Toni Morrison Photograph: Eamonn McCabe/The Guardian
After the death of the great Nobel-prizewinning author, Ben Okri, Alice Walker, Elif Shafak and others offer their personal tributes
by Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, Aminatta Forna, Danez Smith, Caryl Philips, Lynn Nottage, Candace Allen, Candice Carty-Williams, Elif Shafak, Bonnie Greer, Preti Taneja, Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff, Kamila Shamsie and Margaret Busby
Toni Morrison didn’t begin writing late, but she published much later than most writers, after a career in publishing as an editor in New York. This meant she gave the impression of coming into her literary life fully formed, with all the inflections of her style and the unique jazz-tinged poetry of her tone that encompassed the inward textures of black life, seen from the vantage point of wounded women who nevertheless have the strength to be witnesses to the brutalities of history on black lives and the unexpected redemptions, hard-won and ambiguous.
She burst into the world of literature at a time that needed her supremely wrought perspective, and was by no means the first black woman writer to have such a strong presence on the literary scene in the US. When she arrived, with her first novel, The Bluest Eye, she immediately re-ordered the American literary landscape. That voice had not existed before, those cadences cutting through the tangled slices of the American racial undergrowth, immensely fluid, capable of weaving the past and the present in a manner than was epical in compression.
In novel after novel, with heft and an electric charge, she revealed the brutalised psyche of deep-singing women, of men upon whom the appalling weight of slavery and racial dehumanisation had wrought destructive traumas. The novels discharge these traumas, blasting them out from the secret caverns of unknown lives, in a prose that is threaded and shafted with intelligence, wit, unpredictability, tough truth.
Then, in 1977, a novel appeared that stood out from the many superb productions of the age. It was Song of Solomon, and when we read it for the first time it was as if some biblical revelation of prose had been unleashed in America, and all that pain, all that magic, had been given a voice that transcended expectation. With Song of Solomon, a writer joined the forefront of the writers of her land. She was up there with Richard Wright, Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, Philip Roth, James Baldwin – writers who were challenging the inflection and the timbre of the American dream.
But it was with Beloved, in 1987, that her place in US literature was definitively sealed. It is an unprecedented work, both in its execution and the incidental narrative that it engendered in its appearance in the world. It must surely be the singular case of a novel that drew, with justification, the combined wrath of writers who were shocked that this great novel had not been honoured in the highest literary prize of its land. The roll call of writers who signed the petition demanding that the novel be properly honoured is itself a list of the most significant writers of the times. But Beloved is a novel that hovers over prizes. It was a national epic, breaching the veil between the living and the dead, a symphony of voices, a high watermark, and not surprisingly voted the best novel in American literature over the past 50 years.
There is about Morrison’s oeuvre a remarkable unity of tone and address, and a moral strength and integrity. The body of her work is not vast, but it has remarkable compression and the fire of an unmistakable vitality. When she won the Nobel prize for literature in 1993 she had published only six novels, but they were enough to etch a new space on the shelves of the literature of the world.
Her shorter novels are fascinating, and her essays always enrich in their elliptical tone. It is common to speak of her as a black writer who wrote about race and slavery and the trauma of black female lives. But she is something more, both a witness and a celebrant. It would be a pity to miss the beauty of her language and her farsightedness in our desire to anchor her in contemporary relevance. She was brave, generous and rhythmically compelling. To hear her read her work is to be given another secret dimension of her appeal. She was a literary warrior in whose work the US peered into the black mirror of its untold truths. But her work spoke to people everywhere, to their traumas and their joys, in a language in which inspiration was at home.
Ellah Wakatama Allfrey
Editor and critic
In 2009, I was senior editor at Jonathan Cape, Random House. I loved my job – I loved my books and my authors. But sometimes it was hard. I was consumed with the desire to publish books that would tell the stories of black people in Britain, stories from Africa or from her wide and varied diaspora. And it was hard, because nowhere could I see (at that time) anyone who looked like me who wanted the same thing. A friend from New York sent me a book of postcards featuring African American writers – James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Ntozake Shange and Toni Morrison. In the image, she has an afro with gentle waves of hair, her arms spread wide as if in wonder and joy. And she was sitting at her desk where she was senior editor at Random House. The picture has moved with me from desk to desk. I looked at her and knew that I was not only possible, but necessary.
