By Ruth Conniff
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Fifteen years ago this month, the novelist Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize for literature, the second American woman and the first black American to do so. On this anniversary, we should once again celebrate her accomplishments.
Born in Lorain, Ohio, in 1931, Toni Morrison has written an unparalleled body of work. Citing her visionary narratives, the Swedish Academy praised her ability to delve into language that “wants to liberate from the fetters of race,” while dazzling us with poetry.
Among her most-read novels, “The Bluest Eye” is a young girl’s lyrical lament for beauty, while the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Beloved” is a matricidal tragedy centered around slavery and its excruciating aftermath.
Her most recent novel, “A Mercy,” is set in part in late seventeenth century Maryland at the beginning of the slave trade. At its center is Florens, a girl who is exchanged for a bad debt. Like all of Morrison’s heroines, she is not quite what she appears and displays a powerful will coupled with an endearing vulnerability that continuously leaves the reader both exuberant and heartbroken.
While writing nine groundbreaking novels, Morrison has also taken time to pen a book of literary criticism and edit two anthologies, one on the Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill hearings and the other on the O. J. Simpson murder trial. And she has written a libretto based on the life of Margaret Garner, who was the inspiration for “Beloved.”
She has also been indirectly involved in this year’s presidential race, due to an essay she wrote for The New Yorker magazine as President Clinton faced impeachment over the Monica Lewinsky affair ten years ago. Because of the tropes he represented, she wrote, because he was born poor from a single parent household, sexualized and persecuted — “white skin notwithstanding, this is our first black President.” Often quoted out of context and without the nuance of her essay, these words kept resurfacing this year even after she endorsed the man who, black skin notwithstanding, might actually become our first black president.
Two years ago, after the riots that plagued several Paris suburbs, she conducted a month-long residency at the Louvre Museum, where she invited slam poets from troubled neighbourhoods to perform their work, with iconic paintings as a backdrop.
I was lucky enough to have been among the other writers she welcomed to the Louvre, and we spent a wonderful afternoon discussing her chosen theme, “The Foreigner’s Home.”
“Foreign is the designation of the curious,” she said in her inaugural lecture, “the rupture between self and society. Home is where the memory of the self dwells. Whether those memories spawn or shrivel determines who we are and determines what we may become.”
With words that continue to inspire today, she encouraged the young poets and the rest of us to summon strength from difficult circumstances.
“The point is that you can use your disadvantages,” she added. “Out of disadvantages and energy comes a new thing that has never been seen before.”
Recently, Horace Engdahl, a top member of the jury that awards the Nobel Prize for literature said that unlike their European counterparts, American writers are too isolated and insular, too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture to participate in the “big dialogue of literature.”
No matter who wins the Nobel Prize for literature this year, Toni Morrison has already proven him wrong.
Edwidge Danticat’s most recent book is “Brother, I’m Dying,” which won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award. Earlier this year, she delivered the second annual Toni Morrison lecture at Princeton University. She can be reached at email@example.com.