We all remember where we were when the collective community celebrated or mourned something momentous. Last week, I was sitting in a classroom at Howard University during a Hurston-Wright workshop for Black writers led by bestselling author Nicole Dennis-Benn. As I read aloud the words I’d just composed for a writing prompt, one of my classmates gasped. Then there was a knock at the door. We’d lost our literary light, Toni Morrison.
During my sophomore year at Northwestern University, Professor Leon Forrest assigned Beloved and Song of Solomon as required reading for our literature class. I struggled with language too dense and ideas too complex for my immature imagination to hold. Sadly, I admit I didn’t pick up Morrison’s work again until years later when I’d done enough living to understand how she’d held a mirror up to my own interior life. She gave me permission to write boldly and unapologetically about blackness while centering no one’s gaze but my own.
As writers, we learn craft best by reading works from authors we admire. I studied Morrison’s debut novel, The Bluest Eye, and re-read it many times while writing my own debut. In simple terms, it’s the story of a dark-skinned Black girl’s desire to have blue eyes, but on closer examination, it’s about the roots of racial self-loathing. This book, like all of Morrison’s works, is a master class in storytelling.
Quiet as it’s kept there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941. We thought, at the time, that it was because Pecola was having her father’s baby that the marigolds did not grow.
That’s how Morrison begins The Bluest Eye. Right away, we want to know why some plants or people flourish while others don’t. The author doesn’t withhold information or try to be coy and mysterious. In the first paragraph, we learn that the protagonist has been the victim of pedophilia. That’s the big plot point and she gives it to us in the first two sentences, yet we still want to read on for hundreds of pages. Also, on page one, the narrator dares to explain why this story structure is brilliant:
There is really nothing more to say—except why. But since why is difficult to handle, one must take refuge in how.
In that opening, Morrison intrigues us, establishes an emotional connection, and assures us we’re in capable hands as she takes us on the journey of Pecola’s story.
The most memorable characters stay with us long after we’ve finished the novel because they’re complex and multi-dimensional. We may not like them because they’re unlikeable, but when they’re well-drawn, we understand them and empathize. Let’s look at Cholly Breedlove, the abusive, cowardly antagonist who beats his wife and impregnates his daughter.
First, the surname Morrison chose for this character begs attention. It wasn’t until I finished the novel that I realized that Cholly couldn’t “breed love” because he’d rarely experienced receiving love. Presenting Cholly Breedlove as merely a hateful predator would have been too easy and simplistic. We’re all more than the evil we inflict.
Morrison expertly wove in backstory where we learn that Cholly was abandoned by his mother and rejected by his father. When Cholly was just a boy getting to know a girl he liked, still fumbling and awkward in his innocence, racists forced him to perform sexual acts with the girl for their entertainment. This is a pedophile, yet through layering, Morrison helps us understand this man—not to forgive his predation, but to understand the source of his demons.
The way characters speak to each other reveals who they are, where they come from, and what they want most in the world. The most revealing dialogue for me in this novel is an extensive conversation between Pecola and her imaginary friend. By this point in the story, our protagonist has descended into madness, believing she’s achieved real beauty and she has this inner dialogue about her new, blue eyes: [Read more…]