Toni Morrison 'prose made novels poetry'

Former US president Barack Obama awards Toni Morrison a 2012 Presidential Medal of Freedom./ REUTERS
Former US president Barack Obama awards Toni Morrison a 2012 Presidential Medal of Freedom./ REUTERS

Toni Morrison, the first African-American woman to win the Nobel prize for literature, has died following a short illness, her family said in a statement yesterday. She was 88.

"Although her passing represents a tremendous loss, we are grateful she had a long, well lived life," the family said.

Morrison, a leading figure in African-American literature, has explored slavery's enduring legacy in a poetic, raw voice that has influenced generations of writers.

Her standout novels include The Bluest Eye she penned in 1970. This was Morrison's first novel, published when she was 39, focused on a young black girl in 1940s Ohio who dreams of having blue eyes - synonymous in her mind with whiteness and beauty in a world shadowed by slavery.

It announced a vivid, raw voice, described at the time by the New York Times as "a prose so precise, so faithful to speech and so charged with pain and wonder that the novel becomes poetry".

The novel was met with mixed response at the time of its release and sales were low, but its fortunes turned when it was added to a university reading list.

The novel has since provoked legal challenges and bans from schools in various US states for broaching controversial subjects, including incest and child molestation.

In 1977, Morrison wrote Song of Solomon - the winner of the prestigious US National Book Critics Circle Award - which mixed magical realism, folklore and sociology to tell the story of a teenager trying to forget her past as a slave. It brought forth one of Morrison's animating themes - the troubled search for identity in a hostile world.

With her fifth novel Beloved in 1987, Morrison created an overnight sensation by dramatising the harrowing true story of Margaret Garner - a fugitive slave who killed her daughter in 1856 to save her from a life of servitude.

"It is an American masterpiece, and one which, moreover, in a curious way reassesses all the major novels of the time in which it is set," wrote A.S. Byatt in The Guardian when the book first appeared.

The novel controversially missed out on two top US awards when it was published, prompting 48 writers to sign an open letter in the New York Times Book Review decrying the failure to recognise Morrison.

It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 and was adapted into a film 10 years later, starring Oprah Winfrey as the mother, Sethe.

Paradise, published in 1998, completed Morrison's trilogy of novels, which began with Beloved and continued with Jazz (1992), challenging mainstream accounts of the past by exploring specifically African-American history from the mid-19th century to the present day.

Her first novel written after she won the Nobel prize for literature in 1993, Paradise, employed Morrison's typical style of split-narrative and jumping across time periods to explore the root causes of a brutal murder in an Oklahoma town in the 1970s.

Morrison was awarded a 2012 Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama who was US president at the time. 

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