- Ufon Umanah
Letter from the Editor, Orientation 2019
Updated: Mar 1, 2021
“Don’t be afraid,” starts A Mercy, Toni Morrison’s ninth novel. No, it’s not the book we read for Lit Hum, but it was the first time I read Morrison, and I have to admit I was afraid. I told myself at the time it was the cadence, which isn’t untrue. Morrison chooses in those chapters to write how Florens would perceive the world and considering how she wouldn’t have received lessons in the Queen’s English, it makes sense that she beautifully describes the Virginia night sky like “Night is thick no stars anyplace but sudden the moon moves.”
Reading it now, it’s not hard to see that as ‘The night is thick, there are no stars anywhere, but suddenly the moon moves.’ So was I that irked back then that Morrison left it to me to understand Florens, and not a transliteration of her?
Maybe, but a lot of things irk me. In the foreword to the 2004 Vintage International Edition of Song of Solomon, Morrison writes that “the challenge of Song of Solomon was to manage what was for me a radical shift in imagination from a female locus to a male one.” As a result, she adopts an old-school heroic saga instead of the sequence and time games she employs in other novels. And reading from that perspective I wonder, or rather conclude, that it was perhaps in high school I wasn’t able to shift perspectives in that way. Information comes sequentially, I perhaps thought. Anything else is cluttered. And for that I didn’t gain any more understanding of the world than if I never picked up the book.
Some of you are already familiar with some of the Columbia brand tricks to get you to shift perspectives: Beginner’s Mind, free speech, the Core. And the people you’re about to meet will have their own perspectives to observe. However, I think that when it comes to learning how to think and deliver from a perspective not your own, nothing beats experience and initiative. It’s through conversations, reflections, memories, and yes, muses as Morrison puts it without the reluctance she would have earlier, that the ability to shift finally comes.
Through this issue we shift constantly, from news to literature to satire, because that’s who we are. None of that takes away from the purpose of the magazine, nor the purpose of Columbia: to be the Renaissance polymaths who outshine Leonardo in his day, if not in subjects, then in modes of thinking. So I hope you enjoy the Orientation Issue as the leaves prepare to fly away. And perhaps, as I should have done when I was a first-year, read Morrison early. I won’t hate you if you start with A Mercy.