The main message gleaned and said explicitly by Morrison is that even within our multiple viewpoints and experiences, we must centre ourselves. This message has resonance globally. Featured writers hail from Canada, America, Scotland and Britain with origins from Haiti, Jamaica, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Ghana.
Bailey Nurse has read and reviewed many works by all races and cultures. “Very few people, other kinds of people, other genders, other races have access to the experience that we have. If you can manage all the things we experience on the page in an original way, if we're able to get it down on paper, it's going to be the best, the most accomplished. That's just the fact. The best writing in literature in the world comes from Black women,” she says. She invites all of us to listen in.
Building a literary community
This Luminato series is a joyful happening. It comes with a particular awareness of the need for such an event. It suggests an absence, a problem that needs to be rectified. Bailey Nurse describes a literary industry which has struggles around race.
“I've experienced a lot of violence, from white people. I'm not talking about physical violence or aggression. I was not floored by that. That was never going to shock me. It's upsetting. Yes. However, I’m the kind of person, who when you shut a door, I’ll go through a window. I’ll make my way.”
What has been less easy to manage has been problems that occur within the Black community. These can be exceedingly more painful as they can hit closer to the heart.
“We're all Black people, however, we're all different Black people who come together in this place dominated by white ways and white numbers.” The result can be a kind of horizontal violence between Black literati in what she describes as a ‘plantation system’ where a few ‘Black overseers’ control access to the white establishment. It can also describe issues between Black women.
“I think we do have a problem with one another.” She describes seeing this described by Jamaica Kincaid in her book The Autobiography of My Mother. “The heroine talks about how unkind the women and the people were to one another. If you can’t hurt the people harming you, you hurt those in closest physical and social proximity. The people who are doing you damage, you cannot touch them.” She suggests that this can also happen within Black Canadian circles.
“I would say Canadians have quite a problem, perhaps Caribbean people as well – I’m not sure about that; it's just an overvaluing of whiteness. I think that's a fact, and if we don't acknowledge that this still goes on, we will not be able to fix it.”
A way forward
Artists are always leading the way, it seems anyway, carrying us forward through contention and trauma with stories, dreams, memories and imaginings. Bailey Nurse’s offering is a mashup of music, song, and great musicianship with literature at the helm.
Beloved: A Celebration of Toni Morrison and Black Women Writers is not only a professional venture but a personal opportunity. “I meet these women, and I get to talk to them. I'm creating this experience that I like for you. I firmly hope everybody comes and has a good time. I'm creating this spirit of relationship in the community. I'm creating this for Black women to show them that I love them and for us to have an opportunity to love each other in public and embrace each other. I mean all these words in absolutely the most literal way. I mean, love in the most literal way. It is such an uncool word sometimes or such an overused or trite word. I use it in the way I think Toni Morrison uses it. That’s what we need. We need to love our community, and each other, which I think comes from loving ourselves. We're making progress, but we're not there yet. So that's something I'm doing.”
Literature and Music
“Toni Morrison, for me, is a very musical writer, and I'm not just saying that because she has a book called Jazz.” In Bailey Nurse’s 1998 interview with Morrison, the author revealed that she was “trying to find a way to create almost a musical theory of writing, of storytelling.”
To that end, music is an essential element of Bailey Nurse’s vision for this show. Composer, producer and musical director Orin Isaacs, singer/actor and host Nicky Lawrence and director Dian Marie Bridge weave outstanding music throughout what is essentially a literary talk show. Each author is interviewed separately on the traditional talk show couch. Over two nights, Zalika Reid-Benta, Rebecca Fisseha, Francesca Ekwuyasi, Myriam J.A. Chancy, Aminatta Forna, and Dawnie Walton will be interviewed. Lawyer, academic and winner of the Nigeria Prize for literature, Cheluchi Onyemeluke-Onuobioa, will be a special guest on June 17. Double Giller Prize winner, Esi Edugyan will make a special video appearance at the June 18 show.
“I really wanted this to be a delight, a joy, which is what Toni Morrison would want. She's funny. She's witty. She's smart. So the conversations will be the way I am, which is, you know, some serious and some fun. You can even take a drink into the theatre, take it to your seat and enjoy.”
Beloved, a grand diversity of literary and musical voices, doesn’t end when the curtain goes down. Bailey Nurse hopes that people will linger afterwards. “I hope people won't run home. I hope they'll sit in the seating areas and visit a little with each other.” There will also be book sales and signings and Nicky Lawrence will make available black sweatshirts with inspiring messages. “I want to honour Toni Morrison. And I want to show that you can be this. You can show love to each other. Take your time. Have fun. Meet people. That is my dream,” says Bailey Nurse.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Beloved: A Celebration of Toni Morrison and Black Women Writers, with Donna Bailey Nurse takes place – June 17 and 18 at the Winter Gardens, Toronto.