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Toni Morrison

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    Toni Morrison

    Following the recent discussion about how we don't have enough threads down here in Books, partly because lots of discussions get half-started in Current Reading and not expanded upon, and following Satchmo's (I think?) recent request in Current Reading for my thoughts on Jazz, I thought I'd make a new thread. I mean, I appear to be the most recent OTFer to read Morrison for the first time, but I assume I'm not the only one ...

    So, my thoughts on Jazz. First a caveat: it's been nearly two months, and four and a half books, since I finished it, so it's not fresh in my memory. But let's have a go.

    The copy I read is a paper edition (not an ebook! I decided to spoil myself) of my girlfriend's from about 2004 or 2005, presumably brought back for her by her uncle from one his trips to the UK as it's a UK edition and has a quote from a Guardian review on the cover that was obviously well meaning at the time but looks a bit icky, to my mind, in the wake of conversations around race (in the wider world and in publishing) over the last year or two; my girlfriend has since lent the book to a friend, so I might be misremembering slightly, but it approximately says 'Morrison's voice transcends colour and creed', as if to say 'don't worry about the fact she's Black, she's a great writer all the same.' I can't imagine a reviewer today saying that about, say, Marlon James's writing, which is just as deeply rooted in matters of race and struggle (albeit, James being Jamaican, in a very different context from Morrison or, to pick a more contemporary example, Paul Beatty).

    That description also seems to brush over the fact that Morrison's voice is very distinctively a Black American voice, and the narrator uses what's now* labelled African American Vernacular English (AAVE) right from the very first word of the book. You don't have to be Black to read this book, but the African American** experience is so central to it that the quote on the front cover, in isolation (and I've not looked up the review it's from, so it might just be the publisher picking a quote that looks odd without context) seems to be missing the point somewhat.

    I've looked up a few bits online about the book to refresh my memory. The interesting thing I found while reading it is that while the music that gives the novel its title is mentioned at times, it's not really central to the narrative – and yet in many ways I think the point is that it's narratives like the one told in Jazz that are central to the story of (and the stories told by) the music. A point often made in the posts I've read is that the rhythm of the language is meant to evoke that of jazz music, and I remember having that impression while I read it. It's lyrical and intense, haunting and brutal, and (SPOILER ALERT) there's a sense by the end that while things might not exactly be fair on everyone, this is the life the protagonists have to live and they'll damn well do what they can to make the most of that situation, and to forgive each other. And in that respect, it's like a lot of the best jazz music. It takes place during the Harlem Renaissance, of course, but the most obvious parallel to me is Coltrane's A Love Supreme, which was recorded much later than the book's action but, obviously, some time before its writing.

    I've only found out in the last couple of days, since starting to read around it, that Jazz is considered the second part of a trilogy that begins with Beloved. I wish I'd read Beloved before it, now, and will try to read it soon now I know.

    In hindsight, I suppose it should've been obvious that a Black woman who'd won as white male (and prestigious!) a thing as the Nobel was going to be an astounding writer. I look forward to adding more by her to my To Read list.


    *And for all I know, at the time – I Am Not A Linguist. I just follow a few of them on Twitter.

    **I use the term cautiously here, as I'm aware it doesn't encompass all Black Americans. But the central characters in the book are the descendants of enslaved people of the American South, so specifically not Caribbean in origin.
    Last edited by Sam; 05-07-2021, 06:58.

    I've read Beloved, and my regret is that I saw the film first, without knowing anything about either Toni Morrison or the book*. But still, it is a magnificent novel. Pretty much wrenched my gut out, even though seeing the film meant I knew what was coming.

    *Which isn't good considering we had a half-year course on 20th Century American literature at university, where all the other major figures were at least given a mention. In mitigation, I'm talking about 32 years ago, so Beloved hadn't long been published then, and Jazz would only come out in 1992(?) Still, a specialist ought to have been able to point to her as someone worth reading.


      When I was reading academic stuff about hip hop back in the late 90s the term most frequently used was Ebonics rather than AAVE


        Ebonics was coopted as a term of derision and attack by the Right here and therefore abandoned.


          Originally posted by ursus arctos View Post
          Ebonics was coopted as a term of derision and attack by the Right here and therefore abandoned.
          Yes, I remember the journey from academic term to news story to parody, then attack being quite swift.


            Ebonics was never a linguistic term, it was coined by a social psychologist and was never really in great use by anybody until the Oakland School Board used it in a statement about the languages spoken by its students and how bilingual education could work, which is where it was picked up and ran with by the national media, usually in a reactionary and derisive tone.

            Linguists have always used AAVE as the technical term and while at UC Santa Cruz I did have the chance to take classes from Geoff Pullum, who authored one of the more definitive essays on the subject: