Toni Morrison & Historical Fiction

August 9, 2019
The passing of Toni Morrison on August 5 at age 88 probably means millions of readers pulling her books from their shelves to find the underlined passages and re-live the power and beauty of her language. I know I did.
Earlier this week, Democracy Now with Amy Goodman welcomed Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, and Angela Davis to speak on their friend’s passing. That episode is well worth a view on YouTube, and I was especially intrigued to learn about Morrison’s career as a book editor. Many of us have gotten to know Sister Sonia during her visits to Lexington for the series named after her, and it’s gratifying to hear her thoughts on Morrison.
Sadly, we were never able to bring Toni Morrison to KyWomenWriters. As one of a handful of American Nobel Prize winners in the past 50 years, she was simply too big of a star for most writers conferences, and I would not have wanted a more active schedule of public appearances to diminish her output by even one chapter. Morrison gave plenty of TV interviews over the years, and one of them, included in the episode above, gives a glimpse of the battles she sometimes had to fight in those. It was in 1998, six years after winning the Nobel Prize and with a Pulitzer also under her belt, that Morrison was interviewed by the Australian journalist Jana Wendt, who asked,
“You don’t think you’ll ever change and write books that incorporate white lives into them substantially?”
“I have done,” Morrison began.
“In a substantial way?” Wendt pressed.
“You can’t understand how powerfully racist that question is,” replied Morrison calmly. “You could never ask a white author, when are you going to write about black people? . . . . Being an African American writer is sort of like being a Russian writer, who writes about Russia, in Russian, for Russians, and the fact that it gets translated and read by other people is a benefit. It’s a plus, but he’s not obliged to ever consider writing about French people or Americans or anybody.”
If we have made any progress in 20 years, one hopes such a question is not something today’s writers of color have to contend with. But the exchange is also fascinating in light of a character in Morrison’s 2008 novel, A Mercy, set in 1680s Maryland. Has any author ever inhabited the mind of a white male trader from three hundred years ago with greater sympathy and imagination?
Despite the long sail in three vessels down three different bodies of water, and now the hard ride over the Lenape trail, he took delight in the journey. Breathing the air of a world so new, almost alarming in its rawness and temptation, never failed to invigorate him. Once beyond the warm gold of the bay, he saw forests untouched since Noah, shorelines beautiful enough to bring tears, wild food for the taking. The lies of the Company about the easy profit awaiting all comers did not surprise or discourage him. In fact it was hardship, adventure, that attracted him. His whole life had been a mix of confrontation, risk and placating. Now here he was, a ratty orphan become landowner, making a place out of no place, a temperate living from raw life. He relished never knowing what lay in his path, who might approach with what intention. A quick thinker, he flushed with pleasure when a crisis, large or small, needed invention and fast action. (p. 13).
Taking place in a time so distant from ours, A Mercy is utterly compelling  and believable in its characterizations, and the disbelief is suspended even as the narrative shifts to the mother-daughter pairing at the center of the novel, in a world wrought by religion and slavery. Not one of Morrison’s better known works, A Mercy is still one of the best novels I’ve ever read.
            Women of color in historical fiction is the subject of a panel discussion I’ll be moderating at KyWomenWriters2019 entitled, “Female Protagonists in Historical Fiction: Agency, Verisimilitude, and the Challenges of Portraying Underrepresented Cultures. ChantelAcevedo and Margaret Verble are the panelists, and both have written multiple historical novels. Slots are still available in Acevedo’s fiction workshop entitled, “The Power of Place,” as well as in many others. To register for KyWomenWriters2019 on Sept. 19–22, please visit our website or call 859-257-2874.
Julie Wrinn
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