Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am

There is a film coming out that all writers must see, writes Kirsty Allison

Particularly female.

And if you are more of a reader than a writer, or coasting some kind of minority intersection, passive or active, this will also serve you well. And in fear of being misandrist, all men need to watch it too. Why? Because it will make you want to read great writing.

The film opens with this thought: We are all collages of something.

And much as memes are now more circulated than quotes from Nobel Prize winning authors, the impact of Toni, asking, for example, of Ralph Ellison’s brilliant piece of literature – why was it called the Invisible Man – invisible to whom? Her impact is far larger than a series of platitudes.

What Toni did more than any woman before her, was to stand her ground.

“Knock off the lil white male gaze guy on your shoulder – then he’s not there,” she advises. What a teacher she must have been.

Born in Lorain, Ohio, mirroring an escape almost as dazzling as her ancestors, she chased up the country gaining a BA in English from Howard University and a Master of Arts from Cornell, and after divorcing found that to be a single mum bad ass, without a PhD, her teaching could only get her so far.

Reading the small ads, she applied for a job as editor at Random House, and in 1965 began subtly changing society, one of her most proud books was a bestseller which readdressed black history, a Victorian melange called The Black Book – black cowboys – a jumble of everything archive – “people who have been told they don’t have a history”: it was a game of emotional survival.

Her debut, The Bluest Eye (1970) – opens with a girl praying for two years for blue eyes. It explores the pain of colour. It was not lynching and murders, it tackled female friendship and interior pains, the protagonist believing if she had some characteristic of the white world she’d be okay.

Her second book Sula (1973) left one critic wondering when she’d start writing about white people. Why the fuck should she have done?

Although not seeing herself as being able to be much of a Panther, her words blew up a new world, and she was the editorial power behind books from Angela Davis, Huey Newton, and Muhammad Ali.

In this stand out film by Timothy-Greenfield Sanders, the final wisdom of the writer who died at 88, as the film was edited, in late 2019, Davis is featured among other interviews from a brilliant cast of characters as wide as Fran Leibovitz, Robert Gottleib, Hilton Als, and Walter Mosley. Angela Davis was encouraged by Morrison to be more extra, to be evocative – to explain: what was it like, how did you feel.

“What can you do, where you are?” she asked, as Black Power took to the streets.

Alongside the Black movement, Morrison fought through women’s lib: challenging what she called the “master narrative” (the white male) very much from within. “I was more interesting than them,” she cackles.

After casually turning out four novels of her own, changing history, and raising kids, she departed from the day job, to write full time, with some teaching at universities.

Oprah Winfrey basically invented her booklist to bring attention to Toni Morrison – when she read her, she had to track her down – phoning the fire station, and the police of her lakeside town by the Hudson. Only they had her number.

The first black woman to be awarded with the Nobel Prize for literature in 1993, and also having a Pulitzer for fiction, and numerous more – this film, which drops in the UK today, urges you to put down your phone, self-isolate, with a book.

“We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” And what a trove she litters our world with.

Novels

Children’s book (with Slade Morrison)

Short fiction

Plays

Libretto

Non-fiction

Articles

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