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The Most Precious Book I Own

Irenosen Okojie

Filed under: Fiction

Irenosen Okojie pays tribute to Toni Morrison's novel of kaleidoscopic beauty.

It is difficult to choose just one book. There are so many which have shaped and influenced me at different stages in my life. Tomorrow, I would choose another book, the day after that, a different book still, but today I will select the book that first dazzled me with its use of language, its expansion of form, its encapsulation of black American life in ways that felt esoteric, new. And that is Toni Morrison’s Jazz (1992). I first held the book as a teenager in summer, borrowed from the local library. I was home from a miserable stint at boarding school in Lincolnshire where the girls were cruel in ways only teenage girls know how to be. The landscape was picturesque but alien and I had felt even more alien within it, all my London bravado and vivaciousness curbed, my edges temporarily smoothed. I was staying with an uncle in Forest Gate, east London, in a full fl at where everybody had a story to tell, everybody was passing through and, in between long conversations, teeming plates of jollof rice and fried plantain, jaunts out to see friends I had tenuous relationships with, I would lose myself in books.

Jazz called to me on instinct. Much like its title and musical predecessor, Jazz is a freewheeling novel. It is the story of Joe Trace, a 50-year-old door-to-door salesman and devoted husband, who shoots dead his lover of three months, the impulsive eighteen-year-old Dorcas. At the funeral, his dedicated, hard-working wife, Violet, prone to falling into all-consuming, dark, mental cracks, attempts to disfigure the corpse’s face with a knife. Moving between 1920s Harlem and the mid nineteenth-century American south, it covers the lives of various characters, their pasts and present.

Rich in texture and language, bold in scope, Morrison weaves together a litany of voices that are by turns tender and tough, passionate and profound. Each is haunted by its past, the images emblazoned within it: Joe’s wild-woman mother whose connection to him is problematic, illusive, Violet’s mother’s ruinous relationships with men, Dorcas’s dolls engulfed in flames along with her mother and childhood. Their narratives are interspersed with the new music of Harlem, its rhythms, clicks and taps. We are swept up in these worlds, these private and public geographies – the links between them intricately established. It is obvious that Morrison has affection for her characters despite the hardships they face, never writing from a position of judgement but with clear-eyed ferocity. Intriguingly, the narrator, whose identity isn’t revealed, speaks of contemplating airships in a city sky while they ‘swim below cloud foam…like watching
a private dream…with Dorcas’s hunger mesmerising, directed, floating like a public secret’.

Jazz is a book containing multitudes. I can count the books that changed me, knocked the wind out of me, left me reeling on a corner at the glorious, complicated intermingled beauty of life and art – James Baldwin’s Another Country, Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, Buchi Emecheta’s In the Ditch and Amos Tutuola’s The Palm Wine Drinkard, among others. Jazz was the beginning of my love affair with Toni Morrison, an extraordinary offering from a remarkable author whose fingerprint remains indelible when I trace the lineage of my influences, like literary ancestors. Jazz makes me think of summer, ginger beer, hip-hop crushes and awakenings, things of a transient nature mutating in the gaps, of a young, bright-eyed black girl carrying a book between two worlds, using its kaleidoscopic beauty to anchor myself when I needed to. It makes me think of Toni handing me keys she didn’t know she’d given, urging me to stay curious about art, life and myself, and to believe that one day maybe I too could knock the wind out of a girl just like me, standing on a corner, waiting for the world to shake.

Irenosen Okojie won a Betty Trask Award for her debut novel, ‘Butterfly Fish’. She was elected an RSL Fellow in 2018.