Toni Morrison talkingThe 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.”

Writing process:

* “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 Poet

Black 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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  1. BCP,

    I must thank you for this.

    Toni Morrison speaks life lessons which we all need to hear…

    Colin Anthony

  2. Ms. Paulette says:
    I kept returning to this post as I participated in a seminar in preparation for a conference on “African American political thought” (or as some might prefer, “The Black Intellectual Tradition”.

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