You wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down. – Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison Biography
After reading ‘The Bluest Eye’ as the August read for the Read Write Inspire Reading Club, I decided to read up a bit about Toni Morrison and explore her biography. She freely shares a wealth of personal information and insights in many of her interviews. I’ve condensed some of them and presented them here:
(If you want to know about how and why you should read classics, click here to read the blog post I wrote about it. If you are interested in joining the Book Club, click here and join the Facebook Group. The discussion on ‘The Bluest Eye’ will be taking place at 8.00 pm IST on 28th August 2020 on the Facebook Group)
- Toni Morrison is the first Black woman to win a Nobel prize and the third Black person to win a Nobel prize in literature.
- Toni Morrison was born in Lorain, Ohio, which is about 25 miles west of Cleveland. She was named Chloe Anthony Wofford. Ohio is of central importance to Toni Morrison. The Bluest Eye is set in Lorain, Ohio, Sula is set in Medallion, Ohio and her masterpiece Beloved is also set in post-Civil War Ohio.
- She earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Howard University in Washington in 1953 and a master’s degree in English from Cornell University in 1955. At Cornell, she wrote her thesis on the theme of suicide in the works of William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf. The innovative literary styles of these two authors inspired and influenced Ms. Morrison.
- Toni Morrison grew up in a vibrant African American culture. One of the favourite pastimes and family entertainment was telling stories. Her father excelled in narrating ghost stories.
- ‘The Bluest Eye’ is her debut novel and it was published in 1970. She followed that with ‘Sula’ (1973), which was nominated for a National Book Award; “Song of Solomon” (1977), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, and “Tar Baby” (1981).
- Her novel “Beloved” (1987) was met with enormous critical acclaim and became a huge commercial success. When the book did not win the National Book Award, 48 black writers and critics signed a statement which was published in The New York Review of Books that lamented how the author had been overlooked for the award. In 1988, ‘Beloved’ won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
- Morrison’s family stood up for their rights and resisted oppression and exploitation. She inherited this trait from her family. Once, when her family received public assistance, they were given insect-infested flour. Ms. Morrison’s mother sent a letter of protest to Franklin D. Roosevelt and this left a deep impression in the young author’s mind.
- In a 1986 interview, Toni Morrison explained that she started writing novels because she felt that “There were no books about me, I didn’t exist in all the literature I had read…this person, this female, this black did not exist…” So, she stepped in to fill the void. Her prime focus is what it means to be an African American, particularly an African American woman in white America.
- According to Toni Morrison, the best art is political. It must “effect change–improvement–take cataracts off people’s eyes in an accessible way. It may be soothing; it may be painful, but that’s his [the writer’s] job-to enlighten and to strengthen.” But if she thinks that a novel has to be ‘”socially responsible,” she at the same time acknowledges that it must be “uncompromisingly beautiful” as well.’
- Toni Morrison believes in a close relationship between the writer and the reader. She “expects, demands participatory reading.” She says that her “language has some holes and spaces so that the reader can come into it.” She hopes that her books won’t provide “easy, passive, uninvolved and disengaged experiences–television experiences . . . I won’t do that”. She wants a mentally alert reader who thinks and participates and helps in constructing the meaning of the text.
Toni Morrison Quotes
Here are some of her most famous quotes:
If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, you must be the one to write it.
As we can see above, that’s exactly why and how she started writing her stories too.
We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.
As you enter positions of trust and power, dream a little before you think.
As avid readers and writers, I felt these quotes would resonate with most of you.
Here are a few more powerful quotes on racism and freedom:
In this country American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.
Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined.
The function of freedom is to free someone else.
Toni Morrison was often questioned/mocked about why she would write only about black people. Here is a reply:
“I never asked Tolstoy to write for me, a little colored girl in Lorain, Ohio. I never asked [James] Joyce not to mention Catholicism or the world of Dublin. Never. And I don’t know why I should be asked to explain your life to you. We have splendid writers to do that, but I am not one of them. It is that business of being universal, a word hopelessly stripped of meaning for me. Faulkner wrote what I suppose could be called regional literature and had it published all over the world. That’s what I wish to do. If I tried to write a universal novel, it would be water. Behind this question is the suggestion that to write for black people is somehow to diminish the writing. From my perspective there are only black people. When I say ‘people,’ that’s what I mean.”
- IGNOU MA (English Literature) Study Material
- Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/3534.Toni_Morrison