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The response to Toni Morrison’s death shows the power of literature

Since the death of American writer, Toni Morrison, this week, a chorus of writers and readers has paid tribute to the role her words played in their lives.

Hailed by many as America’s greatest writer, Morrison explored race, family, power, freedom, love and hope. Her writing, while lyrical and beautiful, was not easy to read, but that didn’t stop many people around the world being touched by her words.

On reading what might be Morrison’s most famous novel, Beloved, 2019 Miles Franklin award winner Melissa Lucashenko realised,

“This was the novel that showed how very limited my vision of fiction had been, how prosaic. “Oh,” I thought in wild joy as I read, “This! This – this – is the nourishment we need for the long hard journey, this is how characters can breathe and love and be, this beating heart of Story is the Blak path to redemption, this, this, this!””

In The Guardian, writer Afua Hirsch explained Morrison’s legacy in her life: “As a mixed-race girl battling self-loathing, I was inspired by her fiction. Later, her activism would drive me to write.”

And it wasn’t just the experience of racism that Morrison explored in her books. As a single mother, snatching moments outside her regular job to write her first novel, she also wrote with a feminist sensibility.

Her words in Beloved formed the perfect response to mansplaining before it had even emerged as a popular term:

“He licked his lips. ‘Well, if you want my opinion-”
‘I don’t,’ she said. ‘I have my own.’”

Prominent researcher and bestselling author Brene Brown wrote of how Morrison’s words had changed the way she parented her children: “Toni Morrison explained that it’s interesting to watch what happens when a child walks into a room. She asked, “Does your face light up?”

Morrison explained,

“When my children used to walk in the room when they were little, I looked at them to see if they had buckled their trousers or if their hair was combed or if their socks were up. You think your affection and your deep love is on display because you’re caring for them. It’s not. When they see you, they see the critical face. What’s wrong now?”

Her advice was simple, but paradigm-shifting for Brown. Morrison said:

“Let your face speak what’s in your heart. When they walk in the room my face says I’m glad to see them. It’s just as small as that, you see?””

Just months ago, I reread Beloved and it caused me to rethink my own sometimes blasé approach to parenting, in which I took for granted the health and freedom of my children. I realised what a privilege it was to freely love and care for my own children, and to see a positive future for them.

The tributes to Morrison were a powerful reminder of the role that literature can play in changing minds and lives, in different ways for different groups and individuals.

It can open up conversations about the crime and punishment (Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song), expose the humanity in the angry and disenfranchised (The Shepherd’s Hut), and offer insight and understanding where there is difference (The Rosie Project).

The unrepresented can feel seen in the pages of a book, and the misunderstood can be understood in a way that is both public and personal.

In literature, the quietest voices can be heard, whether it is the neglected child (Justine in The Choke), the social misfit (Eleanor Oliphant) or even the mythical witch (Circe).

It was a measured and quiet, but penetrating voice in which Morrison spoke when she explained her work, and how she felt that her words were a communion with the reader. Her books took work and effort on behalf of the reader, and Morrison spoke about her intention to ensure that readers were part of the process of building understanding of what she had written.

As Morrison wrote:

“We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”

Like the very best literature, Morrison’s language changed us all, for the better.

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