Let me begin by saying this: Toni Morrison wrote for the Black community — as much as I idolize her work, it would be presumptuous to claim she wrote for me. Still, I found myself transfixed by the ways she wove stories from her rich heritage, the way that her own identity became fluid, and the way she unapologetically created characters so real you smelled their tears, in words so sharp they bit you back.
I was at work when I got the text from my friend: “Toni Morrison passed away. Didn’t want you to find out online.”
I suddenly realized I was the youngest person, and the only South Asian woman, in the room. I tried making eye contact with the brown woman beside me. I don’t know why, but I needed her to glance back. I needed her to see me. She didn’t, and I started to cry. The white man behind me — the one who previously asked me how old I am, as if confirming I don’t belong — wanted to know what was wrong. “My favorite author died,” I said, and it hit me all at once. I texted my friend, a poet, reminding him to take care of himself. He responded that there were no other Black people in his office: He didn’t have anyone to talk to, either. At that moment, we’d never felt more alone.
The copy of Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere in my purse provided some comfort — the sense of security knowing that I, a writer of color, was not alone: that there is a lineage of women of color whose successes made it easier for all of us, even though our oppressions are very different. I haven’t always felt this way.
I discovered Toni Morrison three years ago, in my freshman year of high school. Our class had just read Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and it was the first time I’d heard the phrase woman of color used in a literary setting. After class I googled the term, followed by writer, and that’s how I found Toni Morrison, how I read The Bluest Eye, and how I fell in love. I melted into her novels, memorizing passages like I was studying for an important test. And in many ways, I was.
I’m only 18, but I remember a time when representative literature was a rarity, not the norm. I grew up on a literary diet of J.K. Rowling and Rick Riordan, avidly devouring stories of white children whose heroism I never once questioned. These stories awakened a hunger in me, a snarling brown girl with a big mouth, too much to say, too smart for her own good. When I was ready to harness that rage, I became a writer. I identified most strongly with girl characters, convincing myself that I could invent the stories, but not belong in them: that by writing about heroic white girls, I could try to make up for all the trouble I’d caused since birth.
By the time I was 15, I had written my first novel, The Bookweaver’s Daughter. It was a chaotic young adult fantasy featuring a green-eyed white girl named Rose. When writing it, I felt hollow, the way I’d felt as a child, walking through shelves of books that weren’t written for or by girls like me, and I soon abandoned the manuscript. What I was feeling, I now realize, was a fear of not being taken as seriously by the Great White Writers who had long dominated literature ... until Toni Morrison changed the game.
Nobel Prize–winning, Morrison was a beacon of light, an inspiration. Catalyzed by her writing, I started seeking out stories by South Asian women: Jhumpa Lahiri, Arundhati Roy, the patron saints of my secret religion, the women who transformed my writing into a solid, legible version of itself.
For the first time, I saw my identity — my parents’ accents, the taxonomy of stares, my doubleness and invisibility — the way Toni Morrison might have seen it: rich, lush, full of literary possibilities. I started considering the ways my people mute themselves and conform to white stereotypes, the way our heritage is vast and unending in ways I can’t always understand, the fact that my stories contain enough strength and truth to shake up status quos. Slowly, the girl sitting in the library became the girl who asked questions, and the girl who wrote stories about people like her. Shortly afterward, I picked up the manuscript I had written when I was 15, and this time, I didn’t put it down.
At first, I thought it would be easy to rewrite the book: that I could type Control+F and replace all the white names with brown ones, drizzle a bit of culture like masala on chaat. But I felt phony, cornered, the way I did as a child when teachers called on me to explain Indian things to the class. Instead, I discovered, I’d have to tap into something deeper: to dig into the displacement felt by diasporic people, to study our mythology through a non-Western lens, to reckon with the fact that much of my heritage has been stolen from me, and that somehow I need to fill the gaps.
Essentially, I’d have to follow the example of Toni Morrison by writing a story that might not be “universal,” with the faith that my authenticity would be enough. I ended up writing a novel about a messy, too-loud girl who is brown-skinned like me — and that’s when it finally came together.
There is no widely accepted Indian-American literary canon, so by existing as a writer, I am by default adding to it. Toni Morrison taught me the sanctity of this, of remembering and recording, of the political revolution inherent in defining my own identity. She taught me the remarkability of allowing a new generation of brown-skinned girls to see themselves in books, to see heroines when they look into the mirror. For this, every writer who is not the default — that is, the straight white male — is indebted to her. It’s not something we can repay, but rather continue paying forward, in the form of mentorship and making room, and speaking truth to power.
Toni Morrison’s legacy is complex and beautiful, and I think it’s most aptly expressed in the generations of women, particularly Black women and women of color, whom she awakened, radicalized, made space for, and mentored. She sent women like me forward in the task of opening doors for subsequent generations, until people can’t imagine that there was a time when they were closed in the first place. For that, I am incredibly grateful.
Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue