Tolstoy Was not Writing for Me

Is there anyone who shows us better than Toni Morrison how to weather life and keep on singing? Singing fiercely, what’s more. Look at this 2015 Guardian interview.

Admittedly, her forays into children’s books have left me, well, puzzled. Because where is the ferocious beauty of language, the glorious leaping narrative I know from The Bluest Eye or Beloved? Where is the “appetite for truth?”

Never mind. Today I’m breathing in this passage from the interview:

Most writers claim to abhor labels but Morrison has always welcomed the term “black writer”. “I’m writing for black people,” she says, “in the same way that Tolstoy was not writing for me, a 14-year-old coloured girl from Lorain, Ohio. I don’t have to apologise or consider myself limited because I don’t [write about white people] – which is not absolutely true, there are lots of white people in my books. The point is not having the white critic sit on your shoulder and approve it” – she refers to the writer James Baldwin talking about “a little white man deep inside of all of us”. Did she exorcise hers? “Well I never really had it. I just never did.”

Today I am returning to a picture book that is not selling. Nothing saps courage more than a manuscript that has not found a home. I’m told there’s too much information in this one. The structure is slight. There’s not enough there there.

I’m setting those comments aside for now. They may be completely on target but addressing objections head-on has never been my style.

Instead I’m going to see if it will help to come at the story another way. To try to zero in on the child reader–a brown kid like the brown kid I used to be, the brown kid I still carry around inside me. Not writing for everyone, the way Tolstoy was not writing for me. Maybe that way I’ll find out if there is in fact a story lurking behind the words.

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