When she looked at you and addressed you by your Christian name, she made it sound like a promise, one that stood on the side of everything that was juicy, smart, black, amused, yours. In the old days, when ladies were “colored” and she herself was just a child, she had learned from those ladies, probably, the same eye-rolling, close-mouthed look of incredulity that she employed when she recounted a glaring error of judgment on someone else’s part, or something stupid someone said or didn’t know they were about to say. After she gave you that look, you never wanted to say anything dumb again, ever. If she took you in as a friend—and this was rare in a world where so many people wanted her time and felt they had a right to her time, given the intimacy of her voice—she was welcoming but guarded. Then, if you were lucky enough and passed the criteria she required of all her friends, which included the ability to laugh loud and long at your own folly, and hers, too, she was less guarded, and then very frank: there was no time for anything but directness.
Once she told me that when she was a young single mother raising her two boys, she would look in on her children as they slept. Here, Toni, the former student-actress, would clutch at her blouse to convey wonder and self-sacrifice as she looked down at her children. “This is the view I had of myself then,” she said, the laughter starting to bubble up in her chest. Because, the truth is, her kids weren’t having it. Indeed, one of her boys asked her not to roam around the room like that at night, it frightened him. And here she would burst out with a laugh that mocked the very idea of self-perception, let alone self-dramatization: they would always be knocked down by someone else’s reality.
She was a wonderful conversationalist with beautiful hands; good manicures were one of her few indulgences after a lifetime of tending to others, washing dishes, cleaning up, making do. When we first met, in 2002, she didn’t have to straighten out anyone else’s mess. Like the older women she described so beautifully in “The Bluest Eye,” she was, by that time, in fact and at last free. Free from the responsibility of having to please anyone but herself. She was excited to be herself. When you visited her, or ran into her at an event, she sat and told stories. She did this without the benefit of an iPhone to look certain details up. The details were in her head; she was a writer. As she described this or that, she drew you in not just by her choice of words but by the steady stream of laughter that supported her words, until, by the end of the story, when the scene, people, weather, were laying at your feet, she would produce a fusillade of giggles that rose and fell and then disappeared as she shook her head.
More truths: she didn’t like something I wrote about one of her books in an early piece and she said so. We were sitting in a large, empty restaurant near her home in Rockland County. She had driven us there with a speed and force that shocked me, but, then again, why should it have? She was Toni Morrison. This was one of the first times that we were alone. (Previously, we always met through friends.) When she said that my criticism displeased her, I turned around; I truly did not know whom she was talking to, and told her so. The person who wrote what she didn’t like was someone I didn’t remember being, someone I no longer identified with, a person who had probably tried to big himself up because ants always think they’re taller crawling on the shoulder of giants. After I said some version of all that, she said that she understood. And then the conversation began in earnest, but not before I had another shock, this one of realization: I had hurt Toni Morrison. Somehow, Toni Morrison could be hurt.
When you were with her, the fabled editor came out, and she saw your true measure as a person, and what you could do, or what she felt you could do, because she came up in publishing when editing was synonymous with care. I think she worried about my tendency to worry and not take up too much space as a writer, to let others go first, to draw a veil between me and the world out of shame and fear and trepidation. She had probably seen this tendency in a number of the women writers she nurtured over the years, and in some of the gay black male artists, such as Bill Gunn, whom she had loved, too. (When he was sick with AIDS, she went to the hospital to see him with one of her famous cakes. “I knew he couldn’t eat that cake,” she said. “But he was happy to have that cake.”) So when you stepped out, she applauded you. Once, I had gone with a friend to have some shoes made by a cobbler. When the shoes were finished, Toni saw me wearing them at a dinner party. I told her the story. She looked at me, beamed, and said, “That’s right, my shoes.”
