One of the greatest lights of our time has gone her own way.
When I learned she’d died, I found myself wondering: Who was Toni Morrison to me?
Instantly, there arose in my mind a trope I intensely despise: the Magical Negro. Regardless, most of Morrison’s central characters were both magical and black. They were almost always disenfranchised people who found the means to transcend desperate circumstances and then some: returning from death, learning the secrets of flight, and, perhaps most importantly, discovering the boundaries imposed upon them were untruths. Morrison’s writing is magical realism partly because those magics, no matter how spectacular, never fundamentally erased the sorrows and hardships in her characters’ lives; the magics might be married to the subconscious, or they might be untamable, impossible to marry to the superhero’s will, to do as the magician desired. When characters’ desires were fulfilled, they seemed to be done so with the help of some trickster djinn. The granted wishes reminder the reader of the age-old warning: Be careful what you wish for… Morrison understood the consequences of power are, often as not, unforeseen, the power itself misunderstood–and it’s all too easy to do harm.
Morrison’s writing always, always shone, her prose grew like a rosebush, complex, gorgeous, a comfort to the weary spirit. That she labored for decades as an editor showed in the best possible way, in her meticulous selection of every word and the construction of each sentence. Morrison’s craftsmanship is mostly without peer, period. Perhaps even better than that, Morrison’s writing has true usefulness to it, in the way we good art should and must have. Anyone might enter and depart any of her books changed.
I’m just now listening her Nobel Prize lecture (LOVE the Information Age for allowing us so much). In it, Morrison reminds us that the real-life changes we consider magic (for the writer or the reader) do not happen without preparation, work, hope, tenacity. Magic, in its usefulness, is not simply gifted to us: It requires much of us. It asks that we dream for years. It asks that we practice. That we learn to accept critique, yet deflect the arrows of rejection. And hopefully, eventually, we earn the full use of our gifts. But we must also accept that, even if we do, the consequences of what we make will not remain in our control.
I was lucky enough to see Toni Morrison read in public, just once, when I was working as Associate Editor at PEN America: A Journal for Writers and Readers. The New School was hosting a big reading honoring all of PEN America’s prizewinners for that year. In fact, two of my teachers, Vievee Francis and Rick Barot, both had books nominated–and Rick’s book, Chord, (rightfully) won!
Morrison was the keynote speaker, a blessing/curse for her, I’d guess, as she was wheelchair-bound by then; yes, she was headlining, but she had to smilingly sit through the entire show before getting to do her bit, and of course, there’s no way she could escape early. But Morrison was a professional, and incredibly gracious. She chose to use her podium time to read part of her novel-in-progress. I mean it: She took out a little stack of printed pages and, in a shockingly high-pitched, “feminine” voice, read us her own fresher-than-fresh fiction, that maybe hadn’t been heard by anyone else ever before.
I love that she chose to do that. She who was perhaps the Greatest Writer in a room full of Great Writers shared with us her untried pages, unpublished, unknown, and still in progress. I don’t recall whether or not she had a pen in her hand while she read, whether or not she scribbled notes along the way as some of us do, when we hear our mistakes. But the point is that Toni Morrison took her time to remind= us that yes, even the Greatest Writers do the work, constantly, again and again. There is no nirvana (“windless space”) for writers, no place where the work effortlessly pours out, where there is no editor, where perfection is one’s only companion. The work she did each day is exactly the work that each and every one of us writers does–and the truth is she was no better. There is no better. All of us are simply here on Earth, working or not working, together or not.
I have felt frozen lately. Like the bad sisters in Cinderella, where each cuts off a part of her foot to force her way into the glass slipper, walking through the forest towards the castle, trailing blood all the while, pretending everything feels fine… It might seem like an awful thing to say, but I feel the gift of Morrison passing. Because she’s reminded me that I have work to do. We all do. Our heroes age, they die, and if we don’t do the work to meet theirs, who on Earth ever will?