“Don’t be Scared, Ever” | Daily News


“Don’t be Scared, Ever”

It is amazing how our best laid plans go awry. No sooner than I stopped my column and bid good bye to my dear readers, here I am back from the other side of the world, meeting you again, on a Monday. And it is not as if I had a choice. When I heard one of my favourite authors is no more I had to return from my self-imposed hibernation to pay her a final tribute.

It is hard to imagine a world without Toni Morrison; hard to realize there won’t be another book published by her this year, that there will be no more of her quotes to add to my favourite quotes list. But it is comforting to know the legacy she left behind, the lessons she taught me about how to write and how to live will remain with me, for life.

Some of the lessons I learnt from her were simple. I learnt from her about the best time of the day one should begin to write. I have always written my various articles to the newspapers and my novels amidst the heat and dust of Colombo often late into the night with only the stars to keep me company. But apparently, I was doing it wrong. For, Toni Morrison did it the other way. She wrote at 4 in the morning.

It is Toni Morrison who passed away this August and who had many literary laurels in her name including the Nobel Prize in 1993, the Pulitzer in 1988 for Beloved and in 2012, the presidential medal of freedom, from her friend Barack Obama, who taught me it is not bad to want to look good no matter how old you get. As an interviewer from the Guardian describes her in an article written in 2015, “Of all the mantles that have been foisted on Toni Morrison’s shoulders, the heaviest has to be “the conscience of America”...when I arrive at her apartment in Tribeca, Lower Manhattan, America’s Conscience is having her eyebrows drawn on. “For the photographer,” she explains with a chuckle.” Later, she tells the photographer: “We did makeup for you. I have eyebrows and everything,” then adds: “You lose all that stuff … ” The implied second half of that sentence was “when you reach my age”.

Toni Morrison taught me that no matter how many obstacles are on my path, I could always find ways to continue to write. As a single working mother of two small sons, she rose at 4am every day to complete her first novel. She said writing before dawn began as a necessity. “I had small children when I first began to write and I needed to use the time before they said, Mama—and that was always around five in the morning… I always get up and make a cup of coffee while it is still dark—it must be dark—and then I drink the coffee and watch the light come. And I realized that for me this ritual comprises my preparation to enter a space that I can only call nonsecular . . . Writers all devise ways to approach that place where they expect to make the contact, where they become the conduit, or where they engage in this mysterious process. For me, light is the signal in the transition. It’s not being in the light, it’s being there before it arrives. It enables me, in some sense.”

She taught me, and most others of my generation who are always ready to take offence, that labels are not all that bad. She had always welcomed the term “black writer”. “I’m writing for black people,” she said, “in the same way that Tolstoy was not writing for me, a 14-year-old coloured girl from Lorain, Ohio. I don’t have to apologize or consider myself limited because I don’t [write about white people] – which is not absolutely true, there are lots of white people in my books. The point is not having the white critic sit on your shoulder and approve it” – she referred to the writer James Baldwin talking about “a little white man deep inside of all of us” and denied she had one. “Well I never really had it. I just never did.”

She thought this was because she grew up in Lorain, where the neighbourhood was racially mixed: there were Poles, Italians and Jews as well as African Americans. But we all secretly know its less to do with demographics and more to do with her own supreme self assurance. It was this that propelled her to Harvard University and then on to Cornell, where she completed a master’s in literature. It was this self assurance, too, that gave her the courage to split from her husband when she was pregnant with her second child and, that made her such an iconoclastic force as an editor at Random House where she propelled works by black writers into the mainstream. Finally, of course, she herself became one of the publishing house’s most cherished names.

Toni Morrison also taught me growing old is something to look forward to. When she was interviewed by her friend Hilton Als, the writer and critic, she told him that now she’s in her 80s, there are three things she gets to say. One is “No”. The other is “Shut up”. And the third is “Get out”. In other words, she knew she had earned her right not to do what she doesn’t want to do. That included not writing a memoir, even though she signed a two book contract with Random House. “But then I canceled it,” she said. “My publisher asked me to do it, but there’s a point at which your life is not interesting, at least to me. I’d rather write fiction.”

Morrison also gave me the best advice I have ever had on how to remain young, forever. “Some people just close when they get old,” she explained. “But if you’re open, if you have been, you can rely on the lived wisdom of the elderly. It’s not the book learning, it’s the lived wisdom. I ask friends of mine, ‘How old are you, inside?’, and they always know. I know that I am 23.” Toni Morrison also gave me the best advice ever when it comes to pursuing a career as a writer. “People say to write about what you know,” she said. “I’m here to tell you, no one wants to read that, cos you don’t know anything. So write about something you don’t know. And don’t be scared, ever.”

And now, you are no longer with us, Toni Morrison. But, you will live on, in every beat of the hearts you touched with your work, with your courage, with your love. 

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