Literary FestivalsThe ColophonWriters and Writing

Donna Bailey Nurse joins forces with Luminato to celebrate Black women’s writing and the legacy of Toni Morrison

“Speaking with authors is one of my favourite things to do,” says Donna Bailey Nurse (Photo: Mallory Drumm)

For Canadian writer and critic Donna Bailey Nurse, Toni Morrison’s 1977 novel Song of Solomon is a quintessential text in late 20th century American literature. “That’s my book,” she says about the personal influence Morrison’s novel had on her. “I think it’s a key work for Black women writers for sure. I see those themes recurring.”

It is not just that novel, of course, that singles out Morrison’s accomplishment: a Nobel Prize in Literature, a Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for her novel Beloved, honorary doctorates from Oxford, Rutgers, and Princeton universities, to say nothing of her influence not just on Black American writing but on writing in general in the 20th and 21st centuries.

So when Morrison died in August 2019, Nurse felt that something should be done to commemorate the great writer’s memory and importance. She approached Noah Richler, who put her in touch with Naomi Campbell, the artistic director of the Luminato Festival, an annual arts festival that runs in Toronto when Covid is not shutting down public gatherings in that city. Nurse wanted to propose a kind of mini-symposium focusing on Morrison’s career and the Black women writers she helped inspire.

“I sent Naomi a quick email to see if she’d be interested, we had a chat, and then I didn’t hear from her for about three years,” Nurse says with a laugh. Of course the pandemic intervened, but the idea did not die. Campbell was on board and this year will see the fruition of Nurse’s proposal. “Beloved: A Celebration of Toni Morrison and Black Women Writers” runs as a two-day event at this year’s Luminato Festival. Occurring on June 17 and 18, the celebration will feature Nurse in conversation with writers such as Zalika Reid-Benta, Rebecca Fisseha, Francesca Ekwuyasi, Aminatta Forna, and Esi Edugyan, who will appear via video uplink on the second day. The program is hosted by Canadian musician and performer Nicky Lawrence.

This is not the first time Nurse has curated an event of this kind. In 2019, she partnered with the Art Gallery of Ontario for a series featuring three Black women writers: Edugyan, M. Nourbese Philip, and American Angie Thomas. It’s a forum that Nurse, a long-time critic and observer of literature in Canada, particularly prizes. “Speaking with authors is one of my favourite things to do,” Nurse says. “Black women especially, but any authors.”

The attraction, for Nurse, is as much the vibrancy of the live appearance as the opportunity to emerge from her writing room, an opportunity that seems only more welcome after two-plus years spent living under the shadow of a global pandemic. “I love for people to know more about books and reading, especially Black people,” Nurse says. “I want them to experience the power of their own imaginations. We are not entirely reliant on this crazy white world; we can go places in our heads and make things happen.”

“I think it’s a key work for Black women writers for sure,” says Nurse about Morrison’s 1977 novel.

In this regard, the opportunity to put the focus on Black women’s writing is gratifying for Nurse, in part because of the unique perspective that group has on literature and the world. “Black women’s writing is extremely powerful because we reside at that intersection of class, race, and gender,” Nurse says. “My feeling is that if you can get your understanding of your experience on the page in poetry or novels or plays, you are at an advantage because the material is just so great. It’s full of daily challenges and daily victories.”

Nurse refers to a book by the Black writer and activist Angela Y. Davis called Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, which argues that the blues tradition embodied by Ma Rainey, Billie Holiday, and Bessie Smith provided an important bedrock for the feminist movement, even as it allowed Black women a lens through which to view their own experience. “No one else is teaching it to them. In order to have any discussion about themselves, they’ve had to come together and talk about themselves,” Nurse says. “Now they’re at this point where they have so much knowledge of their experience they’re really able to articulate it artfully. And while this experience is not congenial to actual life, it’s very rich for literature.”

It certainly appears to be a propitious time for Black women’s writing to come to greater prominence in the public eye. With the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement following the 2020 murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, books about anti-Black racism, along with novels and essay collections by Black writers, have found their way onto bestseller lists. But even if the expansion of the audience for this material is new, Nurse is quick to point out that Black women have always been voracious readers as a demographic. She points to Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club as an example of a Black woman reading widely and constantly; Winfrey is not the exception, Nurse insists, but the rule. “She resuscitated the book industry in the 1990s, but that was because she reads the way Black women read.”

It is also not incidental to note that Oprah has featured numerous works by Toni Morrison in her book club: Paradise, Song of Solomon, The Bluest Eye, and Sula are all represented. Oprah is not only a tastemaker whose choices become instant bestsellers; she also recognized the significance of Morrison’s work in the canon of American literature and helped highlight its importance outside the ivory towers of academia. This centrality to contemporary literature is something that Nurse’s Luminato event seeks to extend and underscore.

But more than that, the in-person literary celebration is an opportunity to reconnect with writers and readers in real life, as opposed to operating in the antiseptic environment of an online Zoom chatroom. “I’m really happy with the idea of being surrounded by these Black women,” Nurse says of how the two-day program has come together. “We’re going to do such great things.”

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