Today is a special day on the calendar for women’s literature: it is both Toni’s Morrison’s and Audre Lorde’s birthday. This year, Ms. Morrison is celebrating her 88th. If Ms. Lorde were still with us, she would be turning 85. Both 20th century icons; while my women’s library focuses more on fiction and novels (Toni Morrison’s area of expertise), Audre Lorde’s poetry and essays have been deeply important to me and my personal library since high school.
My vote for Morrison’s most important single contribution to literature would be Beloved. My favorite to read is probably Jazz. But the book that is most important to me (which is a slight distinction from “my favorite”) is The Bluest Eye.
Beloved netted her the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel. It arguably put her in the “mainstream” in a way she wasn’t before (for example, she landed at Princeton two years after its publication). But more important than any of those outward indicators of success, it’s a “big” novel.
Big like Midnight’s Children or Ulysses, where you can read it time and again and still see more to it that you missed the first time. A novel that points to something larger that has always been there, pulsing under the surface, but no one had punched a hole in the wall (or ceiling) to allow it out into the open. In my own personal list of the greatest American novels of the 20th century, it is first.
But Beloved is brutal. It needs to be, but it’s not easy. I had a friend who read two pages and threw the book across the room. Having had miscarriages herself, it was just hitting too close to home to her – she couldn’t go through with reading it. I understood.
Jazz has some brutality to it too, but it’s a much easier read, and the prose is so, so beautiful. I can curl up inside Jazz almost any old time. Jazz is a comforting old fried compared to the bigness of Beloved. A very close second is Sula. Sula captured female friendship in such a familiar way that it, too, even with its sadness feels like visiting with an old friend when I read it again.
But I said that The Bluest Eye was the Toni Morrison book most important to me. That’s because it’s the first Toni Morrison I ever read, when I was…I think…14 years old, or thereabouts. If I recall, our summer reading list of our sophomore year included several women writers, and I picked them all, which is how I ended up reading The Color Purple, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, and The Bluest Eye, all in one summer.
If I’ve reread it, it was only once. But I still remember almost all of the book, scene for scene. It was shocking for me, and eye opening too. It was one of the first windows I had into what it was like to grow up as a black girl held up against the beauty ideals of white society. Pecola’s experiences – all of them – were seared into my memory that summer. It is a Nobel-level writer who can craft a novel so memorable that I can recall it so vividly 20-odd years later.
Audre Lorde was another writer I discovered in high school, and I think the first poem I ever read of hers was in a collection of women’s poems (maybe some essays too) that I didn’t even own – my friend Penny did, and it was called Ain’t I A Woman (I can still see the cover). I borrowed it from her so many times that I memorized most of the poems in it, including Audre Lorde’s. That was my introduction to her, and I started seeking out more work by her when I become a full-on poetry junkie (a habit which hasn’t waned all these years later!).
In fact, I bought a vintage copy of Lorde’s Coal on eBay, this year, and coming across one of the last poems in the collection, I found myself reciting a poem I hadn’t realized I still had memorized all these years later… “If you come as softly as wind through the trees/you will hear what I hear/see what sorrow sees…”
If I find myself with Audre Lorde poems still lodged in my brain at the end of my time on this planet, whenever that happens to be, I will be most satisfied!
Anyway, happy birthday, Toni Morrison, and happy birthday Audre Lorde!