Monday, February 18, 2013

The Dominion of Toni Morrison

Today is the birthday of Toni Morrison, the first African-American to win the Nobel prize.  I consumed her books when I was in college and grad school..  Now I approach them more cautiously.

There's lyrical language that I love. I know that not everyone shares my preference. I knew my participation in a writer's group was doomed once, when the dominant member was reading The Bluest Eye, back when Oprah picked it, and couldn't understand all that "crap" that doesn't really advance the narrative. I quietly said, "That's the artistry in the book."

Her books make me once again appreciate being born female in a later time. It also makes me feel fretful, because I know so many females don't share my luck, even though it's the 21st century.  And her books make me relieved I've made it to adulthood, because she shows how terribly vulnerable children are. 

I haven't read her latest book, Home, but I did read A Mercy a few years ago. I cannot recommend her book enough. I love that it's relatively short. I love that it shows me a view of colonial life (about 1690) that is fresh to me; we often forget how disorganized our American colonies really were, and this book sheds light on that fact.

The new world in the book is shown as full of opportunities, but there's a dark edge to her depiction. These female characters are perched on a precarious brink, and it doesn't take much to make them tumble.

As with all her books, Morrison gives us ethics lessons throughout. In many ways, the last sentences of the ending chapter sum it all up nicely: ". . . to be given dominion over another is a hard thing; to wrest dominion over another is a wrong thing; to give dominion of yourself to another is a wicked thing" (167). That sentence also sums up all of Morrison's work thus far. 

I plan to read Home eventually.  It, too, is short which means I can get to it sooner rather than later.

Of course, just because her work is short doesn't mean it will be an easy, zippy read.  I remember seeing an interviewer with her, when the book before A Mercy came out, and she admitted to intentionally having made it difficult. The interviewer asked her why she had done that--wasn't she afraid of losing readers?  She said that good literature should take work.  You can read for pleasure, but if the work doesn't require some effort from the reader, it's not really art, is it?

I'll be the first to admit that sometimes, her books just require too much from me.  But then there are other books that engage me, and when that happens, her work is like no other.

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