Tag Archives: Nobel Prize

Dear Toni Morrison,

The Bluest Eye

Thank you for your soul-searing books. The Bluest Eyecame out in 1970, the year my daughter was born. I thought of it as one of those new baby gifts that the infant

will one day grow into. She did, but meanwhile I read it over and over. By 1970, Baldwin, Wright, Ellison, and Brown had already taught me what coming of age was

Original Barbie

like for African-American boys. What was it like for girls?  You taught me. In The Bluest Eye I identified with those little girls and grown women who longed to look white because white, not black, was beautiful. You make it clear how this supremacy of whiteness privileges some while condemning others, like Pecola and her mother, to misery. I reread The Bluest Eye most recently after my daughter’s daughter became the delighted owner of Rebecca, the pug-nosed Jewish American Girl doll. I noted (to myself, of course) that in spite of her period wardrobe and her Lower Eastside back story, Becky sure doesn’t look Jewish unless, like me, she had a nose job.

With each book of yours, I learned a lot of other things too. I’m especially grateful for Beloved, set in Ohio shortly after the Civil War and peopled by former slaves haunted by recollections of their years as property. Beloved made vivid and unforgettable to me the often used phrase “legacy of slavery.”  Before Beloved, I’d understood that legacy mostly in abstract terms like “separated families” and “forced illiteracy” and “overseer cruelty.” After Beloved, when I hear or read of this legacy, I envision men and women with iron bits distorting and tearing their mouths as, worked like horses, they haul loads. I see black men in flames dangling from trees and a grown white man forcing a lactating black mother to suckle him before beating her bloody. I see a mother slashing the throat of her own baby girl rather than allowing the child to be captured by slave catchers and returned to captivity. Such memories are the unspeakable legacy of slavery that you, by speaking of them in your books, make your readers confront.

Victim of Slavery

Homeless in USA

But in Beloved as in all your work, I got much more than a history lesson. I also got a lesson in storytelling: how to weave cultural elements, back stories, and symbols seamlessly into narrative, to alternate points of view, to write pitch perfect dialogue and description that matters: “There is a difference between being put out and being put outdoors . If you are put out, you go somewhere else. If you are outdoors, there is no place to go. . . .Being a minority in both caste and class, we moved about anyway on the hem of life . . . struggling to hang on or to creep singly up into the major folds of the garment.”

Toni-Morrison

And Beloved is also a ghost story. Your haunted characters all believe in ghosts, so I suspend my own disbelief to enter their troubled world where a baby ghost and a ghostly teen kick up a ruckus. Inspired, in The Bones and the Book, I created a Nineteenth Century immigrant girl haunted by ghosts from her past who fights the growing conviction that displacement and loss have transformed her into a ghost.

I’m glad you won the Nobel Prize and so grateful to you for telling stories that keep me turning pages even while I face up to some hard facts about American history which is, after all, a legacy all Americans share.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under American classic, Coming of age story, feminist fiction

Dear William Faulkner,

The Sound and the Fury

            That first time is always memorable, right? That’s why I remember very clearly the first time I read a novel I couldn’t understand. I was a freshman in college, and my English prof assigned The Sound and the Fury. I didn’t understand a word. No, that’s wrong. I understood the individual words, but not the way you strung them together. Even the Appendix, which in my Modern Library copy serves as a kind of backward-glancing forward, was mysterious. The way you paired incompatible words like American and king in a sentence fragment followed by a long seldom punctuated procession of other words, English and French, chasing each other over the page intrigued me. Where were the sentences? Who the hell was narrating? When? I was frustrated because even though I didn’t get the who, what, where, when, and why of your story, I wanted to know what was with that American king. So I persisted, but without much success until I got to class. There, with the patience of a gallery docent escorting a nun through a Maplethorpe exhibit, my marvelous prof, Julia McGrew, walked us through those first few pages.

Cotton Planation

            She also explained your use of the stream of consciousness to narrate the story of the decline of the Compsons, a once aristocratic Southern family. The audacity of telling part of their story through the disjointed and fragmented internal monologue of Benjy, a severely mentally challenged adult male Compson, both moved and fascinated me. I’d always felt sorry for people who were what we used to call “mentally retarded.” Such a person, Joan, a little girl in a woman’s body, lived around the corner from me when I was growing up. My sympathy for her blinded me to the possibility that she or any “idiot” might have thoughts and perceptions of interest to anyone, might have a world view, a tale to tell that was, Shakespeare to the contrary, not only reliable, but significant.

And suppose an author did choose to give such a character voice. How would this daringly original writer manage it? I reread Benjy’s section of The Sound and the Fury, marveling at the power of his recurring sense-memory of his beloved sister: “Caddie smelled like trees.” Benjy’s version of people and events, filtered through sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures and through his never-abating sense of loss, reveals the true nature of each of his relatives even as their family disintegrates around him. No wonder you won the Nobel Prize!

Yoknapatawpha County

  And no wonder your work inspired me to write one of my most important pieces:  my senior thesis, a requirement for English majors at Vassar. I knew I would spend considerable time on this project, so I wanted a topic that could compete for my attention with my job search, weekends with my fiancé, and late night gab sessions with dear friends from whom I’d soon be separated. I chose you. That’s how I got to spend my senior year in Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi , the fictional setting you populate with gothic grotesques lost in the fallout from the wars and “progress” that are American history.

C Student's Guide

My thesis, cribbed from your Nobel acceptance speech, was that in spite of the grimness and despair that haunt your work, you feel people are capable of compassion, that mankind has cause to hope, and that it is the duty of writers to tell of the struggles of the human heart. I wish I could tell you that I aced that paper, but I got a C- on it. Even though I had immersed myself in your books, I had not made a similarly thorough study of the rudiments of English grammar, spelling, documentation, or even typing. And in spite of my immersion, some of your writing still remained mysterious to me. I suspect I passed partly because I chose to tackle such a challenging writer.

Girl Reading Faulkner

You challenge me still which may be why, half a century later, I reread your marvelous books to revisit the streaming consciousnesses of the people you invent, to become, literally, a mind reader. Maybe someday I’ll move closer to becoming a mind writer like you. Meanwhile, thanks for all these decades of inspiration.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under American classic, Coming of age story