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“How Do You Become Toni Morrison?” Three Writers Reflect

To the literary community, Toni Morrison was a trailblazing giant. To her family, she was a beloved mother, grandmother, auntie, and of course, accomplished writer. To black women writers, she was both: a cherished icon and literary mother who revolutionized how black people — and black women in particular — were portrayed in American literature. Three black writers spoke with The Riveter about how Morrison impacted their lives, careers and perspectives on motherhood.

Nicole Blades was raised by Caribbean parents in Montreal, Quebec. After she graduated from York University in Canada, she moved to New York to pursue a career in media. Blades is the author of three books, including her latest, Have You Met Nora? She lives in Connecticut with her husband and 10-year-old son, who recently declared his desire to become a writer.

Tyrese L. Coleman’s first book, How to Sit, was nominated for a 2019 PEN Open Book Award. The Virginia native lives in Maryland with her husband and 6-year-old twins:  Langston Matthew (named after writer Langston Hughes), who plays Disney’s Frozen on repeat daily, and James Marshall (named after writer James Baldwin), who’s currently obsessed with all things Sonic the Hedgehog.

Writer Sherisa de Groot didn’t set out to become an editor of a literary journal, but after she had her first child and experienced a dearth of online parenting resources that resonated with her as a black mother, she created Raising Mothers, an online literary journal for women of color who are raising children. De Groot resides in Amsterdam, Netherlands, with her husband, 6-year-old son Seiji, and almost 2-year-old daughter Nyota, whose favorite pastime is breastfeeding.

Griffin: What did it feel like when you read Toni Morrison for the first time?

Blades: I remember reading The Bluest Eye, remember being so blown away and intrigued and wowed because she was writing about colorism, something that was known, being in the black community, but not talked about. It felt like a biography. I know what that feels like to want to be something else, something that you’re not going to be. 

Coleman: Well the first time for me, I was too young to understand Toni Morrison. But after studying English literature, I was able to appreciate her writing a lot more. And then it changed from, I really enjoy this person to let me find out, you know, as a writer, how she does this. And then I’m reading interviews. I’m reading her essays. The reading of her books is important, but to me the greatest impact she’s had is as a black woman literary icon who was a mother, who was a single mother, who was able to accomplish her goals while simultaneously uplifting other voices. That was the admiration for me, and that was a question that I had: Like how do you do that? How do you become Toni Morrison?

Griffin: Toni Morrison has spoken about how she carved out time early in the morning to write her first book amidst a busy work schedule and raising kids. When do you write?

Coleman: I am not being facetious when I say that I literally read an interview with her from The Paris Review about the art of fiction, and that’s when I realized that she was waking up at four o’clock, five o’clock in the morning to write because she has small children and that was the best time for her to write. And I literally was like, I’m going to do that. And I did it. I did it for four years. When I was in grad school, I got pregnant with the boys and then I took a semester off, and during that time that I was off, I realized that I didn’t want to be just somebody’s mother. I didn’t want to be just somebody’s wife. I didn’t want be just somebody’s employee. Being a writer is the only label that I give to myself. So when I returned, I thought, Oh this is how I go to school, go to work, have two children, be a wife and be a writer at the same time — I make a small change.

“I read an interview with her from The Paris Review about the art of fiction, and that’s when I realized that she was waking up at four o’clock, five o’clock in the morning to write because she has small children and that was the best time for her to write. And I literally was like, I’m going to do that.”

– Tyrese L. Coleman

Blades: You kind of get it in where you can, and for me it’s important to make it important. I need to get these words in. So before you start, you know, looking at email and Instagram and all the other things that can kind of send you on a tangent, I like being able to just get the word poured out. Maybe it was something you were dreaming about. It may be something that you were thinking about the day before, it’s fresh. The whole house is quiet. No one’s asking you for, you know, milk or anything.  

Griffin: How do you interact with the idea of “work-life balance?”

