Grieving Toni Morrison
Yesterday, novelist Toni Morrison died at age 88. Today, for the first time in many readers’ lifetimes, we woke up in a world without her. For many Americans, such a world will be uncanny and just a little colder.
Morrison was a defining voice in American literature, an activist, a challenger of the nation’s conscience, and perhaps most importantly, as this New York Times piece details, a bard of the Black American experience. Several of her works are household names–The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, Sula–but it is her 1988 novel Beloved, a haunting and paradigm-shifting story of trauma and redemption in the aftermath of slavery, that won her a Pulitzer Prize and sealed the deal on the Nobel Prize in literature that she would later be awarded.
These novels have been changing American hearts and minds for fifty years, and in the process have changed American culture. They offer by turns refuge, catharsis, and the sort of productive unease that leads one to question the nature of things. They tease out the moral complexities of living under oppressive systems, focusing particularly on race and gender, and have led generations of readers to examine these issues for themselves. And from a technical standpoint, they’re ingenious. Morrison’s sentences are beautifully composed, and her use of narrative structure is so masterful and inventive that it has changed forever the way people write fiction.
My personal experience with Morrison’s work has not been particularly noteworthy. I never met her or saw her speak. I have no particular claim on her work or its themes. I am writing from the perspective of many a grieving fan: simply as someone who read her books and loved them.
That’s the power of Toni Morrison. So many people love her work, and she gave us something in common, a way to reach out to each other. She was always there, whether in the background or the foreground, and her presence connected us.
Without Toni Morrison in the world, things will always be a bit different, and a bit strange. We honor her by continuing to reach out to each other, to ask questions and to form new paradigms. And we honor her by reading her books. If you haven’t picked them up in a while, do yourself a favor, and drink a toast to their indomitable author when you do.