Toni Morrison, Race, review
Dear readers of my blog,
little did I imagine when first thinking of presenting this book of excerpts to you that this post would become a belated obituary of a writer I only really started to appreciate during our summer holiday.
Toni Morrison, born in Ohio on 18th February 1931, died in New York City on 5th August 2019. In a way I try to pay homage today to a brave woman whose writings when I finally turned to them convinced me at once of a quality I am now sorry not to have tasted of before 15th and 16th July last when I read Race, a short book of essays and extracts from novels I had never even heard talk about.
Here are the bibliographical data for you:
Toni Morrison, Race, London: Vintage, 2017.
I am sure you won’t be unable to find one available very soon at a local bookseller’s. It is also a good occasion to tell them about what kind of writer they, like me, have probably also missed to pass the word on when Morrison was still alive.
What I found most impressive were the female voices emerging from the various texts. Always interested in who is saying what in which way – which I believe to have learned from studying James Joyce very closely – I thought the manner of Toni Morrison to make women speak their minds in writing particularly gripping in her fiction.
While men who create characters in novels by having voices sounding authentic often resemble Shakespeare in that it is not essential whether a man speaks or a woman, there are women who in choosing a truly feminine point of view make sure that what they want to say can only be properly voiced by a woman. I recall quite heated debates in seminar discussions in the early 1990s when I suggested we look at who says what and how in certain theoretical contexts in Joyce’s novel Ulysses.
In the context of Oscar Wilde this issue is important in as much as his female characters on stage, unlike Shakespeare’s, would normally be played by women, with cross-dressing being a blatant transgression at his time, the late Victorian Age, rather than the theatrical norm as in the Elizabethan Age. So while Wilde might have fancied cross-dressing in private, he was not prepared to transgress as much on stage, so that the masks his characters wore were based on language, sexual and/or homosexual innuendo which, interestingly, did not bring about his downfall so much as the written words of his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray.
And, to return to Toni Morrison’s book Race, what is most clearly absent from any of the excerpts is the usual masking of the speaker’s intentions or motivations. This is a rare feature of writing.
A very close reading of her texts would reveal how Morrison pulls off this feat; for the moment I can only say how much I enjoyed to have discovered this singular style. Perhaps it would be easier to point out what is lacking in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, for example, to call it a novel speaking up for women, as it is more concerned with putting racism on the agenda than with showing how race affects the individual woman who then goes on to read the world in the light of her own female identity, a big part of which is also race if the person is an American.
This is something I finally learned from Toni Morrison – whereas witnessing the rhetorical demolition of the Obama Administration by his racist detractors had not allowed me such an insight. As ever so often it was through literature that I have come to see through a political predicament. So do not hesitate to go and buy novels by Toni Morrison if you want to understand what is going on in America at the moment. They will take you a long way back in time and also help to understand the present situation.
Jörg W. Rademacher
Leer, 1st September, revised on 3rd September 2019