De Groot:  All of it is life, right? Every part of it is a part of this whole thing that is my life, and it’s a pendulum. So sometimes it’s swinging more towards family and then sometimes it has to swing back because that’s just how physics works. So it goes back and forth and sometimes it’s quiet — but not that much. I really have learned to go with the flow of life, ‘cause I used to beat myself up a lot about not writing as much or not feeling as accomplished. And I know that is just me working out of my American thought process. I’m in this space where I have small children. They are the priority. Other people might disagree, but…

Blades: I try not to dwell on the whole work-life balance thing. We’re setting women up for pressure because there is no balance. The way that our lives are structured, especially in the U.S. with childcare, and it really feels like family isn’t first. It starts with maternity leave: You have no maternity leave. Then you’re back at it in twelve weeks when you have that baby, so it feels like you’re always trying to catch up. You’re always trying to do work-life balance and you’re always tired, always operating on a steep deficit, and so I try not to organize it in my mind as trying to achieve balance. I’m going to do the best that I can do and if something falls off, so be it. But I don’t beat myself up about not getting everything done because if you do, life happens and you just can’t plan for everything.

Griffin: How did Morrison impact your career as a writer?

De Groot: Actually Toni Morrison is kind of the beginning of my adulthood story because when I graduated from Temple University, I got back home and I didn’t have a job right away. So I spoke to my favorite English teacher from high school and I asked her “What do you think I should do?” She said, “Well, Toni Morrison wrote her first book while she was working in publishing,” and I was like, “Really? I’m going to do that.” And that’s what I did. I just followed that path. 

Blades: We’re so used to specs. Everything is: Here are 25 debuts written by people under 25. So you start to feel like if you aren’t 22, 32, 39 — that you’re never going to do it and that time’s running out. Here is this woman who started “later” and was able to assume the role of writer and storyteller and just thrive in the biggest way.

Coleman: Another thing that I got from Toni Morrison is an unapologetic creation of writing for and about black women. My book is for black women. It is about black women. It is by a black woman. And I make no qualms about it, and I’m not going to explain anything. You can go look it up if you don’t understand it. And that was one of the things that I also learned from Toni Morrison — to write from a point of view that is a black point of view and not some place where you feel like you have to be explanatory in explaining black life.

Griffin: Which Morrison book would you recommend to your child/children?

Coleman: Well I don’t know which one I would recommend ‘cause I kind of just want them to discover her writing on their own. Song of Solomon is probably the one that I would say for them, but my favorite Toni Morrison book is The Bluest Eye. So either one. I don’t mind even if they picked up her work and they didn’t like it, ‘cause there are plenty of writers you can learn from, even if you don’t like their work. 

De Groot: I think The Bluest Eye would be important for them, living here, if we’re still living here [The Netherlands] because that really touches on colorism.

Griffin: If Toni Morrison were still alive and you could tell her anything, what would you say to her?

Coleman: I would just thank her, to be honest. And just also let her know that what I learned from her the most is about being a writer and about being a mother and a writer. And feeling like I deserve to be both, and that I could be both. 

“What I learned from her the most is about being a writer, and about being a mother and a writer. And feeling like I deserve to be both, and that I could be both.” 

– Tyrese L. Coleman

De Groot: If she were here right now, I would say, thank you for being such a beacon for me: not just someone who writes, but someone who parents, and to show that it’s perfectly fine to find a way to marry the two and to still love the two deeply — ‘cause she was still saying, even in her privilege — that no, that’s not necessarily a privilege to be childless. There’s freedom in that, but also you’re not diminished because you are a parent.

Please note that responses have been edited and shortened.

Chanté Griffin is a writer living in Los Angeles. She’s a contributing writer for Faithfully Magazine, and she has penned stories for The Washington Post, The Root, The Los Angeles Times, and TV Guide. In her free time, she’s either creating comedic content about her natural hair journey for The Gram, or pretending she’s really active on The Twitter.