"Magician of Language" American writer Toni Morrison dies at 88

“Magician of Language” Toni Morrison dies at 88

One of the world’s most beloved, literary and cultural figures, Toni Morrison has died after complications of pneumonia at age 88. On Tuesday, Morrison’s family and publisher Knopf announced her death in New York.

The publisher tweeted a quote from the author: “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”

Tributes have poured in from many of her admirers, including Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey and Roxane Gay.

Morrison was the recipient of the Pulitzer prize, the Légion d’Honneur and a Presidential Medal of Freedom, which was presented to her in 2012 by then President Barack Obama.

She was one of very few writers who gained both commercial success and critical notoriety. In 1993, she became the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. 

She was born in Lorain, Ohio in 1931, a small industrial town twenty-five miles west of Cleveland, during a time where public lynchings of black people was not uncommon.

Her legacy as a woman who fostered a generation of black writers, and writers of colour, grew out of this early childhood, and her environment informed much of what readers came to see and feel from her earliest works, including ‘The Bluest Eye’, ‘Sula’ and ‘Song of Solomon’.

In his review of her first novel in 1970, John Leonard said Morrison’s writing was executed “with a prose so precise, so faithful to speech and so charged with pain and wonder that the novel becomes poetry.”

Morrison’s family shared a statement yesterday, saying, “Although her passing represents a tremendous loss, we are grateful she had a long, well lived life. While we would like to thank everyone who knew and loved her, personally or through her work, for their support at this difficult time, we ask for privacy as we mourn this loss to our family.” 

In her acceptance speech after her Nobel win, Morrison warned of the dangers of “oppressive language [that] does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge.”

 

Uncannily apt, for a time we currently live in, where the president of her country continues to espouse violence through his words. In 2016, she penned her thoughts in an essay for The New Yorker, telling readers the superiority complex white people had created over centuries about the colour of their skin was disappearing, and it was causing a panic.

“There are ‘people of colour’ everywhere, threatening to erase this long-understood definition of America. And what then? Another black President? A predominantly black Senate? Three black Supreme Court Justices? The threat is frightening.”


Toni Morrison

Her chronicle of the African-American experience has changed an unimaginable number of lives and will continue to alter the internal landscapes of those yet to come. 

Perhaps her most widely read book, ‘Beloved’, was published the year I was born and won her the Pulitzer. Her books centre on characters she wanted to see as a reader, but could not see in what was available at the time. They explore race, gender and trauma through a tender, searing, powerful voice.

“I had no reason, no encouragement to be a writer,” Morrison said in a speech in 2007 at the Academy of Achievement Awards. “There was something I wanted to read about and I couldn’t find it. I thought everything I needed to read or wanted to read had probably been written by somebody somewhere. At some point, I discovered there wasn’t. There was a silence, an absence, a vacancy about somebody I knew, which was a young black female.”

 

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Toni Morrison has passed away. My heart hurts. Her greatness was absolute. Her words changed worlds. Her work always belonged to the immortal, and her name will never be forgotten. I bow down today to this literary and moral giant. I was fortunate enough to meet her once — back in 1994, just after she had won the Nobel Prize. There are two things that I remember about that meeting. First, somebody asked her if she thought that her Nobel Prize was a gift from the universe, to make up for the pain she had recently suffered, from having her house burn down, and having lost all her papers. With simple power, she fixed the questioner with a strong gaze, and said: “The two events have nothing to do with each other. A lot of people have their homes burn down, and they are not rewarded with the Nobel Prize.” The other thing I remember is this: Somebody asked her what it felt like to get the phone call, saying that she had won the Nobel Prize. She smiled broadly and said, “I knew right away, as soon as the phone call came in, how I would respond. I knew that this was not the time to be humble. This was the time to have an enormous party, and to celebrate with everyone I loved…at someone else’s expense.” And then she burst out laughing. I will never forget the sheer joy and mightiness of that moment. How she took full ownership of her glory. How often do you hear a woman say, of her own achievement, “This is not the time to be humble”? She knew who she was. She knew WHAT she was. And she celebrated it. With great joy and power. Thank you, Toni Morrison, for what you gave us. We will forever celebrate you. (Photo by @tgs, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, whose recent collaborative documentary of Morrison, THE PIECES I AM, is a must-see.) Rest in glory, #tonimorrison

A post shared by Elizabeth Gilbert (@elizabeth_gilbert_writer) on

Morrison authored 11 books as well as children’s books and essays. She is one of the few thinkers and writers who has given me courage to centre myself, to write about my own vulnerability, and to exercise my ability to speak for myself. That is a strength that all women, regardless of colour, sexuality or background, need to do. She has inspired us all to become better, stronger, more empathetic human beings. As author Elizabeth Gilbert writes on Instagram: ” She knew who she was. She knew WHAT she was.”

As New York Times obituaries writer Margalit Fox writes today, “Her plots are dreamlike and nonlinear, spooling backward and forward in time as though characters bring the entire weight of history to bear on their every act.”

The only good thing to come out of the very sad death of a literary person is the dedication pieces to come out from other writers.

In the forthcoming days, I will look forward to reading them and reminding myself of the often under-acknowledged, transcendental power of language to heal us, to empower us, to guide us towards a better world.

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