Toni Morrison Gave Me Permission

Toni Morrison











On one of my visits back to campus in my late twenties, I spoke to my former advisor, Toni 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. 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. 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.

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.

RACHEL KADISH on the Lilith blog.