With this book, one is tempted to quote at length from her words: her acuity and moral clarity are dazzling, but so is her vision for how we might find our way towards a less unjust, less hateful future. Race bias, she notes, “is not absolute, inevitable, or immutable”. What’s more, “it has a beginning, a life, a history in scholarship, and it can have an end.”
Morrison believes in the power of language to move us towards this more desirable end, and one of the keenest pleasures of this book, especially for the many admirers of her fiction, will be the detailed explications of her own writing.
But for serious fans and even semi-sceptics like me, this book is worth picking up for the 100 or so pages that illuminate her fictional project – a project that has normalised the idea of the African-American novel. In the final essay, “Invisible Ink,” Morrison argues that her ideal reader will understand “what lies under, between, outside the lines, hidden”.
These essays do a good job, for those outside her milieu, of making that invisible ink visible. But should a novel really need an authorial essay to make sense? And once that essay arrives, does it dispel the magic of the original? Personally, I was grateful for the butter on offer here, but would have preferred a bit more on the original toast.
This is a book about life, but also about the power and necessity of creating work. In the punch-packing introduction, Peril, she writes: “A writer’s life and work are not a gift to mankind; they are its necessity.” The life and work of dissident writers who disturb “the social oppression that functions like a coma on the population” should be protected. “How bleak, unlivable, insufferable existence becomes when we are deprived of artwork … The rescue we extend to them is a generosity to ourselves.”
A collection of non-fiction, written over several decades, is often arranged chronologically, but Morrison’s editors made the wise decision to arrange her writing by theme. The first section, The Foreigner’s Home, has a remarkable arc, beginning with a prayer for the dead of September 11, then exploring the mass movement of people across borders, fleeing persecution, or in search of jobs, in the present day.
The “essays, speeches, meditations” in Mouth Full of Blood demonstrate the writer’s enduring eagerness to examine the contradictions of being both “native” and “alien” to her own country... The collection takes occasional steps into uncomfortable territory... Yet at every stage, the reader is grateful for an author allowing, encouraging even, such intimate access to their work, thought and reflections on eternal concepts: knowledge, “separateness”, the future of time.
At times the criticism could be levied that her writing becomes dense, and that references plucked from her vast historical and literary knowledge obscure wider meaning: hardly surprising, perhaps, considering her professorship at Princeton. But ultimately, this is a collection much needed in our current climate – a welcome break from knee-jerk reactions, actively resisting oversimplification and false debates. Though it will no doubt sell well, it isn’t a commercial book, nor one filled with catchy quotes or flip asides. Instead, it is serious, heartfelt and generous, an antidote to apathy in challenging times.