When I was a teen, Toni Morrison taught me to read

I've seen Toni Morrison a handful of times in my life. The most notable was the first time, when I went to hear her read from her novel Paradise while studying abroad in London. It was 1998. I replayed the speech I'd been practising as we waited in line. All about how I loved her, and what her books meant to me, and how I hoped one day to be a writer, just like her. A friend and I finally made it to the front of the line, and I opened my mouth with all of my 20-year-old's confidence. You know what happened next? Of course you do. Nothing came out.

I closed my mouth, swallowed hard and tried again. Mute. Struck speechless, for the first and only time in my life. I stood staring at her, so regal and kind, already hating myself for this silence. She leaned over the table. She wouldn't be rushed by the waiting crowd. She held on to my hand with both of hers. I remember her warmth, which reminded me of my mother's warmth, and thought how they both resisted the cold of destruction through all the hells they'd had to live through. I remember Morrison's slight nod before she squeezed tightly and let go. I remember knowing what the nod meant between us, and walking away, dazed, because I would carry it in my body the rest of my life. My friend pulled on my arm. I saw it, she said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 12, 2019, with the headline 'When I was a teen, Toni Morrison taught me to read'. Subscribe