Entertainment Books

Sunday 13 October 2019

Toni Morrison is still speaking out against injustice

History: Mouth Full of Blood

Toni Morrison

Chatto & Windus, €22.99

Toni Morrison's brilliant book, demonstrating just how savage and cruel human beings can become when they find themselves on the wrong side of history. Photo by Deborah Feingold/Corbis
Toni Morrison's brilliant book, demonstrating just how savage and cruel human beings can become when they find themselves on the wrong side of history. Photo by Deborah Feingold/Corbis
Mouth Full of Blood

JP O' Malley

In January 1988 a letter appeared in The New York Times signed by 48 black authors drawing attention to two distinguished African American authors, James Baldwin and Toni Morrison.

It noted that despite their enormous contribution to American letters over a considerable time span, both distinguished wordsmiths failed to achieve public recognition for their considerable literary achievements.

Black writers, regardless of the quality of their work, the letter pointed out, tended to exist eternally on the margins of a mainstream culture predominantly run by a white-only waspish literati.

Baldwin died one month before that letter was published, never receiving the personal official recognition from the American literary establishment he no doubt deserved. Morrison, however, became the first black writer to become a darling of the literary mainstream and a national treasure too.

Despite her transition to national and global success, Morrison always remained true to her feisty radical spirit, and has never been afraid to speak her mind about the passion that drove her in the first place to write historical fiction: which predominantly challenged the cultural and political hegemony across mainstream American society that attempts to cover up and ignore the grave injustices that African Americans have suffered in recent history.

Morrison was elevated into the literary mainstream with the success of her most famous novel: Beloved. Three decades later, it's still considered the 87-year-old novelist's greatest literary achievement. Set after the end of the American Civil War, it depicts a tyrannical world of slavery and poverty, where human beings are bought and sold like commodities, and physical violence and brutal sexual assault is routinely justified to maintain a social order where racial hierarchies consistently dominate.

In other words, a fairly accurate description of the United State's coming-of-age-history: where the brutal slave trade, genocide, and final-frontier-capitalism often gets masqueraded into metaphysical messianic prophecies, which, as Morrison reminds us here, tend to translate into phrases such as, new-world individualism, self reliance, or the Puritan wanderer. Wrestling truth from fiction amid these two contested histories is, in essence, the central theme of this book, and indeed of Morrison's fiction more broadly.

Morrison has always been unapologetically frank about the fact that she sees her fiction first and foremost as a political weapon to seek truth and justice for African Americans. Only when that first function of her art has been recognised, she concedes, can her books then be seen as universal works of literature.

In a lecture here entitled, Academic Whispers, Morrison solidifies this point with great clarity and honesty: "I chose to focus [in my work] how to create non-racist yet race specific literature within an already race-inflected language for readers who have been forced to deal with the assumption of racial hierarchy," the writer admits.

Comprised from a variety of essays, speeches and lectures Morrison has written and delivered over the past four decades, this remarkable collection of non-fiction prose provides the reader with wide array of topics to digest pertaining to culture; history; art, and the complexity of political identity hiding under the myriad of masks and ghosts of history: which always find themselves embedded behind the slippery bedfellows that are language and power.

Morrison's philosophical and intellectual curious tone ensures that she tends to ask more questions than she answers here. Perhaps the most noteworthy of all being: what does it mean to belong in an ever -changing interconnected world, where the traditional notions of community have been swept away by the technological forces of global capitalism? The answer, the writer contends, is this constant need to set up a racial other in opposition: as the rise of nationalism has drastically risen in opposition to cosmopolitan globalism.

Morrison's voice is radical, stern, emotive, humanistic, rational and compassionate in equal measure. But her language is always on the side of clarity, and never wanders too far in its quest to define factual history from nation-state-propaganda. Her prose is moving and memorable: setting the moral and intellectual bar at mountain top heights, without coming off as pretentious or pompous either.

Critics of Morrison's work have claimed that her fiction is stuck in a time-warp, and that it fails to address contemporary issues for African Americans in today's world.

Morrison's response to such claims - which is the central theme of this book - is that until the United States faces up to its own racist, violent and genocidal past, it's a society essentially stuck in limbo, or worse still, living in an infinite never never land of national-collective-amnesia.

Imbued with the philosophical and literary influences of forward thinking visionaries, such as Edward Said, Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel and Martin Luther King Jr, Mouth Full of Blood, is a bold and brilliant book, demonstrating just how savage and cruel human beings can become when they find themselves on the wrong side of history: with nothing but self-centred interests to play for.

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