In Memoriam: Toni Morrison

This morning’s news broke my heart: the great Toni Morrison is dead. I found tears coming to my eyes when I understood that no more great works could come from this titan of world literature. I have only read two novels by Ms. Morrison, and I have seen and read some of her interviews, watched part of a documentary on her. But her impact and influence has been significant upon my literary development.

My senior year in high school, Morrison’s Song of Solomon was part of our AP English curriculum. I had begun working on a novel, been reading more sophisticated novels, and thinking seriously that down the line, I would be an English professor. Song of Solomon was indeed quite a hefty, challenging novel, and I sat with my pink highlighter in hand, trying to mark the important passages. And after reading chapter after chapter, something finally hit me: Morrison used recurring symbols and motifs. And in my late teenager’s mind, that’s how I realized what real literature was – it had symbols! There was something about Morrison’s language and imagery that was built into the structure of the novel in a deeper way than anything else I had read. It made a profound impression on me, and I would indeed say that book was what really taught me what Literature with a capital L was.

Flash forward years later to 2018. I am in my MFA program at Warren Wilson, in my third semester, and we are required to write a long analytical essay of 30-45 pages. I want to study omniscience, and I am adamant that I use Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as my key text. My advisor concurs, but also insists that I add a second novel in which I will study omniscience. He suggests Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and refines my topic to looking at how omniscience moves in scene and zooms in and out. I agree to that, as I feel I need to become more familiar with Morrison’s work, and knowing that she is truly one of the greats of modern literature. I’m also happy to have a second female author whose work I will analyze, especially a minority woman writer. Part of the challenge of writing my essay is that I have to select the passages I analyze myself.

Morrison’s novel is not entirely written in omniscience; in fact the omniscient passages are limited. Once I do hone in on the two chapters of each novel I will analyze and compare, I noticed that there is a parallel between the novels. In each novel, there is a “groundwork” or “hologram” chapter in which the themes and ideas of the whole novel are encapsulated in one chapter. This is usually fairly early on in the novel. I do indeed study how Morrison uses omniscience, and what also strikes me significantly is Morrison’s use of diction. Her word choices really do a lot to create the setting, work with the themes of the novel, and add a layer of complexity to her fiction. For example, the way she describes the Breedloves’ neighborhood and house is very detached and apathetic, the family dynamic is very detached as well. This is crucial, because this sets up the contrast to what will happen to young Pecola Breedlove in the novel, and how her community by and large ignores this tragedy. In one of the obituary articles I read this morning, Morrison noted that one of her goals in writing was to bring attention to one of the most vulnerable members of society: a young black female. This is exactly what she does in The Bluest Eye.

I recently returned from a Warren Wilson alumni conference where I taught a class on diction. Naturally, I used a few passages from The Bluest Eye. Morrison is really a master of language and diction, and anyone who is interested in this topic should read her work critically.

I recall that once in an interview several years ago, someone asked her about the canon, given that she herself is African-American and the canon has largely been white male and needs to be diversified and more reflective of American society. Her answer was simple–“add to it.” Morrison read all the greats of the old canon as a child. I think this is something all minority writers need to do, even if they choose to diverge from it or even bash it. Nobel laureate poet Derek Walcott (whom I got to see at a very small talk at the University of California San Diego several years ago) also was very well-versed in the canon, though he is considered a key representative of Caribbean writing.

The literary community has indeed suffered a devastating loss, but I suppose Morrison would want us to move forward while also understanding American history, specifically, Black history. She has left us a lot of good ways to do this through her writing.

 

Southern Lit: An Interview with Lane Osborne

Today’s post is an interview with a Man of Letters. Lane Osborne is a Lecturer of English at Coastal Carolina University, creative writing fiction MFA student, and Southern gentleman who is one of my classmates at Warren Wilson. I am very much a Northerner in my sensibility and in the places I’ve lived, so I thought it would be interesting to get a broader perspective on the literature from a different region of the United States. I read a number of Southern writers during my second semester, which was a necessary part of my literary education, as I had read very little literature by Southern writers before.

SS: If I remember correctly, you are originally from Ohio, as am I! What took you to the south, and how did you get interested in Southern literature?

LO: My parents worked for the federal government, so two of my brothers were born in Africa, one in Alabama, and I was born and raised in a small town outside of Dayton, Ohio. I moved to South Carolina, where my mother’s side of the family is from, to attend college and have lived here ever since. I think my interest in writers in and around this area was simply born out of a desire to understand and appreciate the place I’ve called home for nearly thirty years now—no different than enjoying the local arts, cuisine, or coastal landscape.

SS: It’s always hard to generalize characteristics about a group of people or an artistic movement. But are there some commonalities or characteristics you would note about literature from the South? Obviously, one would be the geography and the place. But what does “Southern literature” mean to you?

LO: Well, “southern,” by definition, does speak to a particular geography, but it’s more than that.
I see place as not only the given topography, but also its history and culture. I generally tend to resist thinking of literature in regional terms, though, because I find it, like any label, a little limiting, especially for those writers whose work is so thoughtfully crafted and compelling that it transcends beyond those borders. However, if there’s one distinction that tends to set Southern writers apart from other writers, it may well be that they’re inherently good storytellers. The oral tradition is still time-honored in these parts.

SS: I think that’s what makes the literature so rich. Who are, in your mind, some of the best Southern writers and why? And are there some great writers who capture the South who aren’t originally from the region?

LO: I admire the work of canonized writers like William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, and Flannery O’Connor, but there’s also a strong contingency of contemporary writers from the South I really enjoy too like Tom Franklin, Ron Rash, and Jesmyn Ward, whose work Michael Parker introduced me to—himself, by the way, a writer from the Carolinas whose work I also admire for its attention to language and sense of place. And maybe Cormac McCarthy might qualify as a non-native “Southern writer” whose work I’ve enjoyed. He was born in Rhode Island, but grew up in Tennessee, and, I think, still lives in El Paso, where he’s been for years.

SS: What changes have you seen in Southern literature over time? Like, say, if you were to compare 19-century works with 20/21st century ones?

LO: That’s a great question, and one I’m not sure I have an answer for. I can certainly attest that the landscape of the South has evolved in the time I’ve lived here, so it stands to reason that the literature produced in this area has along with it. But it’s not something I’ve been attuned to enough to offer any valuable input.

SS: And of course, there is the elephant in the room: the issue of race and slavery. What can you tell us about that?

LO: Well, they differ slightly in that slavery is a historical feature principally found in the South, while racism remains a current, cultural feature of the entire American landscape—found in a Starbucks in Philadelphia, in a Yale dormitory, outside an Airbnb in Rialto. I feel as though we have a responsibility as writers to address those issues, among others, in our work, irrespective of what region of the world we’re from.

SS: Well said! We tend to label the South as the only region with racism when really, it is widespread. Also, the South is known as the “Bible Belt.” How does religion play out in the literature?

LO: I suppose it depends on the story, the writer, and what he or she hopes to accomplish as to whether or not religion plays a role. I’ve read stories where faith is central in the telling of the tale, and others where there’s no mention of it at all.

SS: Thank you, Lane, for taking the time for this interview!

LO: The pleasure was mine!