Last updated on November 14, 2020
Toni Morrison’s life has ended, but her words will endure. Throughout her life as a writer -long before she realised or accepted it herself (to whatever unknowable extent she did so) she was probably the best living writer in the English language and is indisputably one of the greatest writers who has ever lived.
Her writing achieves remarkable things, that many readers instantly recognise, yet precious few writers can do, even occasionally. Read any sentence from this remarkable woman’s body of work and you’ll be richly rewarded. But read it again, and there’s a whole other dimension of reward to be realised. Do so again, and guess what happens…?
Music infuses and informs her writing. Readers don’t have to be familiar with the tunes, or even the genres, for its complex rhythms and tones to envelop our imaginations. And like all the best music, repeated listening (reading) will offer new rewards, unconstrained by familiarity, or what we think we already know. Her skill was not only making us bear witness anew to truths of all kinds -affirming, awkward, joyful and sorrowful -but also to see ourselves and our lives in new, liberating and often transformational ways.
Many great writers take ordinary subjects and fashion them into something special, often changing lives and even the world in doing so. But Toni Morrison achieved something far greater than this. She took the ugliest or most paradoxical truths and rendered them hauntingly beautiful, simply (not so simply!) by telling stories. Stories that we know, or have lived, or have feared, the latter often so much that we couldn’t imagine facing them, let alone reading them.
As a jazz fan, I’m very familiar with the power of gentle insistence. When Horace Silver, or Herbie Hancock, or Ahmad Jamal, or McCoy Tyner, or Cedar Walton, or countless others draw me in not by showing off their virtuosity or daring me to ignore what their melodies say, but by beguiling me with the truthful beauty of their songs. Toni Morrison did the same thing with words on a page, or better yet, with the luminous power of her lilting voice when I was privileged to witness her reading her own work.
And she did so with boundless grace, gentle humour and the kind of loving sternness that those of us lucky enough to have African and other mothers and grandmothers and aunts of a certain vintage know very well, even if we don’t quite dare express the words to articulate it. She told us what we needed to know, whether we wanted to know it or not -and made us grateful that she did.
Unflinching truth seasoned with unerring love is an irresistibly powerful and heady combination, and Toni Morrison always got her blend exactly right. She saw things that we all see but found ways to articulate, critique and celebrate them in ways beyond all but a vanishingly small few of us -and better than anyone else.
The world is an irredeemably poorer place without her presence. And an indescribably richer one for the abundant gifts she has left us.
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