Toni Morrison and I, an everlasting connection
the first African American Woman in history who won
The Nobel Prize for Literature
By KLS Fuerte Author of “Never Saw You Coming”
If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it. Toni Morrison
It all started 29 years ago, in 1990, in a small classroom at the “Institut du Monde Anglophone”, a magnificent building in my university, the Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris. Whilst searching for a topic for my Master’s dissertation, Dr Fabre, professor in American Literature and Civilisations, had a casual conversation with me, just to guide me. I was interested in the impact of slavery on literature, the African cultures and their legacy in the Western world, but my professor thought that this was too wide, I needed to focus on a more specific topic, so he just said:
“Do you know Toni Morrison?”
“No, who is he?”
“She, so why don’t you go and find out? Read Beloved.”
This is how Dr Fabre launched me on my connection journey with the greatest American writer of all, Toni Morrison. From that casual conversation, I devoured Beloved, then Song of Solomon and Tar Baby. Those 3 novels and many other conversations with Dr Fabre, led to the formulation of my Master’s research in “The African Cultural Heritage in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, Beloved and Tar Baby”.
I spent one year researching, there was so much to learn about Toni Morrison herself, her characters, their stories, their representations and meanings, the African cultures and ethos, the American history. I was fascinated by the authors’ talent and the more I read about her, the more I felt the need to connect with her. She was alive, and I needed to have some answers to some of my dissertation questions. So I wrote her a letter, and sent it to her publishing house, Random House in New York. She replied! I was shocked but exhilarated in happiness. I hope to find this letter again one day, hidden somewhere in the loft.
I did not know, back then, that I would name my first child, Sèverine. Her name is inspired from Séverine, a French name, but I turned the accent to Sèverine in order to mean “Essence of life” like the sap. “Sap” in French is “sève”. The sap runs everywhere in nature, in the trees. Nature has always a dominant place in Morrison’s novels. The tree, as I learnt through her work and in African ethos, represents life with all its magical powers. The tree holds its roots in the ground but elevates itself towards the cosmos. The name of my first child, Sèverine, means “essence of life”, and therefore Toni Morrison has a part in her.
In October 1993, I succeeded and passed my Master’s dissertation, just as she won the Noble Prize in Literature, and became the first African American woman in history to receive it. I was so proud! Her achievements, her talents embody the strength of black women in America, and as a young French black student in Paris, I cherished it as the “strength of black women”. She fuelled my desire for writing even more.
When she passed away, last August, I felt the urge to show her my respect and write about her. I need to share what I have learnt about her, her life, her works and how she greatly influenced me, my work, my life, my writing, even from a distance. I must write about this great lady, this iconic American writer. Sharing my findings about the African cultural heritage in her work is my way to honour her, to thank her. Who was she?
She was born Chloe Anthony Wofford, on February 1931, in Lorain, Ohio, a small steel-mill town. Her parents, George and Rahma Willis Wofford, were Southern migrants who left the deep South in search of improved social, political, educational and economic opportunities for their family. From her parents, she learnt about the importance of identity and privacy. When her mother was 3 years old, with her other 6 siblings, she had to escape the restrictions of Southern life, because her father, a sharecropper, lost his land and moved to Georgia. Morison’s father, came from Georgia and the racial violence, in which he grew up in that state, had a lasting effect on his vision of white America. He left his daughter with a strong sense of her own value in her own terms. Her mother, whose name Rahma was randomly picked up from the Bible (just like the characters in “Song of Solomon”), had a more optimistic belief that the future would bring better race relations. In her early years, Morison was surrounded by her mother who sang, her grandmother who religiously told them stories. She confesses to Bessie W. Jones (1985) “We were intimate with the supernatural”. She listened to the hair-rising ghost tales her parents told. These permeate her work. In an interview with Gail Caldwell (1987), she said: "As a child, everybody knew there were ghosts, you didn't put your hand under the bed when you slept at night. It's that place that you go to [in Beloved]”.
There is so much more to share with you about Morrison and her works. She is the greatest writer of all times, in my book! That’s my everlasting connection!