We all remember where we were when the collective community celebrated or mourned something momentous. Last week, I was sitting in a classroom at Howard University during a Hurston-Wright workshop for Black writers led by bestselling author Nicole Dennis-Benn. As I read aloud the words I’d just composed for a writing prompt, one of my classmates gasped. Then there was a knock at the door. We’d lost our literary light, Toni Morrison.
During my sophomore year at Northwestern University, Professor Leon Forrest assigned Beloved and Song of Solomon as required reading for our literature class. I struggled with language too dense and ideas too complex for my immature imagination to hold. Sadly, I admit I didn’t pick up Morrison’s work again until years later when I’d done enough living to understand how she’d held a mirror up to my own interior life. She gave me permission to write boldly and unapologetically about blackness while centering no one’s gaze but my own.
As writers, we learn craft best by reading works from authors we admire. I studied Morrison’s debut novel, The Bluest Eye, and re-read it many times while writing my own debut. In simple terms, it’s the story of a dark-skinned Black girl’s desire to have blue eyes, but on closer examination, it’s about the roots of racial self-loathing. This book, like all of Morrison’s works, is a master class in storytelling.
Quiet as it’s kept there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941. We thought, at the time, that it was because Pecola was having her father’s baby that the marigolds did not grow.
That’s how Morrison begins The Bluest Eye. Right away, we want to know why some plants or people flourish while others don’t. The author doesn’t withhold information or try to be coy and mysterious. In the first paragraph, we learn that the protagonist has been the victim of pedophilia. That’s the big plot point and she gives it to us in the first two sentences, yet we still want to read on for hundreds of pages. Also, on page one, the narrator dares to explain why this story structure is brilliant:
There is really nothing more to say—except why. But since why is difficult to handle, one must take refuge in how.
In that opening, Morrison intrigues us, establishes an emotional connection, and assures us we’re in capable hands as she takes us on the journey of Pecola’s story.
The most memorable characters stay with us long after we’ve finished the novel because they’re complex and multi-dimensional. We may not like them because they’re unlikeable, but when they’re well-drawn, we understand them and empathize. Let’s look at Cholly Breedlove, the abusive, cowardly antagonist who beats his wife and impregnates his daughter.
First, the surname Morrison chose for this character begs attention. It wasn’t until I finished the novel that I realized that Cholly couldn’t “breed love” because he’d rarely experienced receiving love. Presenting Cholly Breedlove as merely a hateful predator would have been too easy and simplistic. We’re all more than the evil we inflict.
Morrison expertly wove in backstory where we learn that Cholly was abandoned by his mother and rejected by his father. When Cholly was just a boy getting to know a girl he liked, still fumbling and awkward in his innocence, racists forced him to perform sexual acts with the girl for their entertainment. This is a pedophile, yet through layering, Morrison helps us understand this man—not to forgive his predation, but to understand the source of his demons.
The way characters speak to each other reveals who they are, where they come from, and what they want most in the world. The most revealing dialogue for me in this novel is an extensive conversation between Pecola and her imaginary friend. By this point in the story, our protagonist has descended into madness, believing she’s achieved real beauty and she has this inner dialogue about her new, blue eyes:
Boy, I never thought you would be so jealous.
Oh, come on.
Okay, so I’m jealous.
See, I told you.
No, I told you.
Are they really nice?
Just very nice?
Really, truly, very nice.
Really truly, bluely nice?
Oh God, you are crazy.
I am not!
Imagine if Morrison had provided exposition stating that Pecola suffers from divided consciousness and has indulged in an unhealthy obsession about her blackness and desperation for the white, European standards of beauty. We’d have an accurate, academic assessment of Pecola’s plight, but we’d lack this interiority that Morrison gives us through dialogue.
I’d never seen truth and humanity presented so perfectly on the page until I read The Bluest Eye. Every sentence cuts to the bone and leaves the reader breathless, reflecting on the characters and themselves. Morrison’s use of language is unparalleled, and I marvel at her art. In this passage, Pecola’s young friends contemplate their own complicity in the making of pitiful Pecola.
All of our waste which we dumped on her and which she absorbed. And all of our beauty, which was hers first and which she gave to us. All of us–all who knew her–felt so wholesome after we cleaned ourselves on her. We were so beautiful when we stood astride her ugliness. Her simplicity decorated us, her guilt sanctified us, her pain made us glow with health, her awkwardness made us think we had a sense of humor. Her inarticulateness made us believe we were eloquent. Her poverty kept us generous. Even her waking dreams we used–to silence our own nightmares. And she let us, and thereby deserved our contempt. We honed our egos on her, padded our characters with her frailty, and yawned in the fantasy of our strength.
In that one short excerpt, you can hear the rhythm of her prose. Poetic and lyrical. Most of all, it rings true. Morrison crafted every sentence meticulously, precisely, to give us a visceral experience that moves us.
While Morrison’s physical body is no longer with us, her body of work lives on, offering a roadmap to help us tell authentic, important, and unforgettable stories.
How have Morrison’s novels influenced your own writing? Share some examples with us or reflect on the excerpts above.
About Nancy Johnson
Nancy E. Johnson is a writer with an Emmy-nominated, award-winning television journalism background. Her stories often explore life’s complexities at the intersection of race and class. She was named runner-up for the 2018 James Jones First Novel Fellowship Award. Her work has appeared in O, The Oprah Magazine and has received support from the Hurston/Wright Foundation, Tin House Summer Novel Workshop, and Kimbilio Fiction. Also, Nancy served an advisory board member for Author Accelerator’s diversity scholarship program. When Nancy’s not writing, you can often find her exploring bookstores, festivals, and restaurants in her hometown of Chicago. Nancy is represented by Danielle Bukowski at Sterling Lord Literistic.
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Author: Nancy Johnson