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VOW TALKS: TONI MORRISON – AUTHOR

Toni Morrison – Home

Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison began writing fiction as part of an informal group of poets and writers at Howard University.  Her literary journey started with a short story, while in that informal group, about a black girl who longed to have blue eyes. She later developed that short story in to her first novel, The Bluest Eye in 1970. 

The Bluest Eye, which she wrote while raising two children and teaching earned Morrison the highest accolades in literature and established her as one of America’s leading fiction writers.

In 1975 her novel Sula (1973) was nominated for the National Book Award. Her third novel, Song of Solomon (1977), brought her national attention. The book was a main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club, the first novel by a black writer to be chosen since Richard Wright's Native Son in 1940 which went on to win the National Book Critics Circle Award.

In 1987 Morrison's novel Beloved became a critical success. When the novel failed to win the National Book Award as well as the National Book Critics Circle Award, 48 African American critics and writers protested. Shortly afterward, it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the American Book Award. 

Beloved was adapted into the 1998 film of the same name starring Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover.  In May 2006, The New York Times Book Review named Beloved the best American novel published in the past twenty-five years.

Toni Morrison, on jacket of her Pulitzer Prize winning novel Beloved.

In 1993 Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Her citation reads: Toni Morrison, "who in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality." She is currently the last American to have been awarded the honor.

In 1996 the National Endowment for the Humanities selected Morrison for the Jefferson Lecture, the U.S. federal government's highest honor for achievement in the humanities. Morrison's lecture, entitled "The Future of Time: Literature and Diminished Expectations," began with the aphorism, "Time, it seems, has no future." She cautioned against the misuse of history to diminish expectations of the future.

Morrison was honored with the 1996 National Book Foundation's Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, which is awarded to a writer "who has enriched our literary heritage over a life of service, or a corpus of work."

In 2002, Morrison was invited to serve as the first Mentor in Literature in the inaugural cycle of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, an international philanthropic programme that pairs masters in their disciplines with emerging talents for a year of one-to-one creative exchange. Out of a very gifted field of candidates, Morrison chose young Australian novelist Julia Leigh as her protégée.

Although her novels typically concentrate on black women, Morrison does not identify her works as feminist.  She has stated that she thinks "it's off-putting to some readers, who may feel that I'm involved in writing some kind of feminist tract. I don't subscribe to patriarchy, and I don't think it should be substituted with matriarchy. I think it's a question of equitable access, and opening doors to all sorts of things."

In addition to her novels, Morrison has also co-written books for children with her younger son, Slade Morrison, who worked as a painter and musician. Slade died on December 22, 2010, aged 45.

Morrison taught English at two branches of the State University of New York. In 1984 she was appointed to an Albert Schweitzer chair at the University at Albany, The State University of New York. From 1989 until her retirement in 2006, Morrison held the Robert F. Goheen Chair in the Humanities at Princeton University.

Morrison conceived and developed the prestigious Princeton Atelier, a program that brings together talented students with critically acclaimed, world-famous artists. Together the students and the artists produce works of art that are presented to the public after a semester of collaboration. In her position at Princeton, Morrison used her insights to encourage not merely new and emerging writers, but artists working to develop new forms of art through interdisciplinary play and cooperation.

At its 1979 commencement ceremonies, Barnard College awarded her its highest honor, the Barnard Medal of Distinction. Oxford University awarded her an honorary Doctor of Letters degree in June 2005.

In November 2006, Morrison visited the Louvre Museum in Paris as the second in its "Grand Invité" program to guest-curate a month-long series of events across the arts on the theme of "The Foreigner's Home." Inspired by her curatorship, Morrison returned to Princeton in Fall 2008 to lead a small seminar, also entitled "The Foreigner's Home."

In May 2010, Morrison appeared at PEN World Voices for a conversation with Marlene van Niekerk and Kwame Anthony Appiah about South African literature, and specifically, van Niekerk's novel, Agaat.

In May 2011, Morrison received an Honorable Doctor of Letters Degree from Rutgers University during commencement where she delivered a speech of the "pursuit of life, liberty, meaningfulness, integrity, and truth".

In March, 2012, Morrison established a residency at Oberlin College.

She is currently a member of the editorial board of The Nation magazine.

Graffiti of Toni Morrison in the city of Vitoria, in Spain

Many of Morrison's novels range across the 20th century to explore the lingering effects of slavery and poverty, often amid all-black communities: Sula (1973) tells of two women bound by a terrible secret, while Song of Solomon is about the need for people to take flight; Jazz (1992) played with music to tell the story of Harlem during its renaissance in the 1920s. Morrison's novel Tar Baby 1981, set entirely in its contemporary moment, is also the only one of Morrison's novels not set exclusively in America, with much of its action on an imaginary Caribbean island, although the cross-cutting storyline of Love (1993) does reach into the 1990s. Beloved continues to be Morrison's masterpiece.

Beloved has been followed by: Paradise (1997), Love (2003), A Mercy and Home.  In Home, Morrison returns to the 50s, an era she remembers, to mine the traumatic possibilities of the Korean war and of biological experiments on African-Americans.

Home tells the story of Frank Money, an African-American veteran traumatised by his experiences in the Korean war. He has been back in America for a year, but feels too violent and dislocated to return home to Georgia, where his younger sister still lives. As the novel opens, Frank finds himself restrained in a hospital, but can't remember exactly why he's there.  He has received a mysterious letter from a woman named Sarah, telling him that he must hurry home and rescue his younger sister. So Frank breaks out of the hospital, shoeless in the dead of the winter, and begins to make his way cross-country to Georgia, relying on the kindness of strangers and trying to suppress his traumatic memories of the war as he goes.

Morrison cross-cuts Frank's story with that of his sister, Ycidra, known as Cee, who left home at 14 with "a rat" who called himself Prince. He has since run off, and Cee finds a job as a medical assistant for a white doctor named Beauregard Scott; his housekeeper, Sarah, shows Cee his office, where, gazing in awe at titles such as The Passing of the Great Race, and Heredity, Race and Society, she innocently wonders what "eugenics" means. It is a powerful set-up, building suspense and a mounting sense of anxiety: what terrible things are going to happen to Cee, and how will Frank save her, when he can't save himself?

Discover the works of Ms. Toni Morrison

Novels

The Bluest Eye (1970)
Sula (1974)
Song of Solomon (1977)
Tar Baby (1981)
Beloved (1987)
Jazz (1992)
Paradise (1997)
Love (2003)
A Mercy (2008)
Home (2012)

Non-fiction

The Black Book (1974)
Playing in the Dark" Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992)
Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality (editor) (1992)
Birth of a Nation'hood: Gaze, Script, and Spectacle in the O.J. Simpson Case (co-editor) (1997)
Remember: The Journey to School Integration (April 2004)
What Moves at the Margin: Selected Nonfiction, edited by Carolyn C. Denard (April 2008)
Burn This Book: Essay Anthology, editor (2009)

Articles

"Introduction." Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The Oxford Mark Twain, edited by Shelley Fisher Fishkin.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

 

 

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