I never read one word Toni Morrison wrote.
There are many ways to love a person. In 1993, he wrote the words “Toni” & “Morrison” in a letter to me. I was at a residency. The same prize that ennobled her enabled him to see twelve letters differently. The word “Nobel,” so noble it kept ringing in his ears. Years before the prize, before her nobility in the world’s eyes, my father was the person who heard the name “Toni Morrison” & asked, “Who’s he?” He never read one word Toni Morrison wrote. After the prize, he never did either. But the words “Toni” & “Morrison” entered his lexicon. He flexed the seventeen muscles in his hand to make twelve letters of the English alphabet occur in a particular sequence. Her name became our cryptonym, a silent hymn we wrote to signal allegiance, a code we sent back & forth during a war that was otherwise raging. I was living alone in the woods of Texas. Walking the red dirt roads so reminiscent of past wars, people stared at me as if I were the enemy. Most had only seen a face like mine on TV. One man had seen me, years before, in a jungle. I was a trigger for the time he pulled a trigger & I died. There are many ways to kill a person. At the nearest store, I asked for tortillas. None of the clerks knew what they were. Texas is big enough to hold most of Vietnam, Cambodia and a large chunk of Thailand. There are many ways to live there. I went back to the cabin & wrote Toni Morrison a letter. Imagine the hundreds of young women living in dangerous territories who must have done the same. An army of us writing to her, asking: What are the possibilities for me, behind all these trees? There are many ways to ask a question. One day, her name in his envelope, written in his ink, came back to me. There are many ways to answer.