The Next Chapter

Donna Bailey Nurse on 4 novels by Black authors that evoke the spirit of legendary writer Toni Morrison

The Next Chapter columnist Donna Bailey Nurse spotlights books by four writers who will be part of a celebration of Toni Morrison's legacy at Toronto's Luminato festival in 2022.

'There's this kind of handshake, through the void, to Dr. Morrison's work,' she says

The Next Chapter columnist Donna Bailey Nurse, right, is hosting a celebration of Toni Morrison's legacy at the Luminato festival in Toronto. (Knopf, Mallory Drumm)

The Next Chapter columnist Donna Bailey Nurse, a Toronto-based writer and literary critic, says the work of the late American novelist Toni Morrison still resonates widely today — especially with other Black women writers trying to explore similar ground she tread in her work.

Nurse, who had the chance to interview Morrison about her novel Paradise many years ago, says reading Morrison's writing allowed her to better understand Black history — and herself.

To pay tribute to the legendary writer, Nurse is producing a celebration of Morrison's legacy as part of the annual Luminato arts festival. The two-part event takes place on June 17 and 18 at Toronto's Winter Garden Theatre and features a lineup of acclaimed Canadian and international Black women writers, all of whom cite Morrison as an inspiration.

Nurse spoke with Shelagh Rogers about the influence of Morrison's work in books by four Canadian authors who will be appearing at the Luminato event.

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan 

Washington Black is a novel by Esi Edugyan. (Patrick Crean Editions, Tamara Poppitt)

"When Washington Black came out, Esi came to town, and she asked me what I thought of it. And I said, 'Well, have you ever heard of Toni Morrison?' I really see that she is influenced in many ways — especially in Washington Black — by Beloved and in the way that Beloved was one of the first novels to really express how grotesque the institution of slavery was, and how brutal.

"By reading Morrison, you really understand how grotesque this practice, and this culture that gave rise to it, was. And I feel that in Washington Black, there is also a brutality. Edugyan allows herself to go there, and Morrison gives her permission to do that.

In Washington Black, there is also a brutality. Edugyan allows herself to go there, and Morrison gives her permission to do that.

"I also feel like there's a sense that she understands that she can write about whoever she wants, and they don't have to be major figures. They can be ordinary Black people. They can be upper-class or lower-class, so we realize that we have the full breadth of humanity within our literature."

The Son of the House by Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia

The Son of the House is a novel by Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia. (Dundurn Press)

"This novel is about two women who are actually kidnapped together, but one woman grows up without a mother, and we see how that influences her. And the other woman has grown up with the mother and was able to learn who she is through a mother.

Black women's literature is very much about connecting these women to their culture, to their mothers, to their land.

"The mother in Black women's writing is Mother Africa. It's the land, and the land that some of us are privy to and have remained in, and some of us have been exiled from through history and slavery, etc.

"And so Black women's literature is very much about connecting these women to their culture, to their mothers, to their land. And that is part of the power of The Son of the House. So again, there's this kind of handshake, through the void, to Dr. Morrison's work."

Daughters of Silence by Rebecca Fisseha

Rebecca Fisseha is the author of Daughters of Silence. (Goose Lane Editions, Chris Frampton)

"In this book, again you have the significance of the mother-daughter bond. They love each other, but they've been estranged over a crisis. While in Ethiopia, the main character, Dessie, winds up trying to find out more about her mother's past.

"I think one of the main things that Toni Morrison has given us as Black writers is, how do we tackle history? What is to be our approach? Because this linear thing is not really our way of seeing — or it doesn't include us, in any case. What references shall we use? What language shall we use? How are we going to talk about things that are what Toni Morrison calls 'unspeakable'?

Language can never pin down slavery, genocide, war — nor should it yearn for the arrogance to be able to do so.- Toni Morrison

"In this novel, too, there's an unspeakable situation. The central character is molested by a member of her family — and that is something that the novel itself circles around. Like so many of Toni Morrison's novels, we kind of know what happens — but at the same time, how do we get to it? In fact, she says something really special about that: 'Language can never pin down slavery, genocide, war — nor should it yearn for the arrogance to be able to do so.'

"So these catastrophes in the middle of so many of these Black women's stories are representative in a way of the great tragedy of slavery, but also history. How do you talk about these things? What are the ways that are meaningful to us? And one of the things that we always find with these writers who are emulating Morrison is quite often it's a group conversation — recounting history is a community affair. And so that's one of the ways you inch toward that story — little by little, each person giving their bit like a jazz performance."

Butter Honey Pig Bread by Francesca Ekwuyasi 

Butter Honey Pig Bread is a novel by Francesca Ekwuyasi. (Monica Phung, Arsenal Pulp Press)

"I think it reminds me very much of Beloved in the way that it involves a reincarnated spirit who doesn't want to remain alive, who keeps wanting to be pulled back to the ancestors. And of course, this is the main character in Beloved as well, the ghost that we call Beloved. The book is named for this reincarnated figure that is pulled between the mother and the ancestors.

I really feel that is one of the reasons why she has so much power for the African-born writers.

"I would say that Francesca is very much writing in this vein, but I would also say that Toni Morrison's writing is the reason there are a lot of African-born writers named here, because her writing is very conciliatory — or maybe the right word would be reconciliatory — really trying to bridge that gap. I really feel that is one of the reasons why she has so much power for the African-born writers. She's trying to create a full diasporic story, not just outside of Africa, but including Africa as well."

Donna Bailey Nurse's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?

now