Writing eases my suffering . . . writing is my way of reaffirming my own existence. -– Gao Xingian
Toni Morrison gave a recent interview to American Theatre in which she was asked to discuss her writing: (Write, Erase, Do Over: On Failure, Risk and Writing Outside Yourself). As usual, her discussion about writing craft and her process was spot-on but her comment about writing what you want to read struck a chord with me.
Ms. Morrison is the author of The Bluest Eye, among many other novels and stories. The novel was originally published in 1970 – her first novel, and I would guess that I read it for the first time somewhere between 1980 and 1985. I was searching for something back then, trying to make sense of the world. I was experiencing my first real taste of racism, internalized racism, colorism . . . all that. Books had always been my solution when I found myself stuck and I poured through the works of Alice Walker, Ntozake Shange, Maya Angelou, Zora Neale Hurston, Audre Lourde, bell hooks, as well as the poetry of Nikki Giovanni and Sonia Sanchez. (This list is no where near inclusive, y’all but I just wanted to give a hint as to where my head was at.)
Someone gave me a copy of The Bluest Eye and I’ll admit that it sat on a shelf for several months before I found the courage to read it. It’s the story of a dark-skinned, poor black girl and the consequences of what happens when one internalizes the ugly assumptions the world makes about you based solely on your appearance.
Ms. Morrison said,
I wrote The Bluest Eye because someone would actually be apologetic about the fact that their skin was so dark and how when I was a kid, we called each other names but we didn’t think it was serious, that you could take it in, so the book was about taking it in, before we all decide that we are all beautiful, and have always been beautiful; I wanted to speak on the behalf of those who didn’t catch that right away. I was deeply concerned about the feelings of being ugly.
During the interview with American Theatre, Ms. Morrison stated that she wrote The Bluest Eye because it was a book she wanted to read.
I said it took courage to read it because just scanning the back cover blurb created a war within me, a crash of emotions that included both shame and hope. Shame, because Ms. Morrison was writing about taboo topics (colorism, incest, rape, racism) and hope, that I may finally come to understand my own struggle for self actualization.
I wrote my first novel at age 15, Riverside Drive. It was hand-written on lined college-ruled paper and my mother took it to work and typed it up for me on her Selectric typewriter. In my junior year in high school, I wrote a short story to enter into a school contest that I adapted from the novel. I can’t remember the title of the piece but I do recall that it had themes of colorism, interracial dating, and date rape. It was actually quite a romantic story.
My English teacher encouraged me to enter the contest. I was an incredibly shy, withdrawn child at the time, and my writing seemed to be the only place where I’d open up. Days before the contest winner was announced, I was called into the headmaster’s office where I had a meeting with the headmaster, the dean of students, the school counselor and my teacher. They praised the story as creative and well written but strongly encouraged me to withdraw it from the contest because the content was too controversial. While it deserved publication, they said, the best of the submissions, they said, they feared I might get some negative backlash if it was published.
It was also suggested that I speak with the school counselor about rape and to identify the boy responsible so he could be dealt with. They would not believe that the details of the story were fictional.
Writing for me at that time was an act of freedom, a chance to express myself in whatever creative form that came to me. I recall that story as a sweet, teenaged romance that included the usual teen angst of a broken love affair. It just so happened that it was written in the early 80’s by the only black student at a prestigious, practically all white, boarding school.
Writing was also an act of rebellion. I was/am, a dark-skinned black girl from the South. The expectation at the time was that I’d pump out a half-dozen kids and be on welfare for the rest of my life. I really had no business being at that school, despite the fact that I was a bright and gifted student. I was not valued – my skin was too dark and my hair was too nappy. I had aspirations towards either a JD or a PhD but a sociology professor in college told me I was an over-achiever. I may have been smart but I shouldn’t aim too high. But when I wrote, I became whatever I wanted to be, did anything I wanted, whenever I wanted, however I wanted it.
But they told me to withdraw my story. That was more than my sixteen year old self could take or understand. I withdrew back into my shell. No more rebellion, no more freedom. Just silence. I didn’t write another creative word for years.
But then, Toni, Alice, Ntozake, Maya, Zora, Audre, bell, Nikki and Sonia, among a host of others shared their stories. Their struggles were mine and the freedom in their expression, their willingness to take on the taboo topics, their rebellion gave me both courage and permission to open myself up to the process again. They also helped me understand that the only person I needed to define me was ME.
I’m not suffering but these days, every time I sit down to my computer or a blank sheet of paper, I reaffirm my own existence, my humanity. I write about things that uplift me, that depress me, that stress me, that disgust me. I no longer allow others to dictate what I write or even how I write it.
I write for that dark-skinned, nappy-headed girl who, for a brief period of time was silenced.