“So, when I think of writing as I was very determined to do, is write in the language of African Americans. The language I heard. That language had always been comic, or dismissed or you know discredited in some way.”
A voracious reader at an early age, her passion for literature and gift for writing were encouraged by her parents. Upon graduating high school, she first went to study at the prestigious Howard University in Washington DC, before completing her master’s degree at Cornell University in 1955, with a thesis on suicide in the works of Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner.
She returned to Howard to begin a teaching career, where she met and married Jamaican-born architect Harold Morrison in 1958. They had two sons, and his surname would form part of the name she would become globally known by. Her first name came from Anthony, the name she took when she converted to Catholicism at the age of 12 and which university friends would later shorten to Toni.
The making of a literary legend
In 1963, in the wake of the break-up of her marriage, needing to support herself and her children, she took a job as an editor at Random House publishing company. While working here she would edit and champion the works of black authors, bringing attention to books by Toni Cade Bambara, Angela Davis and Muhammad Ali.
It was also here that she would write her first novel, The Bluest Eye in 1970. The book contains many of the themes that would come to define much of her writing. Set in her own hometown of Lorain during the 1940s, it is a devastating examination of the effect of racism, poverty, abuse and damaging ideas of beauty upon a black American girl, called Pecola.
The narrative puts this young black girl at the centre of the story, with an unflinching look at the trauma and challenges faced by her. Toni Morrison wanted to couple this with a lyrical literary style that captured the speech, rhythms and expressions of the conversations she remembered overhearing while growing up.
“It was everything, it was memorable and the metaphors were stunning, so I really wanted to use those characteristics in my work.
“So, when I changed the first sentence of the book The Bluest Eye from whatever it was to ‘Quiet as it’s kept, there were no marigolds in the fall 1941’, ‘Quiet as it’s kept’, it’s not hard to understand what that means, it just means ‘shhh’ but I hear those women in the backyard, at the fence, getting ready to gossip on somebody, you know, [saying] ‘Quiet as it’s kept’ then they tell some terrible tale.
“So, it’s that quality of the spoken language that is extremely important in the work,” she told the BBC.