Boldness can make you lonely, but she never complained of loneliness. She talked about the world as though it were in conversation with her. I have yet to meet anyone who could “read” the media with that kind of swiftness and sanity that she could. She saw the madness we’re living in now years ago because of certain trends in reporting and in literature. “The complexity of the so-called individual that’s been praised for decades in America somehow has narrowed itself to the ‘me,’ ” she said.
As a gorgeous-looking student at Howard University, in the nineteen-fifties, Toni acted a bit with the Howard Players, a group then nurtured by our mutual friend, the late, great director and writer Owen Dodson. He told me what a superb actress she had been, beautiful in form and voice, and it’s always interesting to me how so many of the women writers I’ve admired—Colette, Jean Rhys, Jamaica Kincaid, Toni—had, without knowing it, first started to look for themselves, for their writer’s voices, on the stage. Acting and singing requires the performer to do two things simultaneously: be themselves and not be themselves but a character, giving life to a script they did not write.
Of course, that condition is not unknown to women in general, and when Toni used to say, “I didn’t want to grow up to be a writer, I wanted to grow up to be an adult,” she was saying a lot. Because being an adult required a lot, namely taking the human race and one’s role in it seriously. She wrote what she called “village literature,” for the tribe, by which she meant black people. To be understood in the diaspora that we call black life requires a high degree of intellectual alacrity and technical finesse: black people speak many languages in part because they’ve had to survive many different kinds of dominant cultures in order to live, let alone prosper, make things, make a mark. It takes a hugely ambitious artist to say that I will speak to these people—my people—in a voice we can all understand, together, just us, and if anyone else wants to follow, they can. To do that, Toni closed the door on what far too many writers and artists of color become preoccupied with when they make, directly or indirectly, “whiteness” their subject. Toni kicked patriarchy to the curb with barely a backward glance.
Part of the extraordinary power of “Sula” is that it’s a world where men are not the focus. It’s the sound of women’s voices that takes precedence, makes the story. About two-thirds through the book, Sula, an artist without an art, a free colored woman, returns to the town where she grew up and where she was raised, in part, by her grandmother Eva.
Sula threw herself on Eva’s bed. “The rest of my stuff will be on later.”
“I should hope so. Them little old furry tails ain’t going to do you no more good than they did the fox that was wearing them.”
“Don’t you say hello to nobody when you ain’t seen them for ten years?”
“If folks let somebody know where they is and when they coming, then other folks can get ready for them. If they don’t—if they just pop in all sudden like—then they got to take whatever mood they find.”
“How you been doing, Big Mamma?”
“Gettin’ by. Sweet of you to ask. You was quick enough when you wanted something. When you needed a little change or . . . ”
“Don’t talk to me about how much you gave me, Big Mamma, and how much I owe you or none of that.”
“Oh? I ain’t supposed to mention it?”
“OK. Mention it.” Sula shrugged and turned over on her stomach, her buttocks toward Eva.
“You ain’t been in this house ten seconds and already you starting something.”
“Takes two, Big Mamma.”
“Well, don’t let your mouth start nothing that your ass can’t stand. When you gone to get married? You need to have some babies. It’ll settle you.”
“I don’t want to make somebody else. I want to make myself.”
“Selfish. Ain’t no woman got no business floatin’ around without no man.”
“Not by choice.”
“Not by choice, I said. It ain’t right for you to want to stay off by yourself. You need . . . I’m a tell you what you need.”
Sula sat up. “I need you to shut your mouth.”
“Don’t nobody talk to me like that. Don’t nobody . . . ”
“This body does. Just ’cause you was bad enough to cut off your own leg you think you got a right to kick everybody with the stump.”
“Who said I cut off my leg?”
“Well, you stuck it under a train to collect insurance.”
“Hold on, you lyin’ heifer!”
“I aim to.”
“Bible say honor thy father and thy mother that thy days may be long upon the land thy God giveth thee.”
“Mamma must have skipped that part. Her days wasn’t too long.”
“Pus mouth! God’s going to strike you!”
“Which God? The one watched you burn Plum?”