My sister describes reading The Bluest Eye as a young girl at a friend’s farm outside Harare, in Zimbabwe. “I finished it,” she said, “and I was furious that this white man Toni knew our secrets”. In the days before Google – and perhaps too young to know that all she had to do was read the author bio – she carried this fury until I sent her (from my college in the US) Morrison’s 1987 novel Beloved, along with a letter telling her why she had to read it.
Today, we whisper tears over the phone across an ocean and remember for each other a writer who gave us language that was big enough to describe the love that is friendship, who taught us to look from the bottom rung of the ladder that is too often the reality of black womanhood and to perceive from this most difficult and complex of perspectives the most beautiful and terrifying of all the truths that make up the human condition.
Morrison was one of the greatest of a generation of writers who helped to shift the centre of the literary imagination. She did so in her choice of theme and character, voicing the African American experience through black protagonists, and she brilliantly subverted expectations by choosing, at times, to identify only white characters by skin colour, or erasing mention of colour from her narrative altogether. Having lived in the US for the past four years, I feel her most significant contribution is to have memorialised, through art, the history and horror of slavery in a country that has thus far failed publicly to acknowledge or to offer redress for this original sin. This task has been left to artists, specifically African American artists. Morrison’s legacy in commemorating slavery’s survivors will endure and uplift for centuries to come.
The first time I came across her work, I didn’t read it. Song of Solomon sat on my dresser, unopened, until it was too late and I panicked, plagiarising an essay on the novel for my 11th-grade English class. Thank God I got caught. My teacher failed me for the paper, but made me reread the book and submit an essay anyway. I thought then that she wanted to teach me a lesson about following through on a task. But from where I am now I can see that she was saying: “You’re not allowed to miss this. You need to see what Morrison has written for you.” Morrison is, to me, the best writer the English-speaking world has ever seen. The best novelist, one of the best essayists, one hell of an editor, and sometimes one of our greatest poets in the midst of her prose. By the time I came into the world, there was no question that this black woman from Ohio, writing about black people in the midwest, was one of the greats.
What does that do to a young black writer? To a generation of black writers and writers of colour? By Morrison’s example, we knew we could write ourselves and our people with love, rigour, and intention. We knew that to be asked to bend our writing towards the comfort of some imagined white reader was a distraction from the good and necessary work of achieving and dreaming up our people. We knew that the best writers don’t just clear space for their own name, but make their abundance the wealth of many. Morrison did the thing. She lived a mighty life. She was loved and asked us to love harder. She wrote and we’ll be trying to catch up to her for ever. Morrison is the foundation.
I’m wrecked to see her go, but as I sit here I can’t help but smile thinking about all she did, all she enabled, all she built, all she dreamed, all those she invited into the room of letters. Rest, Toni. You did magnificent. You took this language they beat into our people and made us a feast. Thank you for making us better. Thank you for it all.
Author and playwright
Morrison almost single-handedly took American fiction forward in the second half of the 20th century, to a place where it could finally embrace the subtleties and contradictions of the great stain of race which has blighted the republic since its inception. She broke ground, not only as a writer of great fiction and nonfiction, but as one of the most influential editors of her time – a pioneer, being both black and female. But more than this, an inspiration with her unswerving support for books and the authors in whom she believed. She fought tenaciously, as a writer and as an editor.
Toni Morrison on a very personal level was immensely important to me. As a young girl, as a reader looking for representations of self, she was one of the first novelists who I felt captured the experience of being black in a way that resonated for me. I came of age in the 70s and prior to Toni Morrison there just wasn’t an abundance of work written by black women that truthfully told our stories. She was immensely significant.
The first book I read by Morrison was Sula and I think that the reason I responded to that book in particular was that the central character was this young, irreverent, unconventional, defiant black girl who felt very dangerous and familiar. Perhaps, Sula is the Morrison book that means the most because it was my introduction to her work and in many ways it was like a literary awakening for me. I remember the cover art, and I had such a visceral response that it continues to stay with me. Even though it might not be her most accomplished book, it is to me her most important book.
At the time I read the book, she wasn’t really a public figure – she hadn’t risen to prominence. You have to understand that many of us were engaged with her work long before she became a public figure, books like Sula and The Bluest Eye were very much part of the black discourse they were widely embrace by the white mainstream. In many ways her middle novels like Song of Solomon and Beloved are the ones that she’s most recognised for, but my love for Toni Morrison started long before those books were written.
I would say that she was able to capture a very specific black vernacular that at once elevated the language. There are elements of magical realism that permeate her novels, but I also think that I responded to her work because it was raw and honest, and there was always a sense of danger. She repeatedly wrestled with characters that were morally ambiguous and she wasn’t afraid to lean into some of the contradictions of what it meant to be a black woman who was struggling to survive in a culture that sought to diminish your power and to render you invisible.
