Like many of the authors I’ve spoken about before, I’ve read a lot of Toni Morrison’s work, and it was difficult to choose just ONE book to feature here. All of her work is powerful and beautifully written. Her use of language is a work of art and every story I’ve read of hers is compelling in the classical ‘page-turner’ kind of way. But I’m going to write about The Bluest Eye, because it’s a story about how societal beauty standards, particularly whiteness, and childhood trauma wear a little girl’s sanity down.
This book is a story of pain and developed mental illness. It’s a story of how there is more than one kind of abuse, and that emotional and verbal abuse can cause real damage just as physical and sexual abuse can. And it’s about, I think, how racism…maybe even especially the ‘passive’ or ‘casual’ kind…is a form of abuse that hurts real people.
One of the things I love about fiction is its ability to tell the truth through ‘make-believe.’ This story isn’t real…Toni Morrison invented it…but it COULD be real and it comes from a real place…real experiences. Fiction can make people feel for other people in ways that journalistic facts don’t seem to. There’s a reason it’s been found that people who read more fiction are more empathetic. It’s the same reason people cry at movies and television shows…they get invested in the characters like they are real. Because the writer has drawn from experiences that are real in order to make us care. When we read or watch broad scope, high concept, fantasies like The Hunger Games or Harry Potter, to many of us, specific political dystopia or magic wars against evil wizard factions are irrelevant. What we care about are the REAL human feelings…we all know what it feels like to be a stranger in a new place…we all know what it feels like to try and find our place in the world…to find our strengths and weaknesses…what it feels like to hurt…to worry…to love…to argue with a friend…to lose. We get invested in fiction because we can relate to it in reality. And fiction is a great way to help experience and relate to realities that aren’t our own.
I try to write in a way that readers can relate to and feel for and get invested in the characters I’ve created, even if my character’s experience is radically different from my readers’. And Toni Morrison inspired me to write that way. I’m no Toni Morrison, quite obviously. But I hope everyone reads some fiction that portrays some experiences that aren’t their own; fiction that fosters emotional investment; fiction that makes being empathetic and understanding of reality easier, even when it’s not our reality. Especially when it’s not our reality.
I hope everyone reads Toni Morrison. I really do.
And of course, if you want to read my work (even though I’m not anywhere close to Toni Morrison’s league), it’s available here.