I was 18, give or take, when I read Toni Morrison’s Beloved for the first time. Friends in the year below me at school were studying it for A Level and wanted my input. Having grown up in a very small town on the edge of the Cotswolds, race relations and the history of slavery were not things I had much awareness of. The book was a poetic and brutal wake up into a world of real-life horror that I had known nothing about.
I went on to buy every Toni Morrison book I could in the following years. I studied Beloved while doing a degree in English Literature, and filled in some of the gaps in my understanding, and became increasingly aware that, white and English as I am, some of those gaps are never going to go away. But, I do what I can. Recognising what we don’t know is a useful thing more of us could do.
Toni Morrison has always made me uncomfortable. I go back to her because she makes me uncomfortable, not in spite of it. The most recent books I’ve read were so very difficult in terms of subject matter that I haven’t even tried to review them here. I do not know what to say in face of her work – that’s part of the power of it. I don’t really know what to say in face of her death, either. None of what I could say seems adequate. I am aware that it isn’t really my job to say anything about her work, that shutting up and listening is important. Often it’s the most important thing we can do. But at the same time, she had a big impact on me, and I wanted to write something today.
Without a doubt, Toni Morrison changed me as a writer. It was a comment in an essay about writing – I must have read it at uni and the other details have long since fallen out of my brain. Google has been unable to help me, so I don’t have the exact quote. It was about how the most important thing you do when writing a story is shape the gaps into which the reader puts themselves. That idea transformed how I think about my own work. I became a writer who thinks a lot about the gaps, and what space to leave and what room to make for what people bring. It’s one of the core concepts informing the whole Hopeless Maine arc. It is, to a significant degree, intrinsic to everything fictional thing I have written as an adult.