“I never asked Tolstoy to write for me, a little colored girl in Lorain, Ohio. I never asked Joyce not to mention Catholicism or the world of Dublin. Never. And I don’t know why I should be asked to explain your life to you. We have splendid writers to do that, but I am not one of them. It is that business of being universal, a word hopelessly stripped of meaning for me. Faulkner wrote what I suppose could be called regional literature and had it published all over the world. That’s what I wish to do. If I tried to write a universal novel, it would be water. Behind this question is the suggestion that to write for black people is somehow to diminish the writing. From my perspective there are only black people. When I say ‘people,’ that’s what I mean.”
– from Conversations with Toni Morrison
I deeply understand Toni’s frustration. Writing from one’s own truth/perspective/history is the surest way to resonate with readers from all walks of life. I myself have felt deeply moved by authors whom I have little in common with – Edith Wharton, George Orwell, Charles Dickens, John Keats, etc. From their hearts they wrote their stories, not mine. Yet their words spoke to me, a black girl from Ohio (like Toni), in meaningful ways that still resonate today. Similarly, Toni Morrison, Richard wright, and countless other black writers do an exceptional job of tapping into their introspective selves to tell their story in a way that resonates with a multitude of readers. Why, then, are they asked to write “universally”?
“At the end of October I was at the Port Harcourt Book Festival, along with 22 of the writers featured in the new Africa39 anthology (Bloomsbury), which I have edited. As with any festival, the best conversations happened after the events – over meals or late at night, outdoors in the muggy air. Here’s what I didn’t hear being discussed: the plight of being an “African writer”; the burden of having to address “issues” in fiction; the lack of a reading culture. ”
Did anything notable happen last week? Oh nothing . . . just an event featuring two of my favorite authors held at one of the most beautiful libraries in the USA **insert feigned nonchalant shrug as I try to contain my excitement**
Talk begins approximately 50 minutes into this video. I die of euphoria at approximately 51 minutes . . .
How does one gain access to one’s own life, to think about or even write about one’s own experiences? How does one find the language to articulate the being of his/her experiences? Can language capture the being or content of our experiences? Or, does it, in some way, only hope to capture merely our own perspective.
– Excerpt From “Black Boy: Phenomenology and the Existential Novel” by James B Haile