Booker nominated author Chigozie Obioma reflects on losing a ‘literary mother’ and her encouragement for generations of black and African writers to come.
It was with a heavy heart that I woke up, like many, to the news of the passing of the great African American writer Toni Morrison. As I have mourned and digested the news, my reaction has slowly gone from shock to dismay, then to a sense of inchoate peace.
If we judge being old as a more feeble state, or characterised by a gradual withdrawal from work, then Morrison, like most great writers, had not become old. At the age of 88, she had continued to give us her stories and thoughts. The Source of Self-Regard – a further exploration on some of the broader themes of race and dignity that she explored throughout her life in novels such as Beloved and The Bluest Eye – was released only a few months ago, published in outside of the US under the title Mouth Full of Blood. And until recently, we have seen a steady stream of novels from her, including God Help the Child, which was published on the same day as my debut novel The Fishermen, in 2015. There was no sign that the end of our constant supply from her reserve of wonderful stories and ideas was anywhere near.
With the death of Morrison, many writers today feel like we have lost our literary mother. Although I grew up in a town in Nigeria, the two first American writers I ever read were black: Richard Wright and Morrison. I read Black Boy around the age of 11 or 12, then Morrison’s The Bluest Eye a year or two later. It is a devastating story of a black girl who is destroyed by the low self-esteem imposed on her by a society in which her race and culture is diminished as ugly and unworthy. As a young boy in Nigeria, then slowly coming to the understanding that Africans were perceived by the rest of the world as being just like the black people in The Bluest Eye, I saw the light in this grim story. I realised that if we begin to look deeper into ourselves and take pride in our heritage, we will see the true beauty of who we are; what the rest of the world says about us, or how they see us, will be unable to kill our spirit. Morrison herself credited the great Nigerian author Chinua Achebe for helping her discover this, what she called “the freedom to write.” But it was more a freedom to see that we can tell our own stories – and by so doing, lift our people.
Reflecting on her life, I feel a sense of peace because I know I have learned a lot from Morrison. On the craft level, I believed until this morning that she was the greatest living American writer (an honour Cormac McCarthy now holds), and one of the best prose stylists in the world, on the same plane as Martin Amis, Wole Soyinka, Salman Rushdie and others. She set out to do “unimaginable” things with the English language, a language she considered “at once rich and deeply racist.” Counting myself as one of many writers from former colonial states who now write in the English language, which has become our national tongue, we have had to find ways to subdue and conquer it, and bring it into submission to our cultural sensibilities. Part of that conquering is not only writing in the English language the way we desire, but also what we desire. This was exactly what Morrison did throughout her life. In a time when African stories are not seen as important unless they are set outside Africa or created to align with Western sensibilities, Morrison encouraged me to write about African traditional religion, culture and philosophies without reserve, even if the rest of the world – and even Africans themselves – see it as backward and unpleasant. I find peace because a new generation of black and African writers will continue to do just that, encouraged by the great work she has left us – and for this, I thank her.
Obioma’s An Orchestra of Minorities is nominated for this year’s Booker prize