Toni Morrison, 1931–2019


In Memoriam

Toni Morrison. Photo: Angela Radulescu.

We are deeply sad to report that Toni Morrison died yesterday at age eighty-eight. Over the course of eleven novels and several essay collections, children’s books, and plays, she reshaped the American literary landscape and influenced just about every English-language writer currently working. The Paris Review was lucky enough to conduct an Art of Fiction interview with Morrison on the eve of her 1993 Nobel Prize win.

Born to a family of talented musicians, Morrison came late to the realization that she wanted to be a writer, but in her interview, she is clear about her intentions: “All I can do is read books and write books and edit books and critique books.” For twenty years, Morrison worked as an editor at Random House, where she published Gayl Jones, Nettie P. Jones, and Toni Cade Bambara. Once she finally did begin writing, she kept relatively quiet about it; when her first novel, The Bluest Eye, was published in 1970, her coworkers learned of the book’s existence from a review in the New York Times. “It was by the time I was writing Song of Solomon, the third book, that I began to think that this was the central part of my life,” she says. “Not to say that other women haven’t said it all along, but for a woman to say, I am a writer, is difficult … It isn’t so difficult anymore, but it certainly was for me and for women of my generation or my class or my race.”

As in most Art of Fiction interviews, the conversation with Morrison touches on her rituals and routines. She wrote Beloved, the book widely regarded as her masterpiece, in the early hours of the morning. “I, at first, thought I didn’t have a ritual, but then I remembered that I always get up and make a cup of coffee while it is still dark—it must be dark—and then I drink the coffee and watch the light come,” she says. “Writers all devise ways to approach that place where they expect to make the contact, where they become the conduit, or where they engage in this mysterious process. For me, light is the signal in the transition. It’s not being in the light, it’s being there before it arrives. It enables me, in some sense.”

Although the white literary establishment was slow to pick up on the power of Morrison’s work, she was always unapologetic in her focus on the black American experience. “It’s very important to me that my work be African American; if it assimilates into a different or larger pool, so much the better,” she says. “But I shouldn’t be asked to do that. Joyce is not asked to do that. Tolstoy is not. I mean, they can all be Russian, French, Irish or Catholic, they write out of where they come from, and I do too. It just so happens that that space for me is African American.” Later, recalling an interview with the journalist Bill Moyers in which he asked if she’d ever consider writing a book that doesn’t prominently feature black characters, she said, “I’m gonna stay out here on the margin, and let the center look for me.”

She will be greatly missed.