No doubt she influenced my writing, she’s part of my literary DNA because her books are the ones that I was leaning on when I was developing my voice. I did get to meet her – I had a fellowship at Princeton for the African-American studies department and she gave a talk and then a dinner afterwards which was one of those magical literary moments. I was sitting next to Joyce Carol-Oates and got to meet Toni Morrison who at that time was struggling with health issues, but still a very commanding presence in the room. What did I say to her? Probably something like “Good to meet you” [laughs]. Since I’ve heard the news of her death I’ve been in that space of mourning and just trying to process my own experience with her work.
A friend called me to let me know that Morrison had died, such was her importance in my life. It feels as if I have lost a relative. I have always loved her work; one of the last books I worked on before I left my job in publishing was Mouth Full of Blood: Essays, Speeches, Meditations. I just assumed she would be here for ever.
If it wasn’t for Morrison, I wouldn’t be a writer. If it wasn’t for her work, I don’t think I would be here. We owe so much to her as a people, as black women. She paved the way for so many of us, naturally inspiring us to do what we need to do without any force or showiness. There’s her quote: “If you don’t see yourself in a book, write it.” That’s what I did with my novel Queenie. If it wasn’t for her words, would I have thought I could do it? Would I have felt equipped to do it? Probably not.
Another quote that I’ll always remember is from Beloved: “Anything dead coming back to life hurts.” I have never heard human emotion summed up better, in anything I have read before or since. It’s that way of accessing human emotion into so many books that we can relate to, even though she’s not writing in this time and in this space. We owe the world to her. They say you should give people their flowers while they’re still here, and part of me worries that she never had that, that she didn’t know how important she was not just to literature, but the world. I want her to see the tribute that she deserves.
Four years ago, I came across a photograph of her at a disco party. She looks incredible: literally afro out, in a slip dress, braless – the constraints are not there. I sent it to loads of my friends and I was like, “I can’t imagine what this feels like, to look like that.” It’s just the most amazing thing – it’s like she has seen someone across the room, and she is free and happy. There’s a “carefree black girl” movement that I have never felt able to fit into, because I have a lot of cares, a lot of worries – I’ve always looked at this photo whenever I’ve needed to remind myself that I can be carefree. It was my computer desktop background when I was struggling in my job, struggling to get my words out, struggling with my identity. When I was feeling that I couldn’t be more trapped, that was the picture that kept me going, and when I saw the news, that’s what came up in my mind. I’m just so grateful to Toni Morrison for that.
We have lost a great writer whose extraordinary novels leave an indelible imprint on the consciousness of all who read them. What a force her thoughts have been and how grateful we must be that they were offered to us in this extremely challenging age.
Morrison is always the ideal when it comes to writing. I had just found the possibility of a topic for my third novel when I saw the news of her death on Twitter. It completely floored me, but I quickly got the best rum in the house, went out into the garden and poured a libation in thanks for all she has done. For me, the message from Toni to take away, even though the words are Beckett’s, is to fail better. We only have our language with which to tell our stories.
At university, I remember reading The Bluest Eye and being devastated. I then went on to Sula and Beloved and Jazz – all of them depict black women so powerfully. At that time, I wasn’t aspiring to be a writer, but she was telling me how to be a writer, how to be alive and how to give it profundity. Her legacy is human; the huge breadth of humanity is what she expressed – and in places people wouldn’t perhaps notice it – and it’s profound. It doesn’t just affect black female writers; anyone with sense can only be inspired by her.
When you live in different countries and several cities throughout your life, one thing you will find hard as a novelist is to keep a library. But wherever I went there would always be a novel of hers travelling with me. Sometimes in English, sometimes in Turkish. The Bluest Eye. Song of Solomon. Beloved. Tar Baby. I felt soothed by her words, encouraged by her presence, inspired by her vision. Morrison had a huge impact on me. Secretly, I dreamed of being able to tell her this someday.
Slavery, memory, sanity, spirituality, myth, destruction and inequality, but above all, survival. Her stories changed the literary landscape not only in America but also, through myriad translations, across the world. It wasn’t only her novels, though. The way she defended and explained her craft was remarkable; she was a fighter and she was not afraid of taking risks. In her personal life she had to overcome many barriers – gender, racial and class. Novelist, editor, scholar, she was one of our most important public intellectuals.
