They Say Write About What You Know
I first read Toni Morrison’s work in the early seventies. I think the first book I read written by her was The Bluest Eye. I read it twice in succession, because it was one of the first books that I read which cast a new light on a particular human experience dealing with Black Americans. She unapologetically examined the feelings and emotions held inside the heart of an unremembered, discarded black girl, and made me look down deep inside myself and feel it too.
In fact, all of her novels explored the souls of individuals who were scorned and overlooked while they lived through the brutal realities of their lives. When you read anything, she wrote, you cannot avoid seeing how colonialism and expansionism had the affect of discrediting African culture and history and therefore also dismissing the people who brought that culture and history with them.
Because she wrote about the black experience in a particular way, her earliest critics dismissed her stories about impoverished black American literature. Probably they did not use the exact phrase, “ghetto,” to describe the literature, but they were not fans of essays on the black side of local black life. What they missed was her belief in her own autonomy and her freedom to write stories from a real perspective, and not the perspective which is usually compulsory to writers of this type of fiction. The writing in all of her novels deals with the painful truths of a resilient people who sought a home in a place where they were relegated to remaining homeless, and how they created the stamina to exist.
I read that while teaching a creative writing class at Princeton University, Ms. Morrison told the class, “I don’t want to hear about your little life.” I thought about that statement for a long time after I read it. Reading her novels, you instinctively know that her characters often believe their lives are “little,” because they have been driven into personal aversion by their race and the society and time in which they live. There’s nothing “little,” about the lives of the characters in her novel, when she finishes bringing them to life.
Maybe we all think of our lives as “little,” or unworthy, for varying reasons. Friends and family took some issue with the subject matter of my first novel, The Fortunate Accident. I heard, “Why are you writing about Mexicans? Especially those Mexicans,” some voiced criticism of my second novel, A Woman Like Me, “Why are you writing about the same kind of people?” “Are you trying to be another Diane Arbus?
I can only answer that I want others to see the images and experiences of individuals that are separated from us through place and circumstance and to become absorbed in their lives and trials. My telling these particular stories is only a small gesture toward bridging the gap between “them,” and “us.”
In order for us to overcome all of the injustice that has happened and continues to happen in our society we need more than legislation. Someone wise once said, “You can’t legislate feelings.” We need humanity; some of which may just develop when we realize that after all, people are the same, and they are all worthy of love and respect. Maybe the first step is as close as a story about someone you will never have the opportunity to meet.