Marlon James on Toni Morrison: She gave us the legitimacy to write in our own tongues

In his introduction to a new edition of Song of Solomon, the author of Moon Witch, Spider King reflects on Morrison's astounding legacy

Marlon James
Flynn Shore / Penguin

The first time I got to the end of Song of Solomon I had been reading the last 50 pages standing up, caught somewhere between rapture and stupor, but mostly just disbelief. Not in the story, but in astonishment that such a sustained burst of genius could be happening, and that I was reading it. I turned each page almost with violence, expecting this literary high-wire act to crash and burn just one page over.

Instead, the novel transformed me from reader to believer. And I was going so hard in this belief that I arrived at that last sentence crouched in the ledge of my bedroom window, convinced to jump. How you read that sentence depends on whether you have finished the novel or not, but regardless, those final pages me left me so awestruck that I believed Milkman's final action was the most sensible and inevitable thing in the world. The only thing that saved me from a disastrous leap was the scraping sound of the turning page, reminding me that this was indeed a novel, and the realisation that I was two floors up. But to this day I'm pretty damn sure that I would have flown.

Something tells me that this is how Morrison planned it. She wrote words to that effect in her essay ‘Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation’, that literature "should try deliberately to make you stand up, and make you feel something profoundly in the same way that a Black preacher requires his congregation to speak, to join him in the sermon. In the same way that a musician's music is enhanced when there is a response from the audience." The novel ends mid-climax, at the moment of highest tension and greatest release, with the resolution hingeing on one final line. It’s enough, but still it leaves us out of breath and gasping in wonder.

I can trace much of who I am as a writer to Morrison, but also came to her late. I hadn't even read The Bluest Eye until 2002. This part of the story is quick, and it begins in Jamaica that same year, with me at a writers’ retreat, despite not believing I was a writer. Leading the workshop was the Trinidadian novelist Elizabeth Nunez, whose Bruised Hibiscus had caught Morrison's attention. I was in the middle of writing what would become my first novel, and to paraphrase George Clinton, I was cool, but had no groove. Maybe it's for the best that I can't remember what passage I read exactly, but it was violent and crazy and had women doing things that no woman with half her wits would do.

Nunez told me that the writing was good, but on women I didn't have a clue. I wasn't the first man to get defensive when told he doesn't know women and I took umbrage, the way men who don't have a clue always do, by reeling off my list of female siblings. But how many women have you read? she said, not trying to land a punch, but doing so anyway. I could think of only a handful, and only one alive. I was clueless because I had no idea how women wrote women. If you think that doesn't matter, then you haven't read that past 100 years of men writing women, where "her breasts preceded her into the room" stands as an actual sentence approved by an editor. Which is line if you are a writer cool with women being merely a projection of fears and desires that you react to, instead of actual people. She told me to read Toni Morrison.

I did not read Morrison until she was prescribed to me, like medicine

Of course I knew of Morrison. She orbits the world of literature even if you have never read her books. I remember older students carrying that yellow book with the black wings on the cover — Song of Solomon, which I thought was some kind of religious text. But I did not read Morrison until she was prescribed to me, like medicine. Since then, I've been trying to capture in words the effect of her novels, in particular Sula and Song of Solomon, but have failed to do so — at least to the extent that I actually feel. In the past I have compared it to being blind and learning suddenly, shockingly, the colour red. Marquez said that Kafka gave him permission to write. Morrison made me ask why would one go looking for permission in the first place.

You would have to understand the language of a Black writer, perhaps post-colonial but not American, before writers like Toni Morrison cast their influence over it. Jamaican English, like Indian English, Nigerian English, Sri Lankan English, was considered by writers like me to be inferior English, with the enduring consequence that we never considered the voice coming from our own tongues worthy of serious literature. Unless it was to draw attention to how simple and sentimental it was, or how slapstickingly funny. Like Black American writers, we also thought that our prose was like the call and response in sermons and song; like them we also found voices in music, and like them we thought our words were meant to be said aloud. But unlike Black Americans, we were never taught that these were good things. Add to that an atrophying variant of English that is still taught as standard in our countries, and you end up with an idea of literature that the British had long moved away from. Forget Graham Greene, we were still trying to sound like Longfellow.

Claude McKay, a Jamaican crucial to the Harlem renaissance, was trapped in this tongue and knew it. It is why an early Caribbean novel such as To Sir, With Love now reads painfully stilted and awkward. This English, verbose, inert, passive, trapped in a servile tone for a massa long gone, but a queen still ruling. Language that provoked an opposite reaction, a move beyond narrative economy into a kind of astringency; the English of some of V. S. Naipaul's later works, which escaped the garrulity of what was essentially servants’ English, but obliterated lyricism in the process. Too high a price, to be honest, for the result was voices that still did not sound like us.