Recently, at an event at Daunt Books in London, a young mother from Sudan put her hand up and said she wanted to keep writing fiction but she found it hard to do so while raising three young kids. I said to her: “Think about Toni Morrison. Remember what she said. Some days we won’t be able to write, and that’s all right. Other days we will be more productive. Sometimes we will work at night, sometimes during the day. We will carve out little pockets of spaces for ourselves, just like many women do. It is only privileged authors of a certain background who are proud of their precise schedules. The rest of us will keep struggling, sometimes failing, sometimes succeeding. It was Morrison who showed us that this is how we write.”
Morrison’s work bore echoes of her life, but she insisted on the need for literature to be free, not necessarily autobiographical. Although her work was multilayered, and her themes diverse, in the end she always wrote about love – its powerful presence or painful absence.
Playwright, novelist and critic
Toni Morrison was a quintessential, unabashedly American writer. Like her fellow giant, Walt Whitman, her work was, above all, audacious. She seized the landscape with a flourish and wove it, unwove it and put it back together. Done with spirit and The Spirit.
What it was.
What it is.
In this, and at the same time, she invented and reinvented the music of her people. She took for granted that we knew what she was doing, and put that music before us. With a blessing.
Like her equal, Whitman, she cannot be imitated.
How can you do justice to a writer who saw your soul and wrote it too? I first read Toni Morrison’s Beloved in high school and it was the first time I felt allowed to access the pain of my ancestors, the first time I felt like that deep welt inside of me had reason to be there and the first time I felt soothed by representation. I was captivated by the magic of Sethe’s story, her haunting, her ability to sink into her pain, the chokecherry tree of scars that criss crossed her back. I hadn’t read anything else up to then that allowed me to understand what it means to be able to trace your lineage back to slavery. Morrison’s characters and her distinct voice will be with me for life. On days where it feels like there is nothing to do but listen and learn, I sit in bed with earphones clamped on tight, listening to her voice narrate the stories of a past I feel intimately connected to. I am so grateful and so sad. I often thought about the possibility of meeting her, but then realised that I wouldn’t have anything interesting to say to someone of her greatness.
A single question from Morrison’s lips – “But invisible to whom?” – had a greater effect on my life and psychological health than all of her novels put together. For in that question, in response to Ralph Ellison’s novel The Invisible Man, she invited me to stop trying to see myself through the distorted mirror of the white gaze, which as often reflects me back to myself as grotesque or broken or obsequious toward my tormentors or violent and dangerous as it completely erases me. Not a part of the American history, or the country’s political and cultural landscape. But Morrison’s novels showed me myself. They made me real because I saw myself in print. I was literature.
In The Bluest Eye and my beloved Beloved, in Song of Solomon, Sula and Paradise, her love for my blackness invited me as a young girl to love it too. Her novels moved and sustained me through young adulthood, through marriage and motherhood, through the pain and near nihilism of the last few years in US political life. But it is her work as a critical cultural theorist that has had the most lasting impression on my life. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, winner of the Nobel prize in literature, is a seminal text in my home. In this book, Morrison went past refusing to be viewed through the lens of white America and instead turned a black gaze on white life.
Through a brilliant takedown of the canon of American literature, she boldly told white folks about themselves, reminding them that black people – blakness itself, the other – has given white Americans their identity, has defined the US’s sense of itself. For there is no freedom – as reality or a concept – without enslaved men and women. There is no sense of white exceptionalism without white folks’ boots on the neck of somebody brown. The book’s query was: without your distorting gaze on black beauty and grace, fortitude and black artistry, who exactly are you? That question, cutting though it may be, gave me, as the kids say these days, “my whole life”. Only in this case, I mean it quite literally. Toni Morrison saved my life many times, got me through the exquisite existential pain of feeling invisible, by displacing the white authority in my own head and replacing it with a new perspective that celebrated every aspect – pain, joy and, yes, frailty. And wisdom – of my blackness. I am psychologically healthier because she lived and thought and loved and wrote it all down. I will love her for ever.
Sweet Home. Here boy. The sense of rememory – Toni Morrison’s words and phrases seem so simple, but they are laden with the history of slavery and they break the power of white silencing. She takes the language of the oppressors, and instead of cursing with it, rinses liberation for the oppressed from it.