“Don’t talk to me about no burning. You watched your own mamma. You crazy roach! You the one should have been burnt!”
“But I ain’t. Got that? I ain’t. Any more fires in this house, I’m lighting them!”
“Hellfire don’t need lighting and it’s already burning in you . . . ”
“Whatever’s burning in me is mine!”
“And I’ll split this town in two and everything in it before I’ll let you put it out!”
“Pride goeth before a fall.”
“What the hell do I care about falling?”
The brilliance of this conversation is in its economy and the reality of the women’s talk: if you grew up anywhere near these types of characters, it’s like listening to a transcript of dialogue that you’ve heard in the privacy of your own home, or a relative’s. Sula shows her ass to show her anger, and then some.
When Toni talked about writers and books she admired, like Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” she let it be known that she was a little annoyed by Ellison’s presupposition that his protagonist didn’t exist in the world because white people didn’t see him. Ellison’s protagonist wasn’t invisible to her, she said; she knew those guys. And she showed us how her other characters knew her men: sometimes in anger, sometimes in strife, always with great interest. She turned the mirror of the world—her world—on them, and in doing so forced her male characters to do what black men weren’t supposed to do very well in real life: stay, if only for a time. And by having them stay, they changed things, even if they were crazy, like Shadrack, in “Sula” (1973), or the doomed Plum, in the same novel, or the tyrannical Macon Dead II, in “Song of Solomon” (1977), or the dead Bill Cosey, in “Love” (2003), or Frank Money, a latter-day Odysseus searching for his sister, in “Home” (2012). The point is the men were engaged, seen.
In “Tar Baby” (1981), we meet Jadine, a black fashion model who falls in love with Son, a renegade soul. Class, one of the great, unexplored subjects in our disparate black American life, is what separates them, ultimately, but I don’t think even Morrison’s pal, James Baldwin, saw that. In an interview that Baldwin gave with Quincy Troupe toward the end of his life, he said that Toni was an allegorist, but that’s not really true. Baldwin came of age as a novelist during the days of “From Here to Eternity” and “The Naked and the Dead”—an epoch defined by “muscular prose” and stories steeped in realism. Baldwin got lost in Toni’s atmosphere, which she sometimes got lost in, too. In a 1981 interview, she said, “I must confess, though, that I sometimes lose interest in the characters and get much more interested in the trees and animals. I think I exercise tremendous restraint in this, but my editor says, ‘Would you stop this beauty business.’ And I say, ‘Wait, wait until I tell you about these ants.’ ”
Toni, an avid gardener, was a naturalist in a world where nature had been abused, and used for commerce, just as the bodies that harvested it were used for commerce. Nature appears through the cracks of many of her books. Sometimes flowers don’t grow in her stories, because life is stunted in one place; sometimes the junk surrounding junked lives becomes a kind of garden. Close your eyes and remember poor doomed Pecola Breedlove at the end of “The Bluest Eye,” pecking among all that broken glass, with her dream of beauty—white beauty—contributing to her downfall. Or the outrageously lush landscape that makes up the ground at Isle des Chevaliers, in “Tar Baby,” or the woods and plain in “A Mercy” (2008): the outside world is beautiful and remains beautiful, even after we get our hands on it. Sometimes, when I read her, I think of that extraordinary remark by Diane Arbus, when she described the beauty and despair she found when photographing in nudist colonies: “It gets to seem as if way back in the Garden of Eden after the Fall, Adam and Eve had begged the Lord to forgive them and He, in his boundless exasperation had said, ‘All right, then. Stay. Stay in the Garden. Get civilized. Procreate. Muck it up.’ And they did.”
