Written by Kayla Bollers
This year, we lost a wonderful and inspiring creator with the death of Toni Morrison on August 5th. If a room full of critics or a shelf of scholarly reviews can’t summarize Toni Morrison’s greatness, then a single article will of course struggle to do her justice. But my reverence and admiration for such a powerful literary presence compels me to offer my personal encounter with Morrison and her work. It feels vital to remember her now with the news of her upcoming memorial, both for how she resonated with me personally, and for how she changed the landscape of writing for an entire generation.
My journey with Morrison began when I took an English course last year devoted to her novels. We dove into seven of these works throughout the semester: A Mercy, Beloved, Jazz, Sula, Song of Solomon, The Bluest Eye, and God Help the Child. Those three months flew by faster than I expected them to, and by the end, I found myself clutching onto Morrison’s novels instead of selling them back to the co-op.
Toni Morrison’s literary accomplishments are unprecedented. She was the first Black, female author to hold both the Nobel and Pulitzer prize while she was alive. The literary community even created a Toni Morrison Society during her life, when it is more common to do so posthumously. With these prizes and honors in mind, I humbly add my own tribute. To truly celebrate Morrison’s legacy, I believe it’s important to cherish our interactions with the text and revel in the beauty of her writing, which I have reflected on ever since I discovered her work.
What I find most mesmerizing about Morrison’s novels is their tendency to center around historical, unconventional, and—at times—mythical scenarios. Morrison combines realism with magic and the supernatural to draw a remarkable parallel between her fiction and folklore. These incorporations are thrilling and immersive, particularly in the case of God Help the Child. In this novel, a young woman named Bride discovers that her breasts are missing, and soon finds herself trapped in the body of a little girl. This transformation forces her to confront unresolved traumas, reflecting an internal need for resolution in Morrison’s characters. Until Bride processes her grief and experiences rebirth, the restoration of her body cannot take place in the physical world. Moreover, she must come to terms with her past relationships and the pain that came with them before she can continue to live in the present. Similarly to most folklore, Morrison provides her readers with a moral about the lasting psychological impacts of trauma, both on an individual and a society.
The more I embrace Morrison’s advice and lean into my interests, the more I have watched my writing benefit from the passion I have for these subjects.
I am also fascinated by the way that Morrison incorporates the alternating perspectives of multiple narrators to mimic the conversational rhythm and flow of oral tradition. She uses this more auditory approach to innovate past the standard form of the European novel and to connect more intimately with her readership. I was taken aback by Morrison’s ability to unite distinct voices into such a masterful harmony, combining contradicting perspectives in a way that built momentum rather than fostered confusion. This rings especially true in Part II of her iconic first novel, Beloved. Sethe, Denver, and Beloved’s fragmented voices all intertwine to form a more complete, emotionally potent narrative. This type of storytelling emphasizes the necessity of community, as each character develops through their relationships and connections to other characters. By switching perspectives within a single passage, Morrison allows these characters to tell their story communally, providing voice and agency to a people who have often been silenced by the majority.
As a woman, I find it easy to relate to the frustration of Morrison’s female characters, especially as they struggle against constraining societal norms. Florens’s wounding efforts to win over the blacksmith in A Mercy, for instance, reflects a relatable pressure to please finicky, male authority figures for the slim promise of companionship. Although Morrison’s characters sometimes strive to fill the void with a partner, these advances often result in traumatic (and sometimes deadly) consequences, unveiling the implications of the damaging standards that the patriarchy imposes.
Morrison also captures the crucial, and yet, often misunderstood interactions between daughters and their single mothers, from which Florens’s loneliness originates. Sula and her mother, Hannah, grow distant from a similarly painful encounter, when Sula overhears Hannah tell someone that she likes her but does not love her. Beloved also feels contempt towards her mother, Sethe, who killed her to protect her from the traumas of slavery. These stories forced me to reexamine the relationship I have with my mother, who raised my brother and I alone during our adolescence. Though at times I felt the same pain as Morrison’s daughter characters or a sliver of neglect during our squabbles, I realize in retrospect that my mother faced the same pressures of protecting us and providing for us without the support of a partner. Ultimately, Morrison juxtaposes these mothers’ flaws with their strength in protecting their children, even if their love proves deadly. As Sethe tells Paul D. in Beloved, “Love is or it ain’t. Thin love ain’t love at all.”
Morrison wrote often about racial issues facing her characters. Colorism weighs heavily on the lives of her protagonists, with skintones fetishized depending on their proximity or distance to the white ideal. Morrison also examines her characters’ relationships to Transatlantic slave ancestry, incorporating elements of escape from slavery into Song of Solomon, A Mercy, and Beloved. And while I cannot fully relate to the racial conflicts in Morrison’s novels from the perspective of her Black characters, I appreciate her boldness in tackling these issues. In a society characterized so heavily by denial, it’s easy for us to look away from the headlines and turn off our televisions, but the shootings, murders, and protests revolving around racial inequality still remain. These tensions should unsettle us, and Morrison does not shy away from them. Morrison’s literature forces me to confront my privilege through a more critical lens, while also empathizing with the struggles of her characters.
As a writer, Morrison took risks. Her subjects turned many heads and prompted objection. However, one of her guiding principles in writing was, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” She has inspired me to turn away from fear and pursue some of the more polemic subjects that I’d like to write about, including PTSD, toxic masculinity, climate change, and abuse. The more I embrace Morrison’s advice and lean into my interests, the more I have watched my writing benefit from the passion I have for these subjects.
In Song of Solomon, Morrison writes, “You wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.” This quote has pushed me to recognize the moments in my past that weigh me down: losing friends, seeing my parents fight, my first breakup. Like Bride, I struggle to live in the present, allowing pain from years ago to resurface and hurt all over again. It is comforting to read Morrison’s stories, because even if they don’t always have happy endings, she encourages us to embrace the past instead of running from it. That is what I’ll remember most about Toni Morrison and the invaluable gift of her writing to the world.