I wasn't the only writer to think that surely there must be some other way. Orality may have been a symptom of blackness, which Naipaul had no use for. Gabriel Garcia Marquez pointed the way, but rival ‘magical realist’ José Donoso once claimed that no single writer of the Latin boom had pulled off a real woman, and he was right. What we needed (thought we didn't know it at the time) was a guiding light and a sista-gurl, a voice like the vibrato of our own throats that still hit the ground with the stomp of authority. It came with the very first sentence of Song of Solomon:

The North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance agent promised to fly from Mercy to the other side of Lake Superior at three o'clock.

Morrison bristled at being compared to Faulkner and Joyce, for several reasons, including the ridiculousness of assuming that she pandered to a standard set by white men; that these writers should be the standard (notwithstanding their genius); and that her work was the product of a gaze, this time of her eyes upon their work. To compare her to Faulkner was to center him in work that probably had little allegiance to it. Yes, he liberated the use of voice and point of view in fiction, but there wasn't much space for a Black writer to build on, with all those inert Negroes doing nothing but enduring.

These comparisons ignored that the wellspring of her art came from music and voice, from blues and jazz, from signifyin’ and from sources too Black to have any origin in Dublin or Yoknapatawpha. But I have another guess about the comparison and it is that she was being compared to those writers because nobody expected a Black woman to begin a novel with such authority. Morrison said she wanted the line to have the simplicity of the news report, but it has the gravity of it as well. The assumption that what we read is true because that is what was said. A part of my brain always hears I said what I said ringing as an echo whenever I read it. The sentence doesn't try to prove itself, and the second line doesn't try justifying why the first exists. The line doesn't explain any more than a Marquez or a Kafka line would.

The sentence is not even trying to be profound, which makes it even more powerful, like that old relative beginning a tall tale expecting you to accept it as true because he's telling it. It's a line like this, so unafraid of its own structure, that taught writers like me to approach words with fearlessness and simplicity, with entitlement, something I would never have learned in English class. That is not to  say Morrison is writing in dialect, which is what too many think we are talking about when we talk about Black English. But she is writing in a voice and a tone that have origins outside the canon.

It's impossible to overstate how important it was to see such lyricism, such Black orality, in a novel. I could say it gave us the legitimacy to write in our own tongues, and to speak what even in our worlds we find unspeakable; not just dysfunction, or even perversion, but also dissatisfaction and doubt. I could say that reading her prose confirmed the prose and poetry within us, but that would imply that we all write like her, and nobody does. What she gave us was the license to find our own specificity, in the same say Achebe helped her find hers. Then there is the sheer pleasure of simply reading those words, to be wowed by the Morrison paragraph. Nobody else writes them, and nobody's lines sound like hers:

He soaped and rubbed her until her skin squeaked and glistened like onyx. She put salve on his face. He washed her hair. She sprinkled talcum on his feet. He straddled her behind and massaged her back. She put witch hazel on his swollen neck. He made up the bed. She gave him gumbo to eat. He washed the dishes. She washed his clothes and hung them out to dry. He scoured her tub. She ironed his shirt and pants. He gave her fifty dollars. She kissed his mouth. He touched her face. She said please come back. He said I'll see you tonight.

Read it again, this time aloud. What first becomes clear is what Morrison has said all along, that she is inspired by the musicality of Black American language, the call and response, the swing and sway of he/she, she/he, the raw matter-of- factness of blues-speak. The rhythm of the phrasing matching the physicality of the action. The scene is overwhelmingly sensual – you hear the squeak of oil, glide over the breath of dark skin, smell the perfume of powder and respond to the healing hands of a massage. When the characters are not touching each other's bodies, the fleshliness remains, where doing something for someone is as carnal as doing it with someone: washing the dishes, scouring the tub, ironing the pants.

These are everyday actions that involve us because we know how to scour a tub, and wash a dish, but we've never before read them steeped in such lyricism. And damn if it's not the sexiest thing, something we never write about when it comes to Morrison, mostly because we are the ones without the language, not her. It's deliberate, but also carefully considered. Morrison herself said so in her essay, ‘Memory, Creation and Writing’, that she wants her fiction to "urge the reader into active participation in the non-narrative, non-literary experience of the text, to respond on the same plane as an illiterate or preliterate [person] would". More than that, she wants us to subvert our traditional comfort to experience being in the company of one's own imagination.

