Granting Me Permission to Write My Stories: Toni Morrison’s Influence

download“If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, you must be the one to write it.”  Toni Morrison

 

 

No single book has impacted and influenced my writing more than Toni Morrison’s Sula, 1973, which I have read numerous times, and have taught at least five times in different literature classesWhen I read Sula, I was a poet, with no ambition to write prose. I did not even think prose was in me, even after reading Sula. Sula haunted me after that first read and still does. I see the image of this young woman, bold yet afraid but willing to risk it all, to break free from her community with its rigid and binary beliefs about right and wrong.  Nothing is that clear cut, Sula, believes, and I concur. Yes murder is wrong, and rape is barbaric, but the other daily choices we make are often more nuanced, depending on the circumstances.

Imagine then my surprise, when I met Toni Morrison in 1988, at the Berkeley home of the late Professor Barbara Christian, fellow Caribbean woman, mentor, friend, and literary critic who wrote and taught Toni Morrison’s work before she was canonized. I was pursuing my doctorate and I, along with a handful of other graduate students were sitting on cushions around a low egg-shaped table, plying Morrison with questions.  It was my turn and I prefaced by saying how much I loved Sula, and was sex Sula’s tragic flaw. Morrison looked at me and said, and this I will never forget, because I was so blown away, “Sula is not someone I really like, well it took me a while to really like her, as she is too reckless.” Stunned. Morrison’s words were like a hammer at the back of my neck.  I wanted to protest, how could you write this amazing character then declare you don’t like her. Over the next few months, I re-read Sula, and could somewhat understand what Morrison meant, but I still love Sula. Period. Unapologetic.

My attraction to Sula was/is based on my own deviating and veering away from the hypocritical conventions of society –rejection of  the oppositional good versus evil paradigm, and the suppression of feelings and desires, especially women’s sexual appetite.  Sula scoffs at the narrow and limited definitions of what it means to be a “decent” woman and instead chooses to live her life outside the boundaries of those imposed restraints. Naturally, she reaps the scorn of the community that is constantly projecting outward, rather than taking responsibility for their own actions.  Hence Sula becomes their scape-goat, the evil lurking in themselves that they fear. Morrison uses irony like a blacksmith uses heat. How can Sula, a girl/woman from a place called the Bottom, not fight against conventions that are meant to handcuff her very existence? As a character, Sula symbolizes the struggles of all women who work to unlock the handcuff and run free.

Morrison was a Chancellor Fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, where I was studying and earlier that night before we all went to Barbara Christian’s home for literary conversation , Morrison had read from Beloved, 1987.

Barbara Christian had given a brilliant introduction to the book as well as situated Morrison’s body of work within the context of Black women’s writings. We were all excited and knew we were participating in a historical moment.  Morrison read several scenes from Beloved. I remember feeling as if my head was swelling, as if I was in the presence of a duppy, Sugg’s ghost.

Toni Morrison is a phenomenal reader of her work, and I had the pleasure of hearing and watching her read her work about four times, live, and each time, the texture or her voice and words would immerse you on a journey. Toni Morrison’s tone is the husk of a dry coconut, but it is not brittle.  Imagine the husk being soaked in molasses water, imagine a December breeze wafting the Portland hills, imagine the swell of the Rio Grande and the lush sound of the water gliding over rocks, and add the smell of thyme and mint growing in abundance.  That is the timbre of Toni Morrison’s voice and hearing her read, especially from Beloved, I got chills, and had to be nudged from my seat when she was done.

Beloved  is a demanding novel to read, not just because of its subject content and volume, but more because of Morrison’s style; her layering, her fusion of history and various literary devices, her ardent desire to not just write literature but render history personal and hot and sordid and emotional. Morrison wants to remind us  that  slavery was not a thing of the past, but is very much present with us, and all of us are haunted by its ghost, its duppy that clings to us like Sugg to Sethe, parasitic, needy, seeking redemption. I bought Beloved, after Morrison’s reading at UC Berkeley and attempted to read it several times, but could not get beyond the first few pages so I decided to leave it alone.  Then when I was coming home that Christmas I brought it with me, and put it on the night table in my mother’s house in Hampton Green.  One morning, I picked it up, and with my large mug of Blue Mountain coffee, I sat on the veranda, where I always had my breakfast, broke open the pages, and it held me captive the entire day. By day three I had read every word, some passages more than once, haunted, weary, beset and besieged with grief and admiration too for the enormity of the resilience of my ancestors.

