Author Tayari Jones Shares An Appreciation Of Toni Morrison
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Without Toni Morrison, we might all want "The Bluest Eye."
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
TONI MORRISON: We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.
CORNISH: Morrison, a literary giant, died yesterday at the age of 88. She wrote the African American experience, from slave narratives to modern-day epics, as beautiful and central to the American story. She published her first book, "The Bluest Eye," in 1970, and what followed was a literary career that turned her into one of the greats of American letters. "Song Of Solomon," "Sula," "God Help The Child" - even the titles of her critically acclaimed works were lyrical.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Born Chloe Wofford, Morrison grew up in Lorain, Ohio. It was then a steel mill town. She said her family was intimate with the supernatural, filling her childhood with songs and folklore that came to inform her work. At Howard University, she came by the name that we know her by, as she shared with Terry Gross on Fresh Air in 2015.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
MORRISON: People in Washington - they don't know how to pronounce C-H-L-O-E. So somebody mistakenly called me Toni. Yeah. I said, I don't care. Call me Toni.
CORNISH: As a young woman, Toni Morrison was an editor at Random House, helping to get the work of other young black writers published. In fact, some of those same writers, in 1988, penned an open letter in The New York Times decrying the fact that Morrison's masterpiece "Beloved" failed to win the year's top literary prizes.
SHAPIRO: Once, an Australian journalist asked Morrison if she would change her focus to white people. Morrison turned the question around.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MORRISON: Even the inquiry comes from a position of being in the center...
JANA WENDT: And being used to being in the center.
MORRISON: ...And being used to being in the center in saying, you know, is it ever possible that you will enter the mainstream? It's inconceivable that where I already am is the mainstream.
CORNISH: For more on Morrison's legacy, we spoke with writer Tayari Jones. She told me that, like many kids, she first read "The Bluest Eye" in high school.
TAYARI JONES: For me, I'm African American, and I was born in 1970. So this wasn't the first time I had encountered myself in literature. I think that's very important to say - that this wasn't just a triumph of representation. I do think it was the first time I had ever seen black girls taken so seriously, and I understood myself to be a subject of literature in a very specific way.
CORNISH: That book is known for the way it talks about not just community and families but also abuse. Can you talk about Morrison's legacy in terms of violence - right? - and trauma?
JONES: Well, I do think "The Bluest Eye" is known because it was an early, you know, depiction in literature of, you know, sexual abuse, particularly against girls and colorism. But it's also a novel that is about healing and the power of community. Morrison never chooses one or the other. I think that the violence is something that we remember. But, also, the healing for her is just as important. She never presents a problem without a solution.
CORNISH: You mentioned reading her in high school. Many people encounter her in that time - right? - 'cause she's considered one of the great writers...
JONES: She is.
CORNISH: She is the great writer, but there was a time when that wasn't a given. And I'm thinking of back in 1988, when 40-plus black writers got together and put a letter in The New York Times that said she should be considered for major literary awards for all of the work that she's done so far. How significant do you think that moment was?
JONES: They argued for her to have greater recognition, but I think her genius was so undeniable that she was always a person on the radar when big decisions were being made. That year, she didn't get her full due. "Beloved" did not win the National Book Award, but it should have won the National Book Award. And it was seriously considered. That's the thing about Morrison. She's never languished in obscurity. But I do think it's important that the people who read her work, who felt affirmed by her work, pushed so that she would receive the very highest honors because this is what she deserved.
CORNISH: Having met her, what is something you think would delight people to know about Toni Morrison, the person?
JONES: She's funny. Toni Morrison is funny. She's a very serious person, but she quips one-liners. And her voice - it's almost like wind chimes. You feel so - I don't know - almost, like, enchanted when she speaks to you.
CORNISH: You encountered her as a young person, writing. Can you talk about what her legacy was to you and others as a writer? - because she had talked about trying to bring in a generation behind her.
JONES: It's really funny. I was just saying to a friend that there's some writers - you read them, and they make you want to be a writer because you feel that, you know, I, too, can tell a story. Morrison - sometimes you read her writing, and you think, is there any need for me to...
JONES: ...Also tell a story?
CORNISH: You think, nope, it's all been done (laughter).
JONES: So it feels as though she opens a door, but she also challenges you to walk through that door. To feel that you can put words on a page in a world where Toni Morrison has also put words on a page, you have to come with your very best work. And also, as a writer, the way that she makes you not want to tell the easy story, the obvious story, and to tell the harder story that will shake us up and make us reconsider the past in order to better understand the present - she's just a gift. That's all I can say - a great gift to us all.
CORNISH: Tayari Jones, thank you so much.
JONES: Thank you.
CORNISH: She spoke to us about the legacy of Toni Morrison.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.