By Dr Meenakshi Malhotra
What can you say about a writer who gave a voice and identity to a whole people — a group and a community whose silences are made to speak and sing in her books? A writer whose voice rang out with passion, courage and conviction to detail the sub-human conditions in which her people had lived? A trailblazer whose works depicted the toils and travails of a long suppressed people whose experiences were unrecorded in history books? A writer whose passionate courage helped her to articulate her convictions about the dehumanisation of a whole race?
Morrison was born in 1931 and grew up in a family atmosphere which provided a context for arousing a keen interest in the stories, narratives, folklore, myths and rituals of the African American community. This early interest is evident in the rich oral quality of her writings, its lyrical cadences and it’s measured and “layered polyphony’’. Later, she studied English and Classical Literature from Howard University in Washington D.C. where she acquired her BA degree. This was followed by a Masters from Cornell University in 1955.
Subsequently, she taught at Howard University for two years. She also got married to a Jamaican architect named Harold Morrison in 1958 and they had two sons, before divorcing in 1964.The next few years Morrison wrote, juggled teaching assignments and also did a twenty year stint with Random House as an Editor. This platform enabled her to identify writing talent and she was able to help many aspiring young African American writers to get published.
Toni Morrison had started writing in the late 1950s and her commitment to it intensified over the years. She authored eleven novels each of which grappled with various aspects of the African American experience — oppression, humiliation and exploitation. In The Bluest Eye, Morrison dwells on the sense of marginalization experienced by a young African American girl, Pecola Breedlove, who longs for blue eyes, which she feels will ensure her acceptance in both white and her own community. Her primary school textbook reinforces the image of blue eyes as a desirable cultural norm. It says, “Pretty blue eyes/Alice has blue eyes/Jerry has blue eyes…Morning glory blue eyes.” Obviously, Pecola with her dark skin and crinkly hair does not quite measure up. Morrison says, “When the strength of a race depends its beauty, when the focus is turned into how one looks, as opposed to how one is, then we are in trouble…the concept of physical beauty as a virtue, is one of the most pernicious and destructive ideas of the western world, and we should have nothing to do with it.’’
In Sula, her next novel (1973), Song of Solomon (1977)and in Tar Baby (1981), she traces various aspects of the African American experience, from individual desire to generational narratives to attempts of the African Americans to create their own mythology. Beloved, Morrison’s magnum opus, narrates the story of Sethe and her family in mid 19thcentury Kentucky, in the closing years of slavery, at Sweet Home Plantation. It shows Sethe as both victim and perpetrator, since she has killed her own baby daughter, Beloved. The novel certainly extends the writer’s oeuvre in terms of form, content and style. It is an amalgamation of myth and mystery, folklore and history. It muddies and blurs the tenuous and thin line between fact and fiction, melodrama and interior monologue. The novel, moreover combines social critique depicting the oppression of African Americans along with the basic human need for love and security.
Morrison’s contribution to literature and culture was acknowledged and fetched her many accolades and awards. Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, she became the first African American female Nobel Laureate. Her book, Song of Solomon, won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1972. She was awarded the Pulitzer prize for Beloved (1988), which was made into a film starring Oprah Winfrey. Later, in 2012, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama.
Her writing is deeply imbued with a consciousness of her ethnicity and of her location in a ‘minority’ ethos and culture. According to her, the minority writer must “go through four stages: a period of anger, a period of self-discovery, a period of celebratory use of the culture, and finally, an arrival at a conceptual notion of human experience’’.
Morrison extended the frontiers of literature and language. On the one hand was her lambent prose with its lyricism which made words flow and sing, on the other hand was a clear understanding of the function of the writer. Thus she said, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” In her spectacular Nobel Prize speech, she describes the power of language to oppress and to liberate, to scar and to sanctify, to plunder and to redeem, a powerful and timely reminder of how language and literature can serve as an indicator and an index of our humanity and our civilizational status.
Bio: Dr Meenakshi Malhotra is Associate Professor in English at Hansraj College, University of Delhi. She has edited two books on Women and Life writing, Representing the Self and Claiming the I, in addition to numerous published articles on gender in literature and feminist theory at national and international levels. Some of her recent publications include articles in ‘Women and Gender Studies in India: Crossings’ (Routledge,2019) in ‘The State of Hurt’ (Sage,2016), in ‘Ways of Seeing/Ways of Queering’, (Interdisciplinary Press,2016), in ‘Unveiling Desire'(Rutgers University Press, 2018) and ‘Ecofeminism and its Discontents’ (Primus,2018). She has also been an editorial consultant for ICSE textbooks (Grades1-8)with Pearson publishers. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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