How Toni Morrison fostered a generation of black writers

No. 2245 Elyria Avenue in Lorain, Ohio, is a two-story frame house surrounded by look-alikes. Its small front porch is littered with the discards of former tenants: a banged-up bicycle wheel, a plastic patio chair, a garden hose. Most of its windows are boarded up. Behind the house, which is painted lettuce green, there’s a patch of weedy earth and a heap of rusting car parts. Seventy-two years ago, the novelist Toni Morrison was born here, in this small industrial town twenty-five miles west of Cleveland, which most citydwellers would consider “out there.” The air is redolent of nearby Lake Erie and new-mown grass.

From Morrison’s birthplace it’s a couple of miles to Broadway, where there’s a pizzeria, a bar with sagging seats, and a brown building that sells dingy and dilapidated secondhand furniture. This is the building Morrison imagined when she described the house of the doomed Breedlove family in her first novel, “The Bluest Eye”: “There is an abandoned store on the southeast corner of Broadway and Thirty-fifth Street in Lorain, Ohio,” she wrote. “It does not recede into its background of leaden sky, nor harmonize with the gray frame houses and black telephone poles around it. Rather, it foists itself on the eye of the passerby in a manner that is both irritating and melancholy. Visitors who drive to this tiny town wonder why it has not been torn down, while pedestrians, who are residents of the neighborhood, simply look away when they pass it.”

Love and disaster and all the other forms of human incident accumulate in Morrison’s fictional houses. In the boarding house where the heroine of Morrison’s second novel, “Sula,” lives, “there were rooms that had three doors, others that opened on the porch only and were inaccessible from any other part of the house; others that you could get to only by going through somebody’s bedroom.” This is the gothic, dreamlike structure in whose front yard Sula’s mother burns to death, “gesturing and bobbing like a sprung jack-in-the-box,” while Sula stands by watching, “not because she was paralyzed, but because she was interested.”

Morrison’s houses don’t just shelter human dramas; they have dramas of their own. “124 was spiteful,” she writes in the opening lines of “Beloved” (1987). “Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way.” Living and dead ghosts ramble through No. 124, chained to a history that claims its inhabitants. At the center of Morrison’s new novel, “Love,” is a deserted seaside hotel—a resort where, in happier times, blacks danced and socialized and swam without any white people complaining that they would contaminate the water—built by Bill Cosey, a legendary black entrepreneur, and haunted by his memory.

Morrison spends about half her time in a converted boathouse that overlooks the Hudson in Rockland County. The boathouse is a long, narrow, blue structure with white trim and large windows. A decade ago, when Morrison was in Princeton, where she teaches, it burned to the ground. Because it was a very cold winter, the water the firefighters used froze several important artifacts, including Morrison’s manuscripts. “But what they can’t save are little things that mean a lot, like your children’s report cards,” she told me, her eyes filling with tears. She shook her head and said, “Let’s not go there.”

We were in the third-floor parlor, furnished with overstuffed chairs covered in crisp gray linen, where we talked over the course of two days last summer. Sun streamed through the windows and a beautiful blue-toned abstract painting by the younger of her two sons, Slade, hung on the wall. As we chatted, Morrison wasn’t in the least distracted by the telephone ringing or the activities of her housekeeper or her secretary. She is known for her powers of concentration. When she is not writing or teaching, she likes to watch “Law & Order” and “Waking the Dead”—crime shows that offer what she described as “mild engagement with a satisfying structure of redemption.” She reads and rereads novels by Ruth Rendell and Martha Grimes.

Morrison had on a white shirt over a black leotard, black trousers, and a pair of high-heeled alligator sandals. Her long silver dreadlocks cascaded down her back and were gathered at the end by a silver clip. When she was mock-amazed by an insight, she flushed. Her light-brown eyes, with their perpetually listening or amused expression, are the eyes of a watcher—and of someone who is used to being watched. But if she is asked a question she doesn’t appreciate, a veil descends over her eyes, discontinuing the conversation. (When I tried to elicit her opinion about the novels of one of her contemporaries, she said, “I hear the movie is fab,” and turned away.) Morrison’s conversation, like her fiction, is conducted in high style. She underlines important points by making showy arabesques with her fingers in the air, and when she is amused she lets out a cry that’s followed by a fusillade of laughter.

“You know, my sister Lois was just here taking care of me,” she said. “I had a cataract removed in one eye. Suddenly, the world was so bright. And I looked at myself in the mirror and wondered, Who is that woman? When did she get to be that age? My doctor said, ‘You have been looking at yourself through the lens that they shoot Elizabeth Taylor through.’ I couldn’t stop wondering how I got to be this age.”

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