“The Reader Supplies the Emotions”: Tips for Reading Morrison

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Perhaps the most helpful passage from Morrison herself in describing how her readers will participate in her works is in her interview with Claudia Tate:

The read supplies even some of the color, some of the sound.  My language has to have holes and spaces so the reader can come into it. He or she can feel something visceral, see something striking.  Then we (you, the reader, and I, the author) come together to make this book, to feel this experience.  It doesn’t matter what happens. (Italics mine)

If the written work is to accomplish these objectives, it cannot be “the authority” but should be a “map” and thereby “make a way for the reader to participate in the tale” (Morrison, “Memory, Creation, and Writing”).  But how does one know whether a novel’s overall design is authoritative or more like a map, providing some leeway for the readers to wander around in it? We will turn to the study of narrative for that answer, which gets us to the second objective of this blog piece.

Returning to Jazz  for a moment to clarify the importance of the implied author further  (if you don’t know the reference, go to blogpiece “The Rhetorical Situation?” ,  the fickle narrator quoted above is not the implied author/designer of the whole work.  She is created by the implied author, and there is a higher level in the fictional narrative: there is an epigraph to the novel that has to be considered.  There is  the drama of the narrator’s authority being rendered as unreliable to readers.  Why might the implied author wish us to see the narrator as less than the authority?  And without an authority, how are we to interpret the ending?

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. . . But it gets better.  Let’s look at those very last lines of Jazz; grab your own copy for the best visceral experience, or read along here:

“Look where your hands are. Now”

The words compose us in an image: our hands on the book!   And so Morrison has this wily narrator “talking” to us, stepping out of the frame of the narrative, as it were.  

Responses Interlude: reflect, write, post

What circulates in your mind, reading these words,  whether or not you’ve read the novel through to this point? 

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3 Good Tips for Reading Toni Morrison

Besides the guidance and suggestions throughout this blogsite, there are a few general ideas with which to approach the Morrisonian artform:

Get That Oceanic Feeling. 

This phrase is from Travis Jackson’s article, “Jazz Performance as Ritual.”  A jazz or blues performance, states Jackson,  “is perhaps best understood as a kind of ritual, in which both performers and listeners ideally come prepared to listen and respond actively to the ongoing flow of sounds and other sensory input.  Together, all involved in such ritualized moments attempt ‘to go to the next level, to remove them[selves] temporarily from all concerns beyond those of the performance.’”

I illustrate this principle briefly here by inviting you to enter into these few lines towards the end of Beloved.  This passage is in the other-worldly section of the novel (loosened from any specific place or time) where the three voices of Sethe and her daughters Denver and Beloved mingle.  Beloved may be either Sethe’s ghost-daughter or a slave-ship survivor who is remembering her own mother:

I  AM  BELOVED  and  she  is  mine.  I  see  her  take  flowers  away  from  leaves   she  puts  them  in  a  round  basket  the  leaves  are  not  for  her   she  fills  the  basket   she  opens  the  grass   I  would  help  her  but  the  clouds  are  in  the  way    how  can  I  say  things  that  are  pictures    I  am not  separate  from  her    there  is  no  place  where  I  stop   her  face  is  my  own  and  I  want  to  be  there  in  the  place  where  her  face  is and  to  be looking  at  it too   a hot  thing (244)

How might a 2 year-old conceptualize her memory of her mother shortly before a trauma of separation?  What is “a hot thing”?  What emotional connections do you make with this passage? Forget trying to make logical sense of it for now.

Look for Patterns, Repetitions-with-Difference

Timothy Mutha /unsplash

This is another broad tip, and not coincidentally, it, too, has a corollary in jazz:  “Motivic Improvisation” is a term for meaningful, uneven repetition. Lewis Porter defines this as the process of  “developing an idea by varying it before moving on” and using those variations to connect with other parts of a composition.  Paul Berliner states that “motivic or thematic development” is described by players as subjecting as idea (musical) to recurrent use and variation while preserving its fundamental identity.”

In Paradise, one series of repetitions has to do with walking: a band of African Americans walk from Louisiana to Oklahoma; another comprises 3 distinct, supernatural instances of a walking man who appears to various characters with significant news.  Toward the end of Paradise, a barefoot walker ties the trilogy of novels together, as there are footprints at beginning and ending of Beloved, and at several crucial dramatic junctures in Jazz.  

Repetitions are essentially “motifs” in the literary sense, and they do significant work in Morrison’s novels as mappings to her designs and their significances.

Enunciate Race . . . Deprive it of Its Lethal Cling

This may be the best “tip” for immersion in Morrison’s works, and the words come from the author herself:

So much of what seems to lie about in discourses on race concerns legitimacy, authenticity, community, belonging.  In no small way, these discourses are about home: an intellectual home; a spiritual home, family and community as home; forced and displaced labor in the destruction of home; creative responses to exile, the devastations, pleasures, and imperatives of homelessness as it is manifested in discussions on feminism, globalism, the diaspora, migrations, hybridity, contingency, interventions, assimilations, exclusions.  The estranged body, the legislated body, the violated, rejected, deprived body—the body as consummate home.  In virtually all of these formations, whatever the terrain, race magnifies the matter that matters.                                              

 –Toni Morrison, “Home”

If I had to live in a racial house,” Morrison states, it should be open, with lots of windows and doors.  But, she realized that turning it into “a palace” was problematic: “would it condemn me to intense bouts of nostalgia for the race-free home I have never had and would never know? . . . . wasn’t I (wouldn’t I always be) tethered to a death-dealing ideology even (and especially) when I honed all my intelligence toward subverting it?” (4-5).  Such questions haunt all of her work:  “How to enunciate race while depriving it of its lethal cling?”  How does a writer attempt to convey race-specific yet non-racist terrain?  And these questions ( of “concept . . . language . . .trajectory” ) have engaged her constantly.  As for readers’ engagements along these trajectories, Morrison writes:

“Narration requires the active complicity of a reader willing to step outside established boundaries of the racial imaginary.”

Take, for example, the infamous opening lines of Paradise:

They shoot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time. No need to hurry out here.  They are seventeen miles from a town which has ninety miles between it and any other.  Hiding places will be plentiful in the Convent, but there is time and the day has just begun. (3)

The enunciations of “can take their time” and “no need to hurry” along with the observation of “plentiful” places to hide make up a cadence which establishes the disposition of a particular group of characters.  Here is the language of a leisurely event, while the dramatic action happens quite quickly as the men’s sweep through the Convent. 

Tropical leaf forest by vsop for shutterstock

The telling of a cold-blooded murder-spree in such a lax tone of voice suggests that something is off-course, “tilted” here.  However, the passage reveals even more about Morrison’s project because, who is that white girl? The possible clues as to racial identity in the novel are too insufficient and ambiguous to decide who that “white girl” is.  And that is perhaps the point: it is the various characters’ and readers’ perceptions of what constitutes racial identity with which the novel is concerned.

 Responses Invitation:  Reflect, Write, Post:

What do you think about when you read Morrison’s assertion that novels require the reader to “step outside the boundaries of the racial imaginary”?

Next might be:  The Rhetorical Situation?   or  Subversive Love: Morrrison’s Radical Black Subjectivity. 

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