'She wants us to subvert our traditional comfort to experience being in the company of one's own imagination'

Ironically enough, it was Black writers overseas who helped shape her own voice, Nigerian Chinua Achebe and South African Bessie Head among others, from whom she learned to write about blackness beyond the ground zero of slavery, and outside the context of whiteness. But I mentioned my late-term conversion to Morrison only because she also came to some of her forebears late, while finding a certain kind of specifirity in works not meant for her. In a conversation with Gloria Naylor she speaks of people's dismay and disappointment that she had, up until the point of completing her second novel, not read Zora Neale Hurston. But when she did, Morrison recognised that the literary tradition she had hoped to be a part of actually exists.

There are some crucial things being said here, about an experience so common that I simply assumed everyone had gone through it. I didn't know Black writers wrote children's books until I was too old, after years of trying to find a self I didn't know I was looking for, in Dick and Jane and Little House in the Big Goods. I didn't come across Caribbean literature until I was in my mid-teens, after trying to place myself in the frigid winter of A Christmas Carol, the man-hunting seasons of Pride and Prejudice or the oppressive but very British countryside of Tess. The Black American novel, Caribbean novel, Indian novel was always something taught a little too late. But what Morrison talks about did actually happen: that I discovered I was participating in a tradition before I knew it existed.

Family is both a reality and a spectre in Song of Solomon. The general critique, particularly from men, is that the novel takes a sledgehammer to the idea of a normal family, or at least a scalpel that cuts too wide open. Morrison does neither, but instead interrogates those relations in a way that has gained a stunning gravity. You could say she got to this point 45 years before the rest of us, that there is a difference between a family and bonded unit whose main purpose is to bring glory to the patriarch. Milkman's father, Macon Dead, causes his family to bear the weight of his ruthlessness, because that is the price one pays for a present father. The truth hits hard, but his might be the most universal ambition in the book. At the core of men like Macon is the conviction that the restoration of the family obliterated by slavery and Jim Crow must mean a restitution of the father in the dominant spot. After all, his family survived the death of his mother but shattered on the death of his father. Macon cannot bind his family with love, for love had nothing to do with its formation, so instead he binds it with spite, and that glue sticks.

Grow something, on the other hand, and the beauty becomes something for the world to see, for the world to want. And for the world to take.

This leaves a certain kind of Black reader in dismay. It's a truly strange position, where they deny the white gaze, but attack anything that interrogates their appropriation of it. From this sexist well also springs homophobia, but that's another story. To them the Black novel, especially from a woman, should be about uplift, but only their definition of it. And while the novel is certainly not nihilist, Milkman is the nihilist in it, at least for a time, and he's the one person who disappoints equally people bent on restoration, like his mother; acquisition, like his father; and destruction, like his best friend. In Milkman's father, we have a man adamant on gaining the prestige of being a patriarch, yet revulsed by what that actually looks like. Neither his wife nor his children give him the kind of satisfaction that comes from collecting a month's rent, or gaining property that will one day be of value to white people. He didn't court Ruth so much as secure her, which was merely following the status quo – he has property, she has beauty, therefore it makes practical sense.

But Macon is not a cold man so much as an irreparably damaged one, who thinks he has the stomach for such cynicism, but it leaves him cold. He is a man of few words, but nearly every single one is laced with contempt. Macon's father grew things, fruits beautiful and delicious, made what was most likely a worthless patch of earth into something rich. Macon doesn't grow things, he owns them. It's when he tells his son to "own things" that the cruel echo of slavery reverberates the most, that only in owning things is there real freedom, which he has blurred with power, in particular power over people. The thinking seems inevitable, coming from the descendant of people once owned, but the consequences are devastating. You grow love, not attain it, which is why Macon is not so much hostile to, as stupefied by, love's value. Gain something, property or people, and that asset leads to more assets. Own stuff that the white man doesn't want, and soon you can build an empire running parallel to theirs that never criss-crosses, never threatens. Grow something, on the other hand, and the beauty becomes something for the world to see, for the world to want. And for the world to take.

