“What Moves at the Margin: Selected Nonfiction” by Toni Morrison
“…[T]he act of imagination is bound up with memory. You know, they straightened out the Mississippi River in places, to make room for houses and livable acreage. Occasionally the river floods these places. ‘Floods’ is the word they use, but in fact it is not flooding; it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be. All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was. Writers are like that: remembering where we were, what valley we ran through, what the banks were like, the light that was there and the route back to our original place. It is emotional memory—what the nerves and the skin remember as well as how it appeared. And a rush of imagination is our ‘flooding’.”
In Toni Morrison’s essay “The Site of Memory,” she says that she is trying to tell the truth, or rather that her responsibility is not to lie. She also distinguishes truth from fact. The need to expose a truth about the interior life of a person may not be based in facts—facts have no emotional memory. In truth, facts can lie. There exists a sort of liminal space between fiction and non-fiction that speaks to this idea of truth telling sans “facts.”
I feel that this is the place in which my current work lives. In my efforts to describe the nature of my recent performance project, I was at a loss for how to articulate that it was not fiction, because it was based on the lives of my maternal ancestors. Yet, it was not non-fiction, because, though I had some “facts”—some memory recollections of those who knew them and some personal memories—I also needed to fill in the blanks with creative writing in order to tell their stories. “Creative nonfiction” didn’t seem to be a complete descriptor to me, either.
Toni Morrison calls it literary archeology—“on the basis of some information and a little bit of guesswork, you journey to a site to see what remains were left behind and to reconstruct the world that these remains imply.” The way that she steps onto this path is through the image. As a visual artist, the image has always been the lens through which I have interpreted and portrayed my personal interior life and the world around me.
I mentioned in a previous blog post, about an air that is captured in a photograph. It is this air, which is captured in the image, that led me deeper into the stories held by these women (my ancestors), made me wish to imagine their lives, their interior lives, and made me want to tell their “truth.”
Of course, they do not speak my words, but I hope they speak through my words. I hope my words lend truth to who they were. I hope my words are a type of literary archeology of the interior lives of these women who I find remarkable. I find them remarkable for their steadfastness and their indomitable spirits—or for their absolute and resolute love and their ability to put that love in action despite the conditions of the world in which they found themselves. I hope my words remember them.
The Site of Memory: Notes From A Talk By Toni Morrison
By Jorge Antonio Vallejos
Two days ago I finished Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir edited by William Zinsser.
It’s a collection of essays by well known biographers and memoirists, one being Toni Morrison whose speech The Site of Memory ended the collection. Here are notes from that talk. (See what else I am reading via my Winter 2014 Reading List.)
Books (slave narratives) mentioned:
* The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olandah Equuiano by Olandah Equuiano
* The African, Written By Himself by Gustavus Vassa
* Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself by Harriet Jacob (Linda Brent)
*Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas, An American Slave, Written by Himself by Frederick Douglas
*Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American Slave, Written by Himself by Henry Bibb
* 12 Years A Slave by Solomon Northrop
Why slave narratives were written and published:
* former slaves used their stories to expose the horrors of slavery
* writers knew “literacy was power”
* voting was connected to the ability to read
* “literacy was a way of assuming and proving the “humanity” that the constitution denied them
* slave narratives carried the subtitles “written by himself” and “herself” to authenticate the narrative. Prefaces by white sympathizers also authenticated the books.
The climate in which these books were written:
* The Age of Scientific Racism, a twin of The Age of Enlightement
* Founders of The Age of Scientific Racism: David Hume, Emmanuel Kant, Thomas Jeffereson
* “Never yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration, never see even an elementary trait of painting or sculpture.”– Thomas Jefferson
* “This fellow was quite black from head to foot, a clear proof that what he said was stupid.” — Emmanuel Kant
* “Over and over, the writers pull the narrative up short with a phrase such as, “But let us drop a veil over these proceedings too terrible to relate.” In shaping the experience to make it palatable to those who were in a position to alleviate it, they were silent about many things, and they “forgot” many other things. There was a careful selection of the instances that they would record and a careful rendering of those that they chose to describe.” — Toni Morrison
Why Toni Morrison writes:
* “For me–a writer in the last quarter of the twentieth century, not much more than a hundred years after Emancipation, a writer who is black and a woman–the exercise is very different. My job becomes how to rip that veil drawn over “proceedings too terrible to relate.” The exercise is also critical for any person who is black, or who belongs to any marginalized category, for, historically, we were seldom invited to participate in the discourse even when we were its topic.”
* “I consider that my single gravest responsibility is not to lie.”
* “…the crucial distinction for me is not the difference between fact and fiction, but the distinction between fact and truth. Because facts can exist without human intelligence, but truth cannot.”
* “The image comes first and tells me what the memory is about
* “…no matter how “fictional” the account…or how much it was a product of invention, the act of imagination is bound up with memory.”
* “All water has a perfect memory and is trying to get back to where it was. Writers are like that: remembering where we were, what valley we ran through, what the banks were like, the light that was there and the route back to our original place. It is emotional memory–what the nerves and the skin remember as well as how it appeared. And a rush of imagination is our flooding.”
* “…like water, I remember where I was before I was “straightened out”.
Advice for writers:
* “When you first start writing – and I think its true for a lot of beginning writers- you’re scared to death that if you don’t get that sentence right that minute it’s never going to show up again. And it isn’t. But it doesn’t matter- another one will, and it’ll probably be better.”
* “…I don’t mind writing badly for a couple of days because I know I can fix it- and fix it again and again and again, and it will be better. I don’t have the hysteria that used to accompany some of those dazzling passages that I thought the world was just dying for me to remember. I’m a little more sanguine about it now. Because the best part of it all, the absolutely most delicious part, is finishing it and then doing it over. That’s the thrill of a lifetime for me: if I can just get done with that first phase and then have infinite time to fix it and change it.”
* “I rewrite a lot, over and over again, so that it looks like I never did. I try to make it look like I never touched it, and that takes a lot of time and a lot of sweat.”
Notes from Previous Writers Talks:
Declaring and Taking Back the Power of Words: Notes From A Talk by Daniel Heath Justice
Writing For The Sake of Story: Notes From A Fiction Writing Workshop By Richard Wagamese
About Black Coffee PoetBlack Coffee Poet is a mixed race poet, essayist, and journalist who focuses on Social Justice, Indigenous Rights, STOPPING Violence Against Women, Film, and Literature.
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