“To Give a Being Like Me Language” – Akwaeke Emezi on Toni Morrison

After Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison died just a few days ago, I thought a lot about what her work meant to me, and I read a lot of tributes to her. The piece of writing that struck me most is this letter by nonbinary writer/ogbanje Akwaeke Emezi:

The elderspirit of you leapt into my head the day Professor Mayes played a VHS tape from her archive of an interview you gave after you won the Nobel Prize.
‘I stood at the border, stood at the edge, and claimed it as central. Claimed it as central, and let the rest of the world move over to where I was.’
Your words reached like an arm of fire out of that television screen, and I swear they were just for me. This is the you I know. It is no small thing to give a being like me language.”

Their letter was published by Them.

The letter may be the most beautiful, center-challenging – and in that combination most Morrison-like – piece I read these days. Morrison’s writing meant a lot to me, but I can barely start to understand what she meant to people who live closer to the edges than I do.

Fortunately, all of the poetry I was discovering in and out of the classroom (most notably Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde) showed me how to come to grips with disaster without becoming one, and how to live in an unjust world, and in a culture that loves to “not get” poetry, without becoming bitter.

Elena Ferrante and Privacy As A Part of Writing and Reading

The “real” identity of Italian writer Elena Ferrante was recently unmasked by a male journalist who, with an investigative intensity usually reserved for political and critical cases, used financial records to prove his case. Camila Domonoske wrote a great, concise round up of the case and reactions for NPR, aptly titled “For Literary World, Unmasking Elena Ferrante’s Not A Scoop, It’s A Disgrace.”

I want to also recommend a particularly insightful text on the issue by Dayna Tortorici for n+1. Tortorici describes how crucial the pseudonymity is for Ferrante’s writing, how beneficial it is for the reader, and how the unmasking in this case is basically a form of silencing:

Ferrante’s readers were quick to denounce Gatti’s revelation. I myself was irritated. Even the stones know that Ferrante is Ferrante, and that’s the way her readers want it. More than Ferrante herself, her readers have benefited from her choice, spared so much extradiegetic noise. We are as invested in her anonymity—and her autonomy—as she is. It is a compact: she won’t tell us, we won’t ask, and she won’t change her mind and tell us anyway. In exchange, she’ll write books and we’ll read them. The feminist defense of Ferrante’s privacy was especially swift. It’s difficult to read a man’s attempt to “out” a writer who has said she would stop writing if she were ever identified as anything but an attempt to make her stop writing.

Reading the banal pages of this journal reminds me, more than anything else, of the disconnect between what I thought I was supposed to feel (what a normal person would feel) and what I actually felt. This disconnect followed me for a long time. It’s always there, a hitch or hiccup in the otherwise smooth surface of a day. Single sentences that suggest the other half of the story: “Her party just made me feel depressed. … He is a nice person, very friendly, but a little too “something I don’t like” for me. … I want to be normal, but I’m unable to do it.” It was only years after VOLUME I that I realized the disconnect was the thing I needed to write about.

of course i want to be successful
but i don’t crave success for me
i need to be successful to gain
enough milk and honey
to help those around
me succeed

From rupi kaur’s milk and honey

Milk and honey is equally heart-wrenching and heartwarming. Some of it, especially the first part “the hurting,” is a terrifying, intense depiction of abuse. “The hurting” and the closing part, “the healing” (including the quote above) are the strongest. In it’s middle it gets a bit repetitive, conventional in a way I did not expect after the first part. Thus, the four parts – the hurting, the loving, the breaking, the healing – are somewhat unbalanced. However, the middle is only conventional and repetitive relative to the rest. All in all the kaur’s work is fascinating, and probably a book I will return to again.

Elizabeth Alexander and Hilton Als on Dreams and Obsession

The New York Public Library podcast is a treasure trove of great recorded conversations. This week, the institution released a particularly fascinating talk between poet Elizabeth Alexander – who read her poem “Praise Song for the Day” at President Obama’s inauguration – and writer Hilton Als. They discuss Alexander’s work in poetry and academia and her life and memoir, The Light of the World. These two Black intellectuals make too many beautiful observations and pointed comments to sum up here, I highly recommend listening to the podcast. (I just spring cleaned our bedroom just to have an excuse to keep listening.)

Elizabeth Alexander and Hilton Als on Dreams and Obsession

My answer has been characterized, in various places, as an “endorsement,” a characterization that I’d object to. Despite my very obvious political biases, I’ve never felt it was really my job to get people to agree with me. My first duty, as a writer, is to myself. In that sense I simply hope to ask all the questions that keep me up at night. My second duty is to my readers. In that sense, I hope to make readers understand why those questions are critical. I don’t so much hope that any reader “agrees” with me, as I hope to haunt them, to trouble their sense of how things actually are.