“If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it,” is perhaps one of Morrison’s quotes that serves as a mantra for me, and which I think speaks to the genesis of my emergence as a writer. My first short story collection, Bake-Face and Other Guava stories, 1985, was already out, and had received a good review in the New York Times, when I met Toni Morrison, so I gave her a signed copy at Barbara’s house. She said that she would read it, and I was told on good authority that she read everything given to her. Getting BFOGS published was the initiative of Barbara Christian, who wrote the introduction to the first edition. But the genesis of this collection is connected to Sula.  The last semester, when I was completing my MA in English/Creative writing at San Francisco State University, one of the few female faculty in the all-white male programme (and I was, until the last year, the only Black student, then two more were admitted) who taught short story and prose encouraged me to take her class, since I had both space and time in my schedule; reluctantly, I conceded.

At the first class meeting she said we would be required to write four stories throughout the course of the semester. They should focus on home and memories of home.  Then we each were asked to talk about our favourite book by an author who was most like us, and of course I mentioned Sula which none of my classmates or teacher had read or even knew of Toni Morrison, as in 1980 Morrison’s name was not yet a household name in literature.  I wasn’t surprised by this as I was concurrently waging battle with my thesis director to receive  permission to do my Orals on Claude McKay, whom he said was not a major writer, because he hadn’t read or heard of him, and I had to prove to him and the three-member all-male, white committee that McKay had in fact written more than most of them. I also won that battle.

Sula was set in Morrison’s place of birth, and I knew I wanted to write stories that were set in Jamaica, stories about Jamaican women that I hadn’t read as Morrison’s quote above instructed. I decided in that class that I would write them, and write them I did to my own surprise and the appreciation of my teacher and classmates who all praised the stories, although most admitted they were not familiar with the setting or culture. I earned an A+ in that course and was told to keep writing stories, which I have. But I can’t help but think if I had not read Morrison’s Sula, and the way she depicted the community, and her development of Nel and Sula and their friendship, then perhaps I would not have been able to so easily dredge up Bake-Face and Joyce from the sugar estate community of my childhood, where I recognized I had always been keenly paying attention and making mental notes.

So who do I thank for this journey into writing?  Serendipity. That first teacher at Hunter College who taught African American and Caribbean women writers; the faculty at SFSU who said, “I think you have some stories in you;” Barbara Christian who said, “Come and do a doctorate at Berkeley, and write and teach,” after I shared my two manuscripts at the time with her, the stories, which she shared with an editor friend without my permission, and who called me up six months later to say she wanted to publish them. Perhaps it is meeting Toni Morrison?  Or the sum total of all. As writers –as people in the world, we are often influenced by others, who inspire, nudge, provide another way of seeing and being. Toni Morrison invited me to look at home, to look at women, to look at ancestry and what it means to step out the box, conventions and respectability, so I could write about child sexual abuse, domestic violence, women in rural, marginal communities striving to find themselves, their voices and me ensuring that they had a platform from which to speak.

Born Chloe Ardelia Wofford in Lorain, Ohio, February 18, 1931, Chloe became Toni Morrison while at Howard University because is it said, many had difficulty pronouncing Chloe.  However, I want to believe Toni knew, given the times, that she was more likely to get traction as a budding writer with an ambiguous name such as Toni.  Is that a man or a woman?  Is that a black or a white person? Whatever the reason, I thank the ancestors for intersecting our paths, for Morrison’s uncompromising insistence on writing about Black life and that we matter and must continue to excavate our demons and pains as well as our resistance and survival, our right/write to live fully and celebrate all of ourselves.

Although officially declared dead on August 5, 2019, I believe like our Egyptian ancestors who took more than 20 years to build a pyramid to house the dead, that death is merely a transition to the next phase and Toni Morrison’s books, movies and essays are the blocks of her pyramid that will outlast time.

you  toni opened a space

called it safe   called it self

you said write    your truth   all of it

you held up a mirror   and there were

the lived memories –Pecola and Bake-Face

Nel and Joyce and the many more levitating

waiting to be captured

you whispered run girl    run   pick yourself up

if you stumble.  run and don’t ever let them gag you…

 

I’m running toni    running to outpace you

as you said i should

 Professor  Opal Palmer Adisa is University Director, the Institute for Gender & Development Studies, Regional Coordinating Office, UWI Regional HQ, Mona

Published in The Observer, Sunday, August, 18, 2019, Bookend section.

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