Teaching Morrison Beyond Fiction

By Elizabeth Cali

When Toni Morrison’s writing comes up in conversation, the subject is commonly one or more of her novels. But what if students enter Toni Morrison’s novels by way of her nonfiction writings, interviews, and public talks?

Beginning with Morrison’s nonfiction works offers students a pathway and frame for approaching the challenging material of her novels. It also gives them a sense of what she thinks language, writing, and literature can and should do. And, it helps students see Morrison as a public thinker and intellectual.

Consider, for example, teaching Toni Morrison’s Ingersoll Lecture on Immortality at the Harvard Divinity School titled “Goodness: Altruism and the Literary Imagination.” Students have the opportunity to hear Morrison think through her own experience learning more deeply about a concept that she found both compelling and undefined: goodness. As Morrison questions her own notions about what constitutes goodness, she also holds definitions of goodness up to her novels to observe its presence in her work, to note when and where goodness found expression.

Engaging with Morrison’s nonfiction work as an entry to her novels provides illuminating new avenues for considering her novelistic creativity.