I tend to talk about Toni Morrison with a cautious blitheness. I mention how we share the same hometown, Lorain, Ohio, but even that’s a scary thing to do. Why would I want to invite comparisons to a Nobel and Pulitzer prizewinning author? Such a thought would send most writers under their desks, possibly holding a thick reference book over their heads, like we used to do for tornado drills in my old elementary school, as protection from the debris surely to fly around them. However when I saw the video of Ms. Morrison’s interview this week with Stephen Colbert, I realized it’s time for me to talk seriously about what binds me to this important author and how she taught me something about myself that makes me confident, not fearful, in my work.
When Colbert asked how Ms. Morrison wanted to be “pigeon-holed” if not as an African-American writer, she said she wanted to be known “as an American writer.” She went on to say, “There is no such thing as race. None. There’s just the human race. Racism is a construct, a social construct…” I agreed and knew what she meant from the fiber of my being. I too think of myself as simply “a writer” working from the imagination and experience of being a human who happens to be named Sophfronia Scott. I have always felt this way but up until about ten years ago I couldn’t “own” it because I didn’t understand it. I only knew from a very young age I didn’t see the world along racial lines and thought this was an awareness I somehow missed out on. When I was in high school I often heard whispers that I wasn’t “black enough” or that I didn’t “sound black.” This led me to wonder if I was lacking in a way I could never figure out how to fix.
But then I happened upon Hinton Als’s 2003 profile of Toni Morrison in The New Yorker. I discovered she and I, despite our age difference, have a lot more in common than I knew, and these similarities were most likely what had shaped my worldview. It began with the most basic of shared characteristics—our fathers both worked at U.S. Steel, and she and I both grew up hanging clothes to dry outside, doing it very badly at times, and coming to a realization early on that we would not have the same existence as our mothers and aunts.
“I developed a kind of individualism—apart from the family—that was very much involved in my own daydreaming, my own creativity, and my own reading. But primarily—and this has been true all my life—not really minding what other people said, just not minding.”
But the big thing she pointed out to me in this article was how our community in Lorain was so integrated. Morrison always lived, she said, “below or next to white people,” and the schools were integrated—stratification in Lorain was more economic than racial. The piece also noted the work at U.S. Steel attracted not only American blacks from the south (my father was from Mississippi) but also displaced Europeans: Poles, Greeks, and Italians. The city has a large Hispanic population as well. This made me think of my father’s Polish friends we used to visit and of Lorain’s annual International Day Festival. To me this was just the way I grew up—I didn’t know I was living an integrated existence, or even what it meant .
Then, to match our outer experience, it seems Morrison and I fed our minds a creative diet that turned out to be just as integrated. As a child, Morrison read virtually everything, from drawing-room comedies to Theodore Dreiser, from Jane Austen to Richard Wright. I had done the same, thoroughly steeping myself in the work of Bronte (Charlotte and Emily), Austen, Dickens, Tolstoy, Flaubert, Wright, Ellison, and, yes, Morrison. My influences cover the globe.
I realized I come by honestly my inclination to write from views and voices not my own. The characters in my fiction are white and black, gay and straight, of various religions and nationalities. I used to worry about being taken to task for this and that I wouldn’t have the confidence to back up this tendency because I didn’t understand it myself. But Morrison helped me to see this inclination is truly my own. I have been nurtured by my inner and outer environments to write this way and once I knew this I could write with confidence and without apology. And in all this writing I know I am seeking to tell one humanistic story and it is and will always be, I think, a love story. Morrison’s stories also seek such basic humanistic elements: love, mercy, forgiveness.
So if you ask me whether I aspire to be like Toni Morrison, I would say this: I don’t aspire to her lyricism or style, which are very much her own, but I do have this simple ambition—to tell a good story and tell it well. This aspect, I think, is where she and I both come from, the true hometown we share.