Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison, who passed away recently, was a pioneer of black writing in the US
Her powerful body of work touched the lives of people beyond her community and in countries far away from hers
In 1998, when I enrolled to study English literature as an undergraduate student at a college in Kolkata, I was a naive reading enthusiast, star-struck by Arundhati Roy, whose Booker-winning debut novel had appeared a year ago, and singularly unprepared to face the drudgery of the syllabus that was then taught by institutions under the University of Calcutta.
Although the curriculum wasn’t uniformly dull, it was deadening in its overwhelming focus on white male writers from Britain. The only concession to Indian writing in English was R.K. Narayan; we hadn’t ventured into the brave new world of translation studies yet. I don’t recall a more cheerless chore in my intellectual life than having to write thoughtful essays on The Guide. I could hum every tune from the movie adaptation of the novel—starring Dev Anand and Waheeda Rahman—in my sleep but that talent wouldn’t get me anywhere with the examiners.
In search of worthy diversions, and to expand my horizons beyond the confines of early 20th century British literature, I began to hang out amongst the shelves of the American Centre library in Kolkata. And it was there, among rows of neatly-bound books, that I first encountered Toni Morrison, who died on 5 August.
Youth is easily susceptible to the spell of genius. In one’s vulnerable 20s, when the mind is hungry for novelty, a stylist like Morrison could punch one in the gut, leave one reeling from the shock of discovery. I remember reading, in a breathless daze over a month, every book of hers published until then, even pushing my friends towards them. But it was only after her death last week that I realized the extent to which her impact on my life had remained undiminished even after two long, eventful decades.
In the intervening years, I did not manage to keep up with Morrison’s later novels, but I don’t think I had read many books that surpassed the avant-garde brilliance of Beloved (1987), the novel which propelled her to international fame, especially after a motion picture adaptation featuring TV show host Oprah Winfrey was released in 1998. Just as fresh in my mind is the incantatory prose of Song Of Solomon (1977), which led me, first, to the magic of the Old Testament, and then into the perfidious heart of the human condition.
Beloved was my first brush with Morrison’s writing, though the best starting point for new readers of hers may be The Bluest Eye, her first novel, which appeared in 1970. At the time, she was working as an editor with Random House (a job she kept for nearly 20 years), bringing up two sons as a single mother, and waking up at the crack of dawn every day to write. The Bluest Eye was inspired by a girl Morrison knew in school, while growing up in Lorain, Ohio, who desperately wanted to have blue eyes. Indian readers familiar with centuries of oppressive standards of feminine beauty—fair skin, in our case, over everything else—will understand Pecola Breedlove’s tragic desire to look like her idol Shirley Temple. The histories of segregation and untouchability are entwined in ways we don’t often reckon with.
Throughout her career, Morrison wrote about black lives with fierce pride, more so after the election of Donald Trump as the US president in 2016. She deplored the title of Ralph Ellison’s classic novel, Invisible Man. Invisible to whom? she had once retorted in an interview. The insidious trail of racism, which connects the centuries-old slave trade with institutional discrimination against blacks in the US even today, runs through her books.
As she wrote in “Home" in her final collection of essays (Mouth Full Of Blood): “The overweening, defining event of the modern world is the mass movement of raced populations, beginning with the largest forced transfer of people in the history of the world: slavery." This process, articulated by her with such conviction, continues to play out across the globe. The exodus of the disenfranchised and the marginalized is the new normal.
Apart from her unfailing sense of social and political justice and strident championing of women’s rights, Morrison brought to her writing the inimitable stamp of craft. Beloved is perhaps her most stylistically daring novel. Narrated by the ghost of an infant black girl, who is killed by her mother to protect her from a life of slavery, the story is drawn from a real-life incident Morrison chanced upon while researching The Black Book (1974). A first-of-its-kind anthology, the latter put together images and texts related to the black experience in the US, linking it to the nefarious activities of European slave traders and the migration of populations from Africa to the Americas as bonded labourers. The book’s rich visual documentation included images of public lynching of black people, watched by casual groups of white people, in broad daylight. The chronicles of these spectacles have a chilling resonance in India, where incidents of mob lynching persist into the 21st century, and are now circulated and viewed on electronic screens.
In Morrison’s hand, horrific slices of history—such as a mother being forced to kill her baby—turned into contemporary epics, capturing realities that remain familiar to people living in inhuman poverty in many parts of Asia and Africa.
In Sula (1973), the eponymous black heroine leaves her hometown in Ohio, opposing the conventions of her social and economic class. When she returns home after years, she brings in her wake her indomitable spirit of rebellion. And like all such women in most parts of the world even today, Sula is greeted with censure and contempt from her neighbours for daring to break away from the fetters she was born with.
In the years since I first read Morrison, African-American literature has established its place in university curricula across India. The idea that literature can act as a tool to address, archive and expiate the wrongs meted out to the historically exploited has segued into a growing interest in Dalit writing in English and translations. With a legacy like Morrison’s hovering over us—of a writerly life that was devoted not only to making blackness visible but also to making it a seamless part of human history—the duty of writers, readers, publishers and scholars is now clearer than ever.