And then there is Pilate, Reba and Hagar, the three-woman family unit that Morrison explored previously in Sula, and subsequently in Beloved. You have to wonder about the impression such a family left on Morrison that she would write about it in three of her first five novels. This is not presented as ideal either because all three families are haunted by loss they either cause or that is thrust upon them, that is irreparable. Yet there is love in this family. It isn't enough, but it is more than Macon's family offers, even if the danger it breeds is not the opposite of love, but the perversion of it: obsession. Song of Solomon presents the two kinds of family, sometimes in back-to-back scenes, while also illustrating how both came about after the destruction of one previously. When Macon and Pilate's father is murdered, their bonds are severed, eventually permanently, and both end up in a state of flux (even though neither would agree to that statement). But both characters came of age in the 1950s, which offered up, in the films they wouldn't see, the magazines they couldn't buy and the television sets they would never watch, a vision of family that was white, straight and patriarchal. It's no surprise that in 2016 we should see this offered as the boilerplate ideal behind ‘Make America Great’, because this kind of greatness even Black Americans bought into.

There is an extraordinary Black American folk tale passed down through the years called ‘The People Who Could Fly’. Who knows where it originated, but the best guess is the Gullah people, direct descendants from Angolan slaves. Unlike the slaves who jumped ship and sank under the sea, these slaves just lifted themselves up in the sky one day and flew back to Africa. It's a tale that has endured for centuries, but it used to be a way of explaining when a slave suddenly disappeared. This turns the whole notion of flight to something romantic and metaphoric, a fleeing away from the truth of what happened to these slaves perhaps, but there is something in taking the tale literally. For one, it means rejecting the Christian viewpoint dropped on us with force and violence, to reject seeing the world through the same white gaze that the world sees us, for something previous – something that makes sense to the powers of the Black body, something that promises that we will return to where we were stolen from.

Which would be a great viewpoint, if that was all the story is about. But near the end comes, "[he] couldn't take them with him. Hadn't the time to teach them to fly. They must wait their chance to run" and it almost stings. The story isn't over before it makes clear that for everyone who flies there are more left behind. The person who flees to freedom also abandons others to slavery. In Song of Solomon it is one of those tricky, messy Morrison questions that have no answer. Is it an act of liberation or abandonment? To fly without a destination is simply to hover in the air, but to fly to freedom means also knowing that you leave others to make do with what they have. Those who can't fly must run, and run is what Pilate and Macon both do. Run is what Milkman also does. He would say that he didn't start running until near the end of the book, but he's been running from the morning his mother dropped him on the floor. Running from himself sounds like too ready-made a phrase, dripping in too much pop psychology, but never has such a thing been made clearer in a novel.

Through Song of Solomon rises the idea that you can only come into who you are by shedding all that you think you ought to be

And yet this is the story of Milkman. It's his novel, after all. But mother Ruth and sisters Lena and First Corinthians leave just as deep and disturbing an impression, because they carry with themselves the damage done by the men in this family, including him. For more than half of the novel we're unaware that either sister has an inner (or outer) life at all, assuming what Milkman does. Corinthian makes the wildly out-of-character decision to leave the house, and because she was raised to be taken care of, she becomes a maid and finds a use for her uppityness, even her arrogance, which gets smoothed into a confidence. She earns her own money and, for a time anyway, develops her own agency, her own way to fly.

But Milkman is the kind of protagonist who for most of the novel would have recoiled at being called one. His first real moment of self-consciousness comes while being caught in an act with his mother over which he had no consent or control. He feels alienated by most things and most people, yet is too selfish to seek anything that would make a connection. All around him are broken, hollow, cuckolded, battle-scarred, bitter men, and his father. He is friendly and friendless, except for Guitar, who finds a purpose too extreme, even if Milkman (and we) struggle to condemn it. One leg is shorter than the other. He walks against traffic on the street. He is a man-child neither living up to his promise nor benefiting from it, since what fulfils his lather does nothing for him. He is a boy stretching past thirty-one.

A man with a will for nothing, that is pulled by anything – even his journey to discovery began as something else. Just about everyone had a vision for Milkman but he himself. Yet these visions, impossible aspirations thrust upon a Black man, are also the problem. Only Pilate wants him to become who he truly is, and Milkman only sees what he could grasp, quick wealth that would take him out of the obligation to be himself. Milkman loses everything he has; never gains anything he initially wants, but finds what he never thought he needed. Family, yes, but in this case family is a mystery solved only after he cuts loose from any definition of what that might be. Through Song of Solomon rises the idea that you can only come into who you are by shedding all that you think you ought to be. It's too easy to say the novel ends with Milkman finally becoming a man. Rather, Milkman becomes the person beyond the limit of his own imagination, maybe his own self. He sees himself correctly. Blackly. Some people read that last line as him falling. But I don't think Milkman flies. He soars.

Sign up to the Penguin Newsletter

For the latest books, recommendations, author interviews and more