Toni Morrison receiving the Nobel Prize for literature from King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden in the Concert Hall in Stockholm | AP
Toni Morrison receiving the Nobel Prize for literature from King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden in the Concert Hall in Stockholm | AP

The recent death of celebrated novelist Toni Morrison has been commemorated with sorrow and reverence not just by the African-American community to which she belonged, but universally. Hailing from Ohio in the 1930s, Chloe Wofford was born in a working-class African-American family, and adopted the name ‘Anthony’ on her conversion to Catholicism in her pre-teen years, from which the famous ‘Toni’ was later derived. She married Harold Morrison and retained his surname after their divorce. Gradually her indomitable and creative spirit led her to become one of the most famous writers in the Anglophone world: she holds the rare distinction of having received both the Pulitzer as well as the Nobel Prize.

Perhaps few American women other than Rosa Parks, Oprah Winfrey, Maya Angelou and Michelle Obama have done as much to promote the African-American cause as Toni Morrison. Passionately hardworking, she was Random House’s first black female editor, and no stranger to the slings and arrows of prejudice in spite of having received her BA degree in the ebony towers of the historically black Howard University, and her MA at the Ivy League school Cornell University. Her own mother grew up in the state of Alabama in the early 1900s and, although the state has many fine points, sadly, acceptance of African-Americans was historically not one of them. I know this aspect of the Deep South’s history from personal experience, having taught English there at the start of my career. Yet even the Deep South can now not undermine the importance of writers such as Morrison, or the noted Nigerians Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka — literary craftsmen who are in a league of their own.

Though her early work The Bluest Eye was commendable and showed considerable literary promise, it was not until she wrote and published the remarkable Song of Solomon that Morrison was catapulted to fame. A bildungsroman with a protagonist named Macon Dead III (generally called “Milkman”), the book combines issues of social importance — especially those having to do with race relations — with romantic realism, the latter most artfully encapsulated in the elusive figure of Macon’s aunt Pilate. Born without a navel — which is a biological impossibility, to say the least — Pilate was named after the Bible’s Pontius Pilate by her rustic father who placed his finger in the holy book and picked out a word at random. The scene where Pilate voluntarily swims out of her unconscious mother’s body sets the tone for much of the character’s later life. Unworldly from the very beginning, Pilate is a combination of a witch and a wise woman, and the character’s spookiness found even fuller expression later, in Morrison’s most famous novel, Beloved.

Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize-winner Toni Morrison, who died August 5, allowed her imagination to boldly go where no one had gone before

Based on the true story of Margaret Garner, who killed her own children in order to prevent them from being forced into a life of slavery, Beloved was greeted by the literary world with a mixture of awe and horror. I can think of few things comparable to it in terms of anguish and pathos, though the ghastly spectre of William Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus does come to mind. Driven psychologically unhinged by paranoia and intense fear, the novel’s protagonist, Sethe, commits the type of unspeakable murder that Garner did, but instead of the matter ending there, Sethe is forced to deal in the future with the spirit of her dead daughter — named Beloved — coming back to haunt her in very tangible ways.

Linguistically beautiful and moving, the novel lent itself to an interesting film version in the later 1990s with none other than the famous Oprah Winfrey taking on the role of Sethe. Winfrey handled the demands of the character well — given that, though an entertainer, she is not an actress — especially the disturbing infanticide, but it was the talented Thandie Newton co-starring as Beloved who, in my opinion, stole the show. As Beloved is finally exorcised, the novel comes to a conclusion with some of the most haunting and poetic last lines in post-modern literature: “Certainly no clamour for a kiss. Beloved.”

I had studied this novel as a young undergraduate at Bryn Mawr College in the early 1990s. Feminists raced to appropriate Morrison as a figure who brought women’s issues to the forefront of a hitherto largely male-dominated literary canon. Perhaps what impressed me most about her writing was how gentle yet resonant Morrison’s narrative voice is capable of being — alternately strong yet subtle, the words creating mental images that linger long after one has put down one of the author’s books. It was thus with unadulterated delight that I attended Morrison’s personal reading of an excerpt from her novel Paradise, at the 1995 Smith College inauguration of Ruth Simmons, the first black president of a Seven Sisters college and later president of Brown University. Having long admired Morrison’s written work, I was struck by how much physical presence this now-legendary woman possessed. She stood tall and proud, her hair elegantly coiffed into silver braids, her voice well-modulated yet charged with emotion. Naturally, she held the audience spellbound.

I had mentioned ebony and ivory towers earlier and should note that Morrison, a committed teacher as well as writer, held the distinguished Robert F. Goheen Chair at Princeton University from the late 1980s until her retirement in 2006, whereupon she became one of Princeton’s honoured Professors Emerita. South Asians might be interested to know that Goheen was once America’s ambassador to India. Yes, it is a small world, but Morrison’s scope and canvases eventually became larger than life.

Former president Barack Obama, who awarded her the prestigious Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012, termed Morrison’s voice as “inclusive” and, in spite of all the myriad ways in which she impacted diversity within politics, Morrison was indeed a past mistress at global inclusivity. Like her unfettered creation Pilate, she was unlimited by the constraints of rigid reality, allowing her imagination to “boldly go where no one has gone before.” And while not every writer has the courage to face the horrors that may lie in wait for them in the wilder, uncharted realms of creation, Morrison was no coward.

Paradoxically, however, it was writing her riveting and deeply disturbing books that proved to be a source of strength and comfort for her, since she herself once insightfully noted that “language alone protects us from the scariness of things with no names.”

The writer is assistant professor of social sciences and liberal arts at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 18th, 2019