During this week of tributes to Toni Morrison, I’ve written elsewhere about my gratitude for ways Morrison opened the windows of my writing life. I had the good fortune to study with Morrison in college, and she served as my advisor for my senior thesis. Toni Morrison was the first person to encourage me to write about my own background, essentially giving me the permission I was hesitant to give myself to write about my Holocaust-survivor family’s stories. I had the privilege of her advice and support as I took the first steps of learning how to grapple with history on the page.
As if that weren’t gift enough, there was yet another sort of permission she offered, though I didn’t feel its impact until years after I’d graduated.
On one of my visits back to campus in my late twenties, I spoke to Morrison about my fears about combining writing with (then-still-theoretical) motherhood. I’d grown up watching my own mother break gender barriers in her field of immunopathology; I was familiar with the challenges working mothers faced and with the efforts required to overcome them. But I knew that the field of fiction writing was a high-wire act even without gender barriers and the challenges of motherhood. I found myself struggling to imagine out how to shape anything like a stable life around such an unstable pursuit. Just recently, one of my grad school teachers had been vocal and adamant about his opinion that female novelists who had children were dooming their writing lives. Thrown by this assertion coming from a mentor, I repeated the words to Morrison.
Yes, she mused, utterly unimpressed. They always say that.
And there was nothing more to say. In a heartbeat, the boredom with which she viewed the topic fused with my own refugee-born mother’s one-syllable response to sexist barriers: “Feh.”
Years later, visiting New York from Boston with my six-month-old in tow, I took the train out to Princeton yet again. Scheduling this visit had been difficult and time was short; I sat in Morrison’s office, my baby in a sling strapped to my chest. There were some writing-related topics on which I was eager for her opinion, and after a quick update on work and life I launched into them.
My baby was facing outward at Toni Morrison, who therefore could see what I couldn’t see: my child’s face, with its growing expression of intent concentration. Midway through the conversation, Toni Morrison said, in that rich, wry, resonant voice of hers, “I think your baby is doing something.”
I tried to keep talking, knowing each minute of this brief meeting was precious. But some things in life are undeniable. I ran to the bathroom, did the quickest diaper change of my life, and got back into the office to continue the conversation, which we resumed without missing a beat.
In those days I’d been dismayed by encounters with some in the literary world whose position was that a woman writer with a baby had chosen to opt out of the writing life (an attitude not applied to writers who were fathers). At a Jewish literary conference the prior year, a prominent critic had approached me and asked what I was working on—a question I’d never been asked by someone of that stature. Yet before I could open my mouth to answer, a well-known Jewish writer—having just heard me tell a friend I was a few months pregnant—literally elbowed me away from the critic, inserting himself between us as we walked and answering the critic’s question for me: “She’s working on a baby.” He walked off with the critic, leaving me behind.
Yet here I was in the office of Toni Morrison, a writer whose work dwarfed every other piece of contemporary fiction I was reading. And diapers didn’t diminish this conversation.
The debts I owe to Toni Morrison are too great to enumerate. They’re literary, moral, personal. Among them is a debt to her for giving me the permission, through her own example, to be both a mother and a novelist.
Rachel Kadish’s most recent novel, The Weight of Ink, received the National Jewish Book Award and the Association of Jewish Libraries’ Fiction Award. She lives outside of Boston and teaches in Lesley University’s MFA Program in Creative Writing. She is also a former Lilith intern.