We do language

This week, the world lost one of the greatest writers of our time.

The first time I picked up a Toni Morrison book, I was in my late teens and was assigned The Bluest Eye for a class I was taking. I remember feeling drawn into the myriad of stories that she crafted skillfully – but also feeling like I was learning about someone else’s experience for the first time. It felt like I was reading poetry, but I didn’t have to work quite as hard at it. The Bluest Eye was Morrison’s debut novel, written in the early morning hours before her children woke up. She went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Beloved in 1988 and the Nobel Prize in Literature just five years later.

I could go on and list her never-ending list of accolades, but the most impressive thing about Toni Morrison to me is how much she paved the way for other writers. So many of the books I enjoy today were influenced by Morrison’s storytelling, her honesty, and her identity. She found a way to break through the surface, to be prolific and beloved, to be critically acclaimed but also a best seller. She told history through fiction and before her words, I didn’t know that was possible.

I spent some time this weekend reading and re-reading some of her words, and in particular, her Nobel Prize acceptance speech. In it, she says:

Be it grand or slender, burrowing, blasting, or refusing to sanctify; whether it laughs out loud or is a cry without an alphabet, the choice word, the chosen silence, unmolested language surges toward knowledge, not its destruction. But who does not know of literature banned because it is interrogative; discredited because it is critical; erased because alternate? And how many are outraged by the thought of a self-ravaged tongue?

Word-work is sublime, she thinks, because it is generative; it makes meaning that secures our difference, our human difference – the way in which we are like no other life.

We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.

Toni Morrison.jpg

I sort of wondered at that last statement – We do language, that may be the measure of our lives. In today’s world, it was a reminder to me, to be more careful with the words I choose, the words I choose to consume, and maybe most importantly – the words I choose not to consume. May she rest in peace.

The full speech is available here: https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/1993/morrison/lecture/