her childhood, country, culture, generation, era, educational background, religion, dialect, idiolect, literary influences and oral tradition—including the African-American folk tales her parents told her and the songs they passed on—and her imagination, emotional literacy and intellectual curiosity. A life, in fact, that bore little relation to my own upbringing as a Black Londoner thirty years her junior. How could I possibly recreate her genius? She was inimitable. What I eventually came to understand is that, instead of trying to imitate our literary heroines, we need to learn from them the importance of cultivating our own practice and aesthetics; to create a unique literature generated by our own individuality.
One such example is that, while I could never write like Morrison, I did learn, or perhaps absorb, that she didn’t write perfect English in her novels. Not for her those perfectly modulated, grammatically correct sentences that are sometimes seen as the zenith of great writing, at least in the UK. Instead, she wrote what I call “interesting English,” employing a narrative style that subtly echoed the cadences, syntax and orality of her own culture, and slipping into the vernacular of her characters when appropriate. The lesson I learned from her as a young writer was that I did not have to adhere to any literary traditions that alienated me, but could do my own thing.
Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize for Beloved in 1987 and it was made into a major Hollywood film by Jonathan Demme in 1998, starring Oprah Winfrey, Danny Glover and Thandie Newton. It has been taught in schools and at universities globally for decades. In 1993, she received the Nobel Prize in Literature, the first and only Black woman to be awarded it, which propelled her onto the world stage and sealed her reputation as our queen of letters.
Beloved is considered Morrison’s greatest work, but all her work is great. I hope that this book will inspire you to read her other novels which show that her talent was sustained, varied and impressively impactful. They all might now be set in the past, but Toni Morrison was a writer for all time.
From Bernardine Evaristo’s Introduction to the new reissue of Beloved, published by Vintage Classics.