With 11 novels, Morrison was the first African-American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature
By: Dr. Ratan Bhattacharjee
Last year when I had been to Princeton University with Professor Talin Gregor who discussed with me Iranian art and after that I visited the Afro-American Studies Centre to meet Professor Toni Morrison. I was told that she had been on leave for writing her last novel and would not come to take her classes in Princeton for the whole year. I was eagerly waiting for the last novel but today I was just shocked when I came to know that Toni Morrison is no more. The towering novelist of the black experience breathed her last in the Bronx at 88. Many writers are silenced by death but some rare ones like Shakespeare Marquez, Twain or Jane Austen are immortally amplified by each new generation and here too we may safely conclude that we have had the blessings of reading Morrison while our next generations will have theirs of rediscovering her and she will live forever. Toni Morrison, the 1993 Nobel laureate in literature, whose acclaimed, best-selling work explored black identity in America and in particular the experience of black women, as teacher loved her students, colleagues, her department and her research work in Princeton. She was a very popular teacher like Einstein was in the Fuld Hall of Princeton, as I gathered it from many in Princeton University. But as a novelist she was sui generis in the sense that a black woman should write the greatest novel of the 20th century as a glorious rebuke to long history that denigrated women and African Americans is really astonishing. She was the first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature as the author of 11 novels as well as children’s books and essays collections. Among them were celebrated works like “Song of Solomon,” which received the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1977, and “Beloved,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988. She was one of the rare American authors whose books were both critical and commercial successes.
In 2015 when she accepted a lifetime achievement award from the National Book Critics Circle in New York, she radiated delight — not in herself but in the remarkable possibilities of this nation. With “Beloved,” she dared to expose not just the injustice of slavery, but the full spectrum of its obscenity. She uncovered the ghastly metal devices wrapped around black necks and crammed into black mouths. She explored the sickening abuses of “science” to justify racial hierarchies. She blasted the myth of the benevolent plantation.
The initial response to “The Bluest Eye” was, in her own words, “slight, even hostile,” but fame came, and she went on to write 10 more novels — including Sula, Song of Solomon and Paradise — stories that placed black women at the centre, in the full complexity of their lives. Myth, magic and superstition are inextricably intertwined with everyday verities, a technique that caused Morrison’s novels to be likened often to those of Latin American magic realist writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In her fiction, the past is often manifest in a harrowing present — a world of alcoholism, rape, incest and murder, recounted in unflinching detail. Her narratives mingle the voices of men, women, children and even ghosts in layered polyphony. In Sula, a woman blithely lets a train run over her leg for the insurance money it will give her family. In Song of Solomon, a baby girl is named Pilate by her father, who “had thumbed through the Bible, and since he could not read a word, chose a group of letters that seemed to him strong and handsome.” In Beloved, the spectre of a murdered child takes up residence in the house of her murderer.
The granddaughter of a slave, Morrison wrote the novel Beloved that definitively dismantled a century of Southern romanticism. Arguments about states’ rights or fantasies of antebellum gentility were scythed by her storytelling. Most dramatically, she called forth the spirit of trauma that still haunts this nation, what she once called “the tenacity of racism.” Recalling the true story of Margaret Garner, an African American woman who killed her own daughter rather than allow her to be dragged back into slavery, Morrison presented America’s “peculiar institution” in terms so visceral and intimate, that no reader could endure it unshaken. It was the greatest love wrapped in the greatest horror.
She was courageous enough to voice her protest even against Trump and his role in stoking white nationalism. Shortly after the 2016 presidential elections, Morrison expressed her apprehension in an essay “Making America White Again,” an essay for the New Yorker about the cultural anxiety that she said motivated most of the white Americans who voted for Trump.
The words of Morrison’s Nobel acceptance speech from 1993 still ring with relevance: “Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge,” she said. “It is the language that drinks blood, laps vulnerabilities, tucks its fascist boots under crinolines of respectability and patriotism as it moves relentlessly toward the bottom line and the bottomed-out mind.” The truth of Toni Morrison’s fiction prevails as she told it in her Nobel acceptance speech: We die, that may be the meaning of life. But we do have language. That may be the measure of our lives.” She placed her indelible stamp not only on Afro-American but on American literature in its wholeness.