Again, and Again

Poet Saeed Jones’s review of Toni Morrison’s new novel God Help the Child starts like this: “When we talk about Toni Morrison, we are also talking about what it means to thrive in the midst of well-manicured and eloquent hostility.” It wasn’t until after I finished reading his piece—and it’s a great piece, an incisive and short dive into the what is the what of Toni Morrison and her work—that I remembered I began a review of Morrison’s two-books-ago novel Home, in 2012, with similar words, though framed as a question: “How to write about Toni Morrison?” I had to write something, so I went with what I associated with her at that time: nostalgia for high school English; my and my friends’ somewhat vague, though earnest, admiration of her work. Jones’s review does a bit more, saying that Morrison’s newest novel offers us “an opportunity to meditate on the tension between the idea of the artist and the reality of the artist herself.”

He goes on to explain:

“[Morrison’s] name becomes shorthand for a republic of women and black artists with ‘no home in this place’ to borrow a phrase from Morrison’s Nobel lecture, people who create, reclaim and celebrate art that is intent on offering something of use back to the people whom it illuminates.”

What intrigues me about this sentence is how it stakes a claim and interrogates said claim; Jones seems to be saying, even affirming, yes, these people—this “republic”—do create and share art with these aims, but also warning: don’t talk in brushstrokes, don’t manhandle the meticulous, don’t assume authority. In other words: What republic? Who’s running it? How do they want to be called?

I haven’t read Morrison’s latest book yet, but I’ve found myself recently wanting to return to those I have read: Paradise, The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, Home. The end of the semester seems to mark a desire to change the patterns in which I am reading. I’ve made a strong commitment to reading books predominately by women this past year—due in part to my role in Kenan’s Visiting Writers Series—and yet I feel myself turning away from this commitment in a kind of fatigue. I voluntarily read a sequence of women-authored memoir and essay collections this spring—many either implicitly or explicitly about the need for more women to tell their stories and claim their emotions openly, through writing and documentation—and somehow felt exhausted, despite my identifying with that “republic,” or wanting to feel that identification more forcefully. I was exhausted by these texts because I was exhausted by the pattern they created—which meant, in effect, the pattern created for them, authored by the “republic” of bookbuyers, of book-categorizers, of Amazon “you might like lists,” shuttling these titles along into lists that circled back in on themselves: women-authored, women-facing fiction/nonfiction written for women. Circularity is of course not necessarily insularity, but equating them makes for easier marketing, easier categorization.

My response to what’s happening right now in Baltimore has largely been to read—that which I can make time for, that which I am already reading that I can stretch to relate, in my mind, to Baltimore. Jones’s review belongs in this camp; so does Director of Duke’s Islamic Studies Center Omid Safi’s On Being piece (“Between Nepal and Balitmore”); so does, somehow, Leanne Shapton’s memoir/art book Swimming Studies; so does Duke mathematician Anita Layton’s Good Question. The latter, as in Jones’s Morrison review, both stakes and interrogates a claim: We have all sorts of data at our fingertipson healthcare trials and treatments, crime statistics, and weather patterns for example. But how do we use the data to make the best and most ethical decisions? Watching mainstream media reports of and from Baltimore, I’ve become more cognizant of another kind of circularity—the circularity of my audience to newscasters seemingly determined to quickly, easily, and efficiently reinvent the wheel, to calibrate outrage on the same level with each new act of violence. This determination is one poised to offer, consistently, effect without cause: in other words, to say these things just keep happening. This is the claim, but where is the interrogation of said claim?

The weight of this realization feels important—like a smaller-scale, self-authored but outward-focused recalibration. It feels sort of like how I feel reading and then talking, with one or two others, about Toni Morrison. Whether in 2006 or 2015, this has felt like a process of uncovering new truths. How do we use the data to make the best and most ethical decisions? We reject amnesia, first of all, and in doing so, understand why the shorthand has come to be—and maybe we reject that, too.