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Jean Wyatt and Toni Morrison

Jean Wyatt is Professor of English at Occidental College and teaches courses on African American women writers, British modernism, contemporary American and British literature and race and gender theory. She is the author of Love and Narrative Form in Toni Morrison’s Later Novels, for which she received the Toni Morrison Society Book Prize for the Best Single-Authored Book on Toni Morrison in May 2018. Her previous books include Risking Difference: Identification, Race and Community in Contemporary Fiction and Feminism and Reconstructing Desire: The Role of the Unconscious in Women’s Reading and Writing. She has recently written articles on Toni Morrison and Louise Erdrich, which have appeared in the journals AngelakiMELUSNarrative and Modern Fiction Studies. 

In Simmons University’s Robert M. Gay Memorial Symposium, Jean Wyatt will be discussing Toni Morrison’s book Home, which details the story of siblings Cee and Frank Money as Frank rescues Cee from medical experimentation.

I asked Ms. Wyatt a few questions to get an insight into her speech, her work, and her views of Morrison’s use of style.

Q: The Robert M. Gay Memorial Symposium will focus on Morrison’s relation to issues of ethics and social justice. Why do you think Morrison may be an important figure to turn to when addressing these issues?

Your book Love and Narrative Form in Toni Morrison’s Later Novels discusses Morrison’s use of style in order to connect her characters’ present-day problems to the traumatic African American past. Could you perhaps share an insight about writing this book, and particularly any indication of how you think Morrison’s style helps to express her creative goals in her writing? Does any novel in particular highlight Morrison’s creative goals?

A: I think that from the first Toni Morrison’s novels address a reader’s preconceptions about race and gender and aim to change them.  Morrison says in an early interview that her novels are “sublimely didactic,” (“Interview with Anne Koenen, p. 74.)  She says that by the end a reader has learned something new, along with the character.  That is true from her first novel to her last, I believe. In her first, The Bluest Eye, she describes a young black girl, Pecola’s, encounter with a white shopkeeper who looks at her but in the process of looking withholds his gaze, refusing to recognize her as another human.  From the perspective of the young black girl we understand how it feels to be an object that isn’t worth seeing, an object of contempt.  That encounter with the white gaze deprives Pecola both of her sense of self and of her integration with the world around her.

Morrison has said very emphatically and often that she does not write for a white reader.  Of course not, she says; she writes out of a tradition of black art.  Nonetheless, a reader may feel profoundly moved by the experience of feeling with Pecola what it is like to be denied recognition as a human being, what it is like to be treated not as a person but as an object of contempt.  Thereafter, Pecola loses her integration with the world around her along with the power to have faith in her own perceptions of the world.  The dehumanizing gaze disassembles her sense of self, erases her faith in her own perceptions of the world, and in their place gives her a sense of her own blackness as shameful.  

Morrison’s eloquent and detailed description of Pecola’s feelings may profoundly move a reader.  And that affective response to what it is like to suffer from whiteness and the white gaze may cause a change in a reader’s values, specifically in her evaluation of the racist social order in the United States.

“Morrison takes aim at current cultural narratives about race and gender and works toward change by engaging with each reader and her “knowingness” in the co-construction of her text.”

Jean Wyatt

In the later books, Morrison gets more crafty.  That is, she uses subtle narrative crafting to draw out her reader’s preconceptions about race and gender and then shocks them by turning reader expectations upside down.  As Daphne has said, Morrison deliberately leaves gaps in her novels, inviting readers to add their own interpretations of meaning.  In an interview, she acknowledges what she wants the reader to bring to the novel: “[I provide] “spaces into which may fall the ruminations of the reader and his or her invented or recollected or misunderstood knowingness” (Unspeakable Things Unspoken” 29).  

In the first eight chapters of Love, the plot and several allusions to important love myths of the U. S. lead a reader to fill some of these gaps with his or her own “knowingness” about love – that it occurs between a man and a woman, that love is key to female happiness, that women are naturally rivals for the only love worth having, the love of a man, and above all about the centrality of a man to any love experience.  The ninth chapter reverses all these assumptions by revealing belatedly that the title Love actually refers to the love between nine-year-old girls.  That is “true love.”  The final chapter’s undermining of all the patriarchal norms and values of the previous chapters may cause a reader to turn around on her own preconceptions about love and ask how much they determined her reading of the novel.  That may perhaps cause a revaluing of fixed assumptions about love and gender. 

I think that the later novels, starting with Beloved, pull in the reader and her fixed assumptions about race and gender and then, in a surprise ending, reverse all these assumptions and cause a reader to question her own preconceived notions of gender and race, preconceptions that have perhaps influenced her reading of the text.  That call to self-inquiry may bring a reader to question and even make a shift in her fixed ideas about gender and race.

In all these ways deeply embedded in Morrison’s narrative art, Morrison takes aim at current cultural narratives about race and gender and works toward change by engaging with each reader and her “knowingness” in the co-construction of her text.

Q: Your book on Morrison won the Toni Morrison Society’s Best Book Award. Are you working on any other projects related to Morrison or other women writers? 

A: Sheldon George and I have recently published a collection of scholarly essays called Reading Contemporary African American and Black British Women Writers: Narrative, Race, Ethics. published by Routledge. In conjunction with our publisher, Routledge, we are now thinking about compiling a series of scholarly essays on a more global level, on Black Women Writers.  

by Sara Getman

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