Goodbye Toni Morrision, A Champion of Decency and My Imaginary Friend

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Goodbye Toni Morrision, A Champion of Decency and My Imaginary Friend

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

A modern, upper caste, upper class, entitled young woman with a head full of lofty ideals does not seem to have much in common with young black girls from bygone decades, who endured racial hatred, violence, sexual exploitation, and unrelenting poverty. And yet, Toni Morrison, a Pulitzer and Nobel Prize-winning American novelist and editor, and one of the most influential writers of not just her generation, but literary history itself, found a way to make you feel that their stories were really your own, just set in a different time and place. I suppose that’s what they mean when they talk about weaving magic with words. If there really is magic to be found in words, Toni Morrison’s novels would be a great place to start looking. 

I was introduced to her at the haughty age of 19, when everything that falls beyond the scope of your comprehension is declared, with great alacrity, as utter nonsense. Sula and Nel’s friendship (best friends from Morrison’s novel Sula) was too dysfunctional, too messy, and too selfish for me to be able to wrap my head around it. What kind of person breaks up her own best friend’s marriage? Can there really be a daughter who watches her mom practically burn to death with an emotion as mild as curiosity? It was all very unpleasant and confusing to my protected, privileged world view, and so I bid Sula and Toni — or Morrie, as I like to call her in my daydream, the one in which she, me and Elena Ferrante (Morrie and I know her real identity, of course) day drink and gossip, while they give me notes on my soon-to-be-published novel — a hasty goodbye. We stayed strangers for a year. Our separation would have lasted for longer, but for a boyfriend mildly obsessed with her work. Little did I know that this was the start of a beautiful, lifelong love affair. By that, I mean Toni and me, of course. It might have been one-sided and unrequited, but it was still love, okay? 

As daunting and visceral as her prose is, Toni’s legacy, at least in my understanding, is not limited to mastery of the language or hypnotic story-telling.

It’s been almost a dozen years since the then-boyfriend put a copy of Beloved in my reluctant hands, and not a year has gone by since then without a mandatory check-in with Toni. I’ve wept with her every time I’ve read Beloved, wept for her while reading the somewhat autobiographical The Bluest Eye, felt bereft for her rootless protagonists in A Mercy, and felt an almost motherly protectiveness for both Bride and Sweetness in God Help the Child. There are books that made me too terrified or uncomfortable to go back to a second time — like Song of Solomon and Paradise; and those that I return to every couple of years — like The Bluest Eye. I google Toni with the passion of a jilted lover: I never want to birth children, but ask me what she said to Oprah in a 2000 interview about why children need to see their parents’ faces light up when they see them, and I’ll tell you every last word of her little speech. 

As daunting and visceral as her prose is, Toni’s legacy, at least in my understanding, is not limited to mastery of the language or hypnotic story-telling. What she inspires in me is not just the discipline of refining and re-refining a sentence until I’ve arrived at its sharpest iteration, but the desire to be as fiercely political as she was until the very end. Her 2016 New Yorker essay “Mourning for Whiteness”, in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidential win, is one I go back to again and again, in an attempt to understand a world governed by frightening, fascist politics. To read Toni was to be intimate with her politics; and to be intimate with her politics is to challenge, sometimes even annihilate patterns of thought. I haven’t always agreed with her — I’m still not sure how I feel about the 1989 Time interview about teen moms — but she’s forced me to think, think, think. To cultivate convictions and be political. At the peak of our love affair, Toni ensured that I couldn’t buy a jar of face cream without spiralling into a low-key ideological crisis. But then all passionate affairs require a certain degree of ridiculousness and flighty leave-taking of senses. Why should ours have been any different? 

I’ll miss Toni, Morrie, Ms Morrison — as a writer, a champion of decency, and my imaginary friend. Of course, I’ll miss her. Every once or twice in a generation, there comes an author who yanks out your wiring and reprogrammes your system, short circuits be damned. Toni was that person to me.