'A glorious, fearsome energy': the fierce intellect of Toni Morrison
Winner of Pulitzer and Nobel prizes for her fiction, Toni Morrison's remarkable literary ability was matched only by the force of her anger, writes Henrietta McKervey
Something about Toni Morrison, something about the way people write and talk about Toni Morrison, reminds me of Roald Dahl's command in The Minpins to "above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you".
But the glitter in Morrison's eyes wasn't that of reflected magic or stardust, nor was it shimmering joy. It was sparks from a fire that would not be tamped down. A glorious, fearsome energy radiating outwards.
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Essayist, editor, teacher and author of 11 novels, as well as plays, five children's books with her painter son Slade, and nine works of non-fiction, Morrison died on Monday aged 88. Her birth name was Chloe which people mispronounced, so she changed it to Toni, having taken Anthony as a confirmation name when she became a Catholic aged 12.
Her last collection, Mouth Full of Blood (published in the US as The Source of Self-Regard) was published as recently as February this year - and what a fitting finale that book has turned out to be. Selected essays, speeches and meditations, Mouth Full of Blood takes on race, gender, globalisation, the sweep of American history, the role of the media and the artist, and the sorry state of contemporary politics.
As with her fiction, her essays display her remarkable literary ability, the force of her controlled anger and her deeply-held convictions. Her legacy is neatly summed up by Oprah Winfrey's 2018 comment: "It's impossible to actually imagine the American literary landscape without a Toni Morrison. She is our conscience, she is our seer, she is our truth-teller."
Twenty years earlier, Oprah starred in the movie version of Beloved, Morrison's novel famously dedicated to the "sixty million and more" who died as a result of the slave trade.
Beloved won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988 and was a finalist for the National Book Award the previous year. Morrison later revisited the act of writing Beloved, describing the process in an undated piece from her own archive as: "A tall door rises up into this nothing; its hardware is heavy, secure. No bell invites your hand. So you stand there, perhaps, or move away, and, later, sticking your hand in your pocket, you find a key that you know (or hope) fits the lock."
For such a woman of such fierce intellect, who could bend language to any shape she desired, she was also full of empathy, with a home-spun accessibility to the way she described her life: "I used to write with my children pulling on my hair, babies pulling on my earrings. My baby once spit up orange juice on my tablet, and I just wrote around it." In an interview in 2012, she was asked about her life as a single mother - she married Harold Morrison in 1958 but they split while she was pregnant with their second son - and she replied: "I don't think I did any of that very well. I did it ad hoc, like any working mother does."
Divorce, she said, didn't have to take over a woman's life: "It's a big thing, I guess, but it's not that big." She once commented that her marriage broke down because she didn't think she conformed to what her husband thought a wife should be.
Her first novel, 1970's The Bluest Eye was, "a consequence of being overcome by the wholesale dismissal of a certain part of the population (to which I belonged) in history texts and literature". In 1967, Morrison became the first female African-American editor to work in Random House's fiction department, where she remained until 1983. She used this position to promote black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) authors, which in turn has been credited with inspiring a new generation not just of writers, but also of BAME publishers and booksellers.
She published The Black Book in 1974, a landmark anthology that used photographs, songs, letters and drawings to narrate the black experience from slavery to the 20th century. When he awarded Morrison the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012, President Barack Obama said: "Toni reaches us deeply, using a tone that is lyrical, precise, distinct, and inclusive."
And inclusive she most certainly was, which must have made the repeated calls on her to 'prove' her inclusivity by writing about experiences other than the African-American infuriating. A towering force in literature, whose many awards also included the Nobel Prize for Literature (1993) and the National Humanities Medal (2000) - not to mention the two Grammy nominations along the way - she was constantly being forced to fight the narcissism of the white gaze and explain why her literary decisions 'centred' on race.
In the 1998 TV programme Toni Morrison: Uncensored, journalist Jana Wendt asked Morrison when she would "incorporate white lives" into her books "in a substantial way".
Morrison's clear and calm response, a masterclass in take-down, concluded: "Being an African-American writer is sort of being like a Russian writer who writes about Russia, in Russian, for Russians. And the fact that it gets translated and read by other people is a benefit. It's a plus. But he's not obliged to ever consider writing about French people or Americans… or anybody."
In 2010, she was halfway through writing her 10th novel Home when her son Slade died of pancreatic cancer.
Later, she stressed the need for forward movement in the face of grief.
"The thing that I do that is life-giving is my work," she said. In an essay 'The Dead of September 11', she wrote: "Speaking to the broken and the dead is too difficult for a mouth full of blood. Too holy an act for impure thoughts. Because the dead are free, absolute; they cannot be seduced by blitz."
In an article about Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian writer and critic whose novel Things Fall Apart is considered the most widely-read book in modern African literature, Morrison wrote: "My debt to Mr Achebe is the best kind. Large, minus repayment schedule, and interest-free."
Today, we must say the same about her.
Henrietta McKervey's latest novel, 'Violet Hill', is out now