Tuesday 20 August 2019

Anne Haverty: 'A teller of grim histories and a writer of the world'

Toni Morrison's work ripped down the veil on slavery's brutal legacy and the inner world of African Americans, writes Anne Haverty

COMPASSION: Toni Morrison said there was more to her than the racial tensions in her work. Picture: Newsday/Getty
COMPASSION: Toni Morrison said there was more to her than the racial tensions in her work. Picture: Newsday/Getty

Anne Haverty

That was quite a starry evening in the Shelbourne Hotel some time in the 1990s. Daniel Day Lewis, Noel Pearson, Colm Toibin, Anthony Cronin and Toni Morrison were there.

It was summer. I remember the brightness moving inside as the lamps were switched on and the sky darkened into the early hours. I remember it as a festive occasion. We may have had champagne. We sat in the lounge on the big accommodating sofas. In my memory we had the place more or less to ourselves as you could have in those days.

I don't remember what the occasion was. Maybe Toni Morrison was here for a Dublin International Writer's Festival? Or working with Pearson on a film project? Anyway it was a convivial assembly. I wish I could remember what we talked about but sadly I don't. One thing I do remember is Toni laughing heartily at something Tony - Anthony Cronin - said, and I was glad that she seemed to take pleasure in interesting conversation and company as he did.

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I remember that I greatly took to her. She had nothing of the ennui or the watchfulness or the sense of standing on her dignity that eminent writers all too often burden themselves with. She was easy and frank and ready to enjoy herself. Now as I write, I do remember one of the topics that night which, while it might indicate the spontaneity and ease of our conversation, I sincerely hope was only a momentary aside because it was so trivial.

This was a discussion - and I do think it was brief - on the relative advantages of linen versus cotton sheets. I have no idea now whether Toni Morrison preferred linen sheets over cotton or indeed whether she offered any opinions at all. I remember only her air of being generally indulgent towards the question as she was towards any other that came up.

She didn't talk much, as far as I can remember at least. She listened instead and joyously laughed. And yet, sprawled among the cushions in the middle of a sofa, surrounded by the rest of us, she was the dominant presence. Her intelligence was obvious in that knowing laugh and no surprise since she was who she was. But it was memorable because it was a confident intelligence. I think her presence had such an impact because of the sense you got that she was happy in her own skin. This is a quality in a person that seems to make those around her happy as well. I may remember that evening vividly, if also sparsely, because she had a hand in making it, without having to try, a cheerful one.

By then of course Morrison was a Nobel Prize-winner and had reason enough to be happy. The distinction, along with her other achievements and prizes, was one she was proud to own. She was a writer who had no time for false modesty or protests of humility. And she had this happy-in-her-own-skin quality even though the characters she wrote about so powerfully in her novels are not happy in theirs. In fact all her work might be described as giving voice to people who are deprived by their terrible history of this gift of self-acceptance.

There's a fury in her books on their behalf. Her people, African Americans who, since their importation to America into slavery centuries ago, have only very fitfully been accepted as American. As an intellectual, working in publishing and academia, she enjoyed a better life than most of them did. But she has said that her sense of herself was nonetheless, like theirs, that of an alien.

Her interest as a novelist, however, was not in describing the lesser conditions and the injustices blacks had to endure. Other black - and white - writers were doing that. She wanted to express the interior life of people born into American black culture, that particular culture formed by the brutal legacy of slavery. The legacy of having been owned, like a household chattel or a beast of the field. Of having been bought and sold, violated, beaten, disenfranchised; exploited in every conceivable way. It was her legacy too though she was brought up in a not-racist town in Ohio. She believed in race memory, in the stories handed down from generation to generation, in the force of their reality. Her job, she said, was to ''rip that veil drawn over proceedings too terrible to relate''.

Her novel Beloved is considered, rightly, her best. It tells an awful tale, a woman haunted literally by the baby daughter she murdered because to be dead was a better fate than to be a slave. Beloved is classic Morrison. Full of pain, heaviness, and the supernatural and despite all this, shafted with poetry and light. As she often said, she wrote for black Americans, not for the whites that literature traditionally belongs to. She wrote to give expression at last to their inner world, to relieve them of the burden of their dark unwritten legacy.

To us who don't know that world, it gives a knowledge and sensibility of it, expanding our narrow perspective and revealing our limitations. Bringing us into their rooms, into their heads and hearts, we understand on an elemental level their difference. We acquire a new mythology. It becomes a new part of us.

This is a wonderful thing to have done. It could be why, in part at least, I was struck by her easy happiness that evening in the Shelbourne. She knew she had done something great. She had her critics, naturally. They said she was melodramatic and unsubtle. But the brutal intensity of her truth makes such criticisms look irrelevant. She herself complained that critics only wanted to talk about the racial tensions in her work and her own family story of enslavement. There was more to her than that, she used to say, and of course there was. She was a writer of the world.

All things considered, and dying at 88, she had a good life. But in this bad time, it's sad that she who so compassionately explored such times has left it.

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