When questioned about the audience for whom she writes, Toni Morrison replies: “Only me.” This is not to say her writing is a self-serving practice. In fact, Morrison primarily sees the act of writing as a social obligation in an age of despair. In a recent article for The Nation, she recalls the wisdom of a friend: “This is precisely the time when artists go to work—not when everything is fine, but in times of dread. That’s our job!”
Morrison feels socially obliged to write for “only me,” because she—as an African-American woman—is an audience whom many writers have ignored, and continue to ignore. In an interview this month, with the New York Times she says, “What I’m interested in is writing without the gaze, without the white gaze […] In so many earlier books by African-American writers, particularly the men, I felt that they were not writing to me.” In her fiction, therefore, Morrison does away with the problematic assumption by writers that the reader is white and male, and in so doing undercuts the white privilege that violates—in countless ways—the lives of people of color.
By averting the white gaze, and writing instead for an African-American woman, Morrison affirms that her own experience of life is a valuable one; “African-American culture and people—good, bad, indifferent, whatever […] that, for [her, is] the universe.” By limiting her audience to herself she also claims responsibility for her work, and so harnesses the potential of her writing to enact social change. She explains, “After all, this is my work. I have to take full responsibility for doing it right as well as doing it wrong.”
By averting the white gaze, and writing instead for an African-American woman, Morrison affirms that her own experience of life is a valuable one.
Writing responsibly is a theme about which Charles Johnson, author of National Book Award-winning novel Middle Passage, has written at length. In Turning the Wheel, a collection of essays, Johnson describes ‘responsible’ fiction and why it is necessary. “Truly responsible storytelling […] then, may do no more than rotate around various perspectives, treating each truth as if it were the truth (which it is for a character) and settle on no position at all […] We are responsible for the way the world appears before us […] and for the impact our vision has on others.”
Morrison’s 2008 novel, A Mercy, like the entirety of her work, is responsible fiction according to Johnson’s standards. She eschews one-dimensional characters and narratives in favour of a varied complexity. “It’s important not to have a totalizing view. In American literature we have been so totalized—as though there is only one version […] I try to give some credibility to all sorts of voices, each of which is profoundly different.”
Morrison’s embrace of complexity does not, however, make A Mercy an easy read. The reader must navigate her way through the book on her own, passing through, taking on the perspectives of numerous characters. Florens the slave-girl, Lina the Native American orphan, and Jacob and Rebekka—their white colonial owners—are just four of the minds Morrison would have her readers inhabit.
Morrison’s demand that we find our own way through the narrative is the novel’s triumph; it is what gives A Mercy the potential to enact lasting change in her readers. She provides readers with an authentic vision of the world—alternately free and enslaved as it is—and so invites us to struggle with the questions such a vision raises.
By focusing on the distinctive situations of her characters during the early development of America, Morrison obliquely calls attention to the continuities between that time and our own.
In some ways, Morrison’s representation of freedom and slavery in America is highly specific to the 17th century period within which A Mercy is set. Florens casually comes into the ownership of Jacob Vaark, a Dutch tradesman, as payment for a debt by the owner of an estate called Jublio. Lina, too, is a slave belonging to Jacob and his wife Rebekka; she is one of the few survivors of a tribe devastated by measles. In spite of these historical details, Morrison’s representation of slavery and freedom is in no way limited to this era. By focusing on the distinctive situations of her characters during the early development of America, Morrison obliquely calls attention to the continuities between that time and our own.
Jacob did not originally see himself as a slave-owner.When, early on in the novel, he is offered a slave, Jacob winces: “Flesh was not his commodity.” Once he learns about the pecuniary gains of using slaves in sugarcane farming, however, his discomfort melts away. “There was a profound difference between the intimacy of slave bodies at Jublio and a remote labor force in Barbados. Right? Right.” The ease with which Jacob enslaves people who are far away speaks to a form of enslavement that so many of us endorse today: the ongoing slavery of sweatshop workers and farmers—whose existence abroad is well known, who are grossly underpaid. Morrison shows us that the neither the thought processes that perpetuate slavery, nor slavery itself, are phenomena constrained by the temporal limits of the 17th> century.
In a fashion typical of her “responsible” writing, Morrison does not limit her depiction of slavery to the laborers. Jacob himself is enslaved to capitalism, and to the idea that owning things will bring him a definitive happiness. We see this as we watch Jacob build three houses, each bigger than the last. His wife Rebekka tracks the course of Jacob’s increasing greed: “It was some time before she noticed how the tales were fewer and the gifts were increasing, gifts that were becoming less practical, even whimsical. […] ‘We don’t need another house,’ she told him. ‘Certainly not one of such size.’ ‘Need is not the reason, wife. Understand me […] I will have it.’”
Florens, too—who suffers the cruel status of a slave in the Vaark household—is also denied freedom in ways other than her literal slavery. In an argument between Florens and the Blacksmith, her beloved, he refuses to speak to her any longer because she is a slave. Florens begs him to stay, saying, “I am adoring you […] You alone own me”; he replies, “You have become [a slave]… a slave to that.” In her infatuation with the Blacksmith, then, Florens has again been enslaved—but this time, to this man, by choice.
In her depiction of slavery as pervasive and multi-faceted, Morrison calls into question the form of freedom. All her characters, legally enslaved or not, suffer the absence of freedom. The book closes axiomatically: “to be given dominion over another is a hard thing; to wrest dominion over another is a wrong thing; to give dominion of yourself to another is a wicked thing.” Dominion in A Mercy is the same as slavery when it is seized or given up, whereas freedom appears to be the result of achieving, or receiving, dominion over another.
Her emphasis on dominion—a strikingly religious term—harks back to Morrison’s own relationship to her writing, which must be written with only herself in mind. Writing, she says, “is control […] It’s mine, it’s free.” She has been given dominion over her words, and Morrison retains that control by acting from a sense of responsibility.
It is by exercising dominion over her writing, then, that Morrison engages her freedom. Freedom from the white gaze; freedom to open up new and revelatory ways of seeing for her readers; freedom to enact social change. Because, in her own words: “There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”
Eloise Blondiau currently studies religion, literature, and culture at Harvard Divinity School. Her interests include social justice, contemporary literature, and madness.
 Toni Morrison, interview by Elissa Schappell with additional material from Claudia Brodsky Lacour, The Paris Review n. 134, Spring 1995.
Image from Flickr via la Biblioteca de la Facultad de Derecho y Ciencias del Trabajo.