Toni’s greatness as a novelist had a lot to do with her skill—her great ability—to show how we mucked up the landscape, not just in the world but in ourselves. Slavery was one way we mucked it up, of course, and the enormous wound at the center of “Beloved” (1988) has to do with how slavery not only killed bodies but made a mess of our minds, thus creating a particularly American way of thinking. Because of this history, Toni’s characters live in her stories and stand outside of the action at the same time. Her late masterpiece, “A Mercy,” is a novel about the mental institution of slavery in this country, but, on another level, the book is about voices and how those voices fill a new American landscape with difference: We all came from somewhere else, so what makes an American? One of the more powerful voices in “A Mercy” belongs to Florens, a young woman whose search for love leads her to some pretty dangerous places, including a deep vulnerability of the heart. You can hear it in her voice, especially after her lover, the Blacksmith, leaves her on the plantation where she’s a slave.
Since your leaving with no goodbye, summer passes, then autumn, and with the waning of winter the sickness comes back. Not like before with Sorrow but with Sir . . . You probably don’t know anything at all about what your back looks like whatever the sky holds: sunlight, moonrise. I rest there. My hand, my eyes, my mouth. The first time I see it you are shaping fire with bellows. The shine of water runs down your spine and I have shock at myself for wanting to lick there.
Toni’s Florens is an imagined voice rooted in the author’s brilliant ability and desire to feel what flesh feels like outside one’s own experience, and what it takes for love to survive, even when it’s been left. Her work is a more-than-credible argument for the power of invention. “Stop thinking about saving your face,” she said, in her 1993 Nobel Prize speech. “And tell us your particularized world. Make up a story.” She made up stories, all right, tales she developed within a distinctly literary context. Indeed, she’s not given enough credit for being a high modernist, the equal to the modernists she admired and wrote about in graduate school: Faulkner and Virginia Woolf. She also adored Gabriel García Márquez, another novelist who was interested in the corrosive and redemptive power of natural phenomena, plant life, and the earth. Once she asked me what I thought of his work. I confessed that I hadn’t read it in a long time. She smiled, and said, “Me? I gobble it all up.”
What these artists have in common, of course, is a grandness of intention shaped by certain ideas of what fiction can do and should do for the reader of literary books. From the beginning, Toni was working on several levels at once, but complexity of thought—ideas in fiction—was chief among her concerns. Nearly equal to that was the desire to find the plasticity in language, that which can bend and flow with a character’s thoughts and feelings. This is different from being postmodernist. As a postmodernist, she would have had to intrude on the story with her own observations and comments, and where would the fiction be in that? If she were going to create a fractured world, as she did in “Jazz” (1992), the fracture had to exist in whole cloth, so to speak, which is to say within a narrative that she shaped and controlled.
She believed that storytelling was the best way “to learn anything.” Part of what readers respond to in her work is how she gives them the copyright on their own lives. And she created the illusion, at times, that her characters arrived at your doorstep, full-blown. (She used to joke that Pilate, in “Song of Solomon,” was so powerful a presence when she was writing her novel that she had to remind the brilliant matriarch that it was her book.) But not one of them could have found their freedom without her extraordinary discipline. It was the discipline underlying her craft that allowed us to hear her fictional citizens as they talked to one another and themselves, thus allowing Toni’s readers to talk to and listen to themselves, as well.
Still, no matter the individual isolation of Toni’s characters, they are generally given the opportunity to speak to someone else; this was one way she showed us their complexity in the world. Claudia and Pecola, in “The Bluest Eye”; Nel and Sula, in “Sula”; Milkman and Guitar, in “Song of Solomon”; Jadine and Son, in “Tar Baby”; Sethe and Denver and Beloved, in “Beloved”; Joe and Violet and Dorcas, in “Jazz”; the women in “Paradise”—all of these beings are alone together and made up of a multiplicity of intention, of hate and love, creation and destruction, hope and crap. Sometimes the love is strongest between two men, sometimes between two women, and sometimes, now, I wonder what it would have been like for her to create a world that was as fluid as her language, one where gender wasn’t seen in opposition to or in support of itself and just was. What an interesting, provocative thing to say, she might have said. And then she would have tucked the idea away, maybe, to make use of at a later date, perhaps, in yet another one-of-a-kind of novel.