First, listen.

Today marks the 85th birthday of Toni Morrison and I would be remiss if I let it pass by without bringing attention to the prolific writer and the profound effect her writing has had on me over the years.

I read Song of Solomon when I was in high school. It was heavy. It was beautiful. Even as a thick-skulled teenager I knew I was holding a book that really meant something, even if, as I realized years later, I hardly understood what. The characters were beautiful, the story was so strange, so dark, tinged with a magical realism that I had grown to be a big fan of. I liked magic and sci-fi and fantasy, but there was something even cooler about a story that was just the slightest bit magic, almost as if you could blink and miss it. Or, like the magic required a double-take. As if to say, did that really just happen?

Milkman, Macon Dead, Pilate, Guitar, First Corinthians, Circe, all of these names burrowed deep into my memory and made their place, leaving an erie sort of presence. And when I picked up a fresh copy of the book a few years ago, they all flooded back to me in surprisingly emotional waves. I could compile a list pages and pages long of the quotes I’ve underlined between high school and now, little reactions in the margins. The lines that this woman has created over the span of her career, they are stunning. If you could put a line from a novel into a museum, you could dedicate an entire museum to Toni Morrison alone.

I followed my re-read of Song of Solomon with Sula and then Beloved, two novels I had (stupidly) never read before. It only deepened my love and appreciation for her writing.  She’s able to paint a picture so vivid I forget what’s her story and what’s something I’ve seen with my own two eyes. I can visualize the sticky heat of Sweet Home, smell Sethe’s cooking, smell the perfumes of Sula upon her return to The Bottom, and feel the dust off the roads from all three.

I think, in a way, she was able to make the black identity accessible to someone like me: a white girl living in New York who couldn’t know a thing about it firsthand. Yet reading Toni Morrison has always given me a rich understanding. A respect. An appreciation. She gave me a perspective other than my own, and, man, that’s so damn important.

I don’t mean to make this into a place where I’m constantly praising all my favorite writers but… it’s so easy. And they’re so amazing. And the reading that I’ve done in my life has formed me into the person that I am today, and the writing that I do. I want to end this with another quote from Toni and it’s nearly impossible to pick a favorite one. But she’s been able to develop such real and rich female characters and relationships that have always screamed from the pages to me. I never wanted to be Hagar, but I sort of liked Pilate’s vibe (lack of bellybutton, et al). And Sula and Nel’s friendship was so real. Ah, okay. I’m nerding out, aren’t I?

I’ll leave you with this:

“In a way, her strangeness, her naiveté, her craving for the other half of her equation was the consequence of an idle imagination. Had she paints, or clay, or knew the discipline of the dance, or strings, had she anything to engage her tremendous curiosity and her gift for metaphor, she might have exchanged the restlessness and preoccupation with whim for an activity that provided her with all she yearned for. And like an artist with no art form, she became dangerous.” Sula, Toni Morrison

(And, hey, if you’re sitting there and have never read Morrison, BORROW MY BOOKS IMMEDIATELY.)

Photo used here is street art of Toni Morrison in Vitoria, Spain.

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