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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 April 2019

Book review: Morrison reflects on everything from 'foreignness' to gender disparity

Toni Morrison's collection of essays, 'Mouth Full of Blood: Essays, Speeches, Meditations' is an essential read

Toni Morrison, American writer, novelist and editor. Getty Images
Toni Morrison, American writer, novelist and editor. Getty Images

Home and belonging have been recurring themes throughout Toni Morrison’s novels. However, home is not always where her heart is; it might provide a sense of familiarity or a roof over your head, but it doesn’t necessarily provide safety and comfort.

The Dead House in Morisson’s 1977 novel Song of Solomon is aptly named, while the war veteran hero of her 2012 Home returns to his home town and considers it “the worst place in the world, worse than any battlefields”. Most caustic of all, the Kentucky slave plantation in 1987’s Beloved is called Sweet Home.

Of course, there is a second theme and a more pressing concern that underpins Morrison’s whole oeuvre, both fiction and non-fiction, and that is race. Over the course of the last half-century, few people have written so forcefully, so memorably, about the struggles of 20th-­century African-Americans.

Over the course of the last half-century, few people have written so forcefully, so memorably, about the struggles of 20th-­century African-Americans.

In a new collection of Morrison’s essays, speeches and meditations, the author explains that “matters of race and matters of home are priorities in my work and both have in one way or another initiated my search for sovereignty”. Spanning the past 50 years, Mouth Full of Blood allows Morrison to find new angles in which to explore these themes. She also examines various other subjects, such as gender, globalisation, art, literature, money, history and politics, and each time brings to bear a focus, an inquiring mind and an impressive way with words.

Mouth Full of Blood by Toni Morrison published by Chatto & Windus. Courtesy Penguin UK
Mouth Full of Blood by Toni Morrison published by Chatto & Windus. Courtesy Penguin UK

The 43 pieces in the book are grouped into two main sections. The first part, The Foreigner’s Home, deals predominantly with identity and our place within fractured or judgmental societies. In the titular piece, Morrison scrutinises our allegiances and affiliations, asking how we decide where we belong and what convinces us that we truly do. “Or put another way, what is the matter with foreignness?”

In Home, the author begins with a definition (“home is memory and companions and/or friends who share the ­memory”), before looking at how the idea of “home” has been disrupted by the relocation of peoples and increased distrust of outsiders. Originally presented as a lecture in 2009, the all-too-familiar references to rising walls, porous borders and forced separation lend the piece a depressing topicality. It was written 10 years ago, but it could have been yesterday.

In ­Cinderella’s Stepsisters Morrison employs the classic fairytale as a springboard to discuss the violence – professional, competitive and emotional – that women bestow on one another.

Elsewhere, in a speech for Amnesty International, a more incensed Morrison rails against American injustice, brought about by a series of failed domestic policies, while she campaigns for a doubling of efforts and a renewed battle against “cultivated ignorance, enforced silence, and metastasising lies”.

Two quieter but no less potent speeches keep us rapt through their surprise turns. In her Nobel lecture, Morrison spins a fable about the vitality of language, and in ­Cinderella’s Stepsisters she employs the classic fairytale as a springboard to discuss the violence – professional, competitive and emotional – that women bestow on one another.

The book’s second part, God’s Language, consists ­largely of what Morrison describes as “the fiction project”. After a heartfelt eulogy to American novelist James Baldwin, she dilates on books and writers and the art of literature. Part of this section’s title essay takes the form of an ­extended entry in a writer’s journal and contains thoughts, observations and sketches of scenes. In The Writer Before the Page, Morrison gives us an insight into her craft, and elsewhere turns the spotlight on her own novels and illuminates their content and their creation.

Sandwiched between these sections are seven compositions that make up an interlude. Such a classification suggests lighter material to that contained in the two main acts, but the opposite is true. These weighty pieces show Morrison rigorously probing “black matter(s)”, and in particular, race relations in the US and what she calls “the Afro-American presence in American literature”. As the self-proclaimed race writer warms to her themes, she serves up analysis of rare depth and intelligence.

If anything lets this collection down (apart from the lacklustre jacket design) it is the sporadic repetition of ideas. Some works touch on similar subjects, and rather than reconstruct a phrase or formulation, Morrison simply recycles them.

But that is a small price to pay when the rewards are so great. Her pieces are richly stocked with provocative notions, such as “racism is a scholarly pursuit”, as well as cogent arguments and sensible solutions. The controlled anger that suffuses Morrison’s essays on racism is offset by poetic tenderness in a prayer for the dead of 9/11, and her cool authority in the reflections on her fiction. “The individual artist is by nature a questioner and a critic,” Morrison says.

She assumes both roles here, and through interrogation and evaluation of her work, she brings us closer to the truth.

Updated: April 6, 2019 04:20 PM

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