I first read Beloved at 17. I knew it was specifically about black American history and experience, but I held on to each line – it was a revelation; it was proof. It was all I needed to confirm what I hadn’t been able to say out loud: that there was violence in the way “civilised” language works, and I felt that violence every day. Toni Morrison gave me early courage to believe that non-white women could own the English language with all the beauty of our own styles; and to hope that when we did write we would not be silenced and our words might not be lost. I never met her. But when my own book was picked up to be published by AA Knopf, the house in New York where she worked and which publishes her, I hoped maybe it would rub covers with hers on a shelf somewhere in that office. By way of homage and thanks, it was more than enough.
Hannah Azieb Pool
Artistic director/CEO Bernie Grants Arts Centre
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love Morrison. She moved the very core of me at a young age. But the book that changed me the most was Beloved. It’s such raw and beautiful storytelling. It changed me in a way that was almost physical. It gave me the confidence to own my blackness – especially in my writing. To voice it, to articulate it, to be proud of it, not to shy away from it. And to understand that black stories are universal, and at the same time very specific.
You knew you were safe in her hands. She found a way to take the violence inflicted on black bodies – structural and systemic violence – and turn it into beautiful storytelling, but without glossing over anything or losing the politics.
She is a vital example of a black woman writer who took on the mantle of being a black literary icon to create a space for generations of black, female writers who came after her. That’s why we all feel we have ownership of her, that she’s ours.
The thought of no more words from Morrison, particularly in the world we are in at the moment, is such a loss. At times like this we look to our writers. To lose her voice at this time feels like a blow. Some writers you can always turn to to contextualise difficult moments in history in a way that makes me feel hopeful in spite of devastation.
She was endlessly producing work that reached across generations, so you didn’t have to be of her experience to feel she was talking about your experience. Her impact and reach were incredible. It’s a seismic loss. It feels as if a tectonic plate has shifted. It’s odd how devastating it is, to know she’s not here any more. Because she gave black women everywhere a voice, and a way of telling our own stories.
I write this from a small children’s hospital in Queens, New York, where my son is learning to eat. This morning, when I read the news of Toni Morrison’s death, my son had just eaten his first piece of toast. He is six years old. So I cried seeing him eat that toast and at the loss of this great woman who has been speaking to my soul for as long as I can remember.
The thing about Morrison is that she allows us, at any moment, to be in the presence of utter greatness. You can just open one of her books and something incredible will be there. It’s like being able to walk into a cathedral any time you want. Her writing is a daily reminder of our capacity for magic. Eating toast. Making miracles out of words.
No other writer in my lifetime, or perhaps ever, has married so completely an understanding of the structures of power with knowledge of the human heart. No one else had her mastery of compression while being so expansive. She taught me about the world even while she was teaching me about the sentence, the word, the syllable. But though there’s so much to say about her I find that all I really want to do is go to her novels and look again at their impossible brilliance. You might as well start with the opening of ‘Jazz’: “Sth, I know that woman. She used to live with a flock of birds on Lenox Avenue. Know her husband, too. He fell for an 18-year-old girl with one of those deepdown, spooky loves that made him so sad and happy he shot her just to keep the feeling going.”
Publisher, editor, writer and broadcaster
From the moment I knew of her, Toni Morrison was my literary inspiration, the person who I wished I could become – a feeling shared with many another black woman. I began to read her visionary novels in the 1970s, and to learn that she was also working in the very un-diverse publishing industry where I too was trying to make my way was both a solace and humbling. She once spoke to me of the challenges she faced as an editor having to ensure success for every black writer she took on – who included Gayl Jones, Angela Davis, Henry Dumas, and Toni Cade Bambara – lest negative assumptions be made about all black writers. Toni left publishing in 1983 so as to be able to devote more time to her own writing. After The Bluest Eye (1970), Sula (1973), Song of Solomon (1977), and Tar Baby (1981), Beloved was published in 1987 and has since been considered by many to be her breakthrough novel. However, when she came to London in 1988 for the UK publication of Beloved a television appearance that she and I had been due to make discussing publishing was dropped, ostensibly because Toni was not well enough known. Sindamani Bridglal, then a fledgling film-maker, has written about how we addressed this huge faux pas by making our own film, which we sold to Channel 4 the month Toni won the Pulitzer prize. She would go on to become a Nobel prize-winner in 1993 and to garner many other prestigious accolades. In an article I wrote in 1993 I quoted something she had said in 1987, embracing the universal and the personal in a way that continues to resonate with me unapologetically: “I really think the range of emotions and perceptions I have had access to as a black person and as a female person are greater than those of people who are neither … my world did not shrink because I was a black female writer. It just got bigger.” The wisdom, compassion, dignity and genius Toni embodied was phenomenal, unforgettable and will be much missed.