Bookish Birthdays: Toni Morrison

18th Feb 2011

Famed for her refined, lyrical and ‘synaesthetic’* language, Nobel laureate author and academic Toni Morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wofford on 18th February 1931, to Ramah Willis Wofford and George Wofford.

The family lived in Ohio, and young Chloe was the only African-American child in her first grade class. She went on to gain a BA at Howard University and an MA in English from Cornell.

Whilst at Howard she changed her name, and married Jamaican architect Harold Morrison in 1958; they had two sons, Harold and Slade. The Morrisons divorced in 1964.

After leaving college Toni Morrison worked as an editor for Random House, working on other books by black female writers, then went on to teach at the universities Texan Southern, Albany, Yale and Princeton (she has since retired from lecturing).

Her childhood was filled with stories; she was a voracious reader and also listened, rapt, as her father told her traditional folktales. It’s thought that the oral storytelling tradition, with its compelling lyricism, strongly influenced her work.

Morrison’s acclaimed début novel The Bluest Eye took life from a short story, developed while writing with a loose group of writers and poets at Howard.

It missed out on the National Book Award, catching no end of controversy for the perceived oversight, but Toni Morrison later won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for Sula in 1973 and again for Beloved in 1987.

Both her literary and non-fiction work trains its gaze on the desires, dreams and dashed hopes of black Americans. The dreamy, poetic language she uses makes the depictions of abuse, racism and self-hatred no less shocking.

Pity poor Pecola from The Bluest Eye, who learns early on that her blackness is ugly, and wishes for blue eyes to make her beautiful. Her misery and jealousy is compounded when confronted with the ‘high yellow’ beauty of green-eyed, biracial ‘dream child’ Maureen Peal one day at school.

Her numerous other novels include: Song of Solomon (1977), Tar Baby (1981); Jazz (1992), Love (2003) and A Mercy (2008). Beloved was adapted into a film by, and starring, Oprah Winfrey.

Toni Morrison has also penned a play, Breaking Emmett (about murdered teenager Emmett Till), and ventured into children’s fiction with her son Slade Morrison (the most recent being Little Cloud and Lady Wind).

She has curated exhibitions at the Louvre (The Foreigner’s Home) and other esteemed institutions, and wrote the libretto for the opera Margaret Garner. The production is based on the same true story – of an escaped slave who murdered her child rather than let her be taken back into slavery – as Beloved. There is a not-inconsiderable canon of non-fiction works and essays, too.

In the last five years alone she’s been awarded, among many other things, a Grammy, a Doctor of Letters degree from Oxford, an Honorary Doctor of Letters from Harvard, a Lifetime Achievement Award from Glamour magazine… the list goes on, and is probably literally as long as your arm.

She became the first African-American woman to be appointed holder of a named chair at Princeton University in 1987, and to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993.

Mary Helen Washington, editor of 1970s anthology Black-Eyed Susans (where I first stumbled on excerpts of Morrison’s work) says:

‘Her voice is experimental, sometimes risk-taking, at times contradictory… like the issues she chooses to deal with, that voice is complex, disturbing, paradoxical.’

Refusing to pigeonhole Paradise (the third in a trilogy of Beloved and Jazz) as a feminist novel – according to an interview with Salon in 1998, ‘I don’t write “-ist” novels’ – and having been criticised for her ambiguity and ‘pessimism’ in her work, Morrison herself says (in the same interview):

“In order to be as free as I possibly can, in my own imagination, I can’t take positions that are closed. Everything I’ve ever done, in the writing world, has been to expand articulation, rather than to close it, to open doors, sometimes, not even closing the book – leaving the endings open for reinterpretation, revisitation, a little ambiguity.”