'I REALLY think the range of emotions and perceptions I have had access to as a black person and 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.' From that wide perspective she delineated years ago, Toni Morrison has produced six visionary novels, an academically rigorous collection of essays, and has this week won the 1993 Novel Prize for Literature.
Her achievements have always come with an awareness of communal indebtedness. 'My sense of the novel is that it has always functioned for the class or the group that wrote it . . . designed to tell people something they didn't know . . . how to distinguish between the good guys and the bad guys . . . it seems to me that the novel is needed by African-Americans now in a way that it was not needed before - and it is following along the lines of the function of novels everywhere. We don't live in places where we can hear those stories anymore; parents don't sit around and tell their children those classical, mythological archetypal stories that we heard years ago. But new information has got to get out. One (way) is the novel.'
Applied to Morrison's work the label novel seems a convenience; her fictions do not so much flout the genre's conventions as march to a different drummer. Of her Pulitzer-winning novel Beloved (1977) she said: 'It is outside most of the formal constricts of the novel, but you've got to call it something. Just so long as they don't call me a Magic Realist.' Though she was ever a voracious reader, devouring early everything from Austen to Tolstoy, and acknowledging an affinity with the writing of Latin American novelists, she firmly roots her consciousness in African-American ancestral voices and a black spiritual awareness that is too easily dismissed as superstition.
Born Chloe Anthony Wofford in 1931, she was steeped from childhood in a storytelling tradition that was second nature to her family of former sharecroppers and coalminers who had migrated from the American South to the steelmill town of Lorain, Ohio. This was the setting of her first novel The Bluest Eye (1970), the tormented story of a young black girl who prays in vain for the Shirley Temple looks she believes will magically transform her doomed life.
Morrison's impetus for taking up her pen was a wish to read a kind of book she had never come across: 'I didn't know if such a book existed, but I had just never read it in 1964 when I started writing.' She is unapologetic about addressing her work to a presumed black reader, refusing the conscious effort of explaining herself to a white audience whose patronage may have inhibited previous generations of black writers. 'Critics generally don't associate black people with ideas. They see marginal people; they see just another story about black folks,' she once said 'If you write about the world from the black point of view, somehow it is considered lesser.'
Each of Morrison's books has in some way broken new ground. Sula (1974), about the friendship between two girls growing up in Ohio, is her novel that John Edgar Wideman, another award-winning African-American novelist, counts as his favourite: 'You're watching something new happen with the language, she's created a new language to talk about this relationshp between two black women.'
Song of Solomon, a spellbinding evocation of folk myth peopled by a community of improbably credible characters, appeared in 1977; it won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was the first novel by a black writer to be a main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club since Richard Wright's Native Son in 1940. Then came Tar Baby, innovative in Morrison's attempt to show Nature as witness, responding to the action: trees hurt, fish are afraid, bees are alarmed.
Morrison's real triumph came in 1987, with her haunted and magnificent Beloved, life-affirming even as it seeks to 'rememory' the violence and love bred by the horrors of slavery (its dedication, 'Sixty million and more', a reminder of the numbers who endured enslavement). The novel's cyclical, slowly unravelling structure is engrossing and challenging, only when one is well into it does the import of the first few pages become clear. Morrison's consummate skill has always been not just to compel involvement from the very first sentence or paragraph, but to sustain a reader's curiosity.
In her most recent novel, Jazz, the plot is actually told in the first ten lines; once this theme has been stated, the characters are free to elaborate and take solos throughout the rest of the book.
Morrison concerns herself with the relationship of the individual to the community, developing ways for black people to communicate with each other and re-imagine their history. The riffs and cadences of her language testify to the centrality of music in the culture from which she writes.
Speaking to the black critic Paul Gilroy in 1988, she said, 'Black Americans were sustained, healed, and matured by the translation of their experience into art, above all in the music. My parallel is always the music, because all the strategies of art are there. All of the intricacy, all of the discipline. All the work that must go into improvisation so that it appears that you've never touched it. . . I have always wanted to develop a way of writing that was irrevocably black. I don't have the resources of a musician. But I thought that if it was truly black literature it would not be black because of its subject matter. It would be something intrinsic, indigenous, something in the way it was put together - the sentences, the structure, texture and tone - so that anyone who read it would realise . . . I use the analogy of music because you can range all over the world and it's still black . . . What has already happened with the music in the States, the literature will do one day.'
Morrison was for some 20 years, in a career as senior editor for the publishers Random House, instrumental in promoting the work of other black writers - a labour of love she spoke of with passion when we compared notes some years ago. She identifies among the distinctive elements of African-American writing its oral quality, the counterpoint of a 'chorus' - often the community - in which the action involving the main protagonists is rooted, and the presence of elders, ancestor figures. Her delight in receiving the Nobel prize is surely also that at long last the voices of African Americans are being heard, for it is characteristic of her artistic generosity that she has always linked herself to the fate of other black writers, speaking to and from the community.
Toni Morrison has incomparable individual talents as a storyteller and as a stylist, an ability to conjure the reader into suspension of disbelief; she exudes musicality and magic. She can be both detailed and economical, thought- provoking to the extreme, yet she is never exclusive. As one reviewer of Beloved noted: '(it is a novel in which) white people are ultimately irrelevant - even blameless, for they simply do not share that collective past and its consequences; they've got other things on their mind. Yet its generous wisdom can't but nourish us all.'
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