Pioneering publisher Margaret Busby has paid tribute to "quietly fearless" literary great Toni Morrison, who has died at the age of 88. Morrison's publishers at Chatto and Knopf, Clara Farmer and Sonny Mehta, also gave their tributes as the death was announced of the first African American Nobel Laureate, author of acclaimed novels including Beloved, The Bluest Eye and Paradise.
Morrison passed away on 5th August at the Montefiore Medical Center in New York.
Busby, who co-founded Allison & Busby in the 1960s and was Britain's first black woman publisher, told The Bookseller of Morrison's publishing career at Random House in the US, where she worked between 1967 and 1983, the first female African-American editor in the company's history. "Whenever I find myself encouraging zealous young (usually black) would-be writers also to consider publishing as an option, I cite Toni Morrison as an example of the truth that the two strands of literary endeavour need not be not mutually exclusive," Busby said. "As well as beginning her career as a glorious novelist in 1970, Toni made an indelible mark as an editor in the mainstream industry from the 1960s to the early 1980s, during which two decades she fostered the work of many important black writers - Gayl Jones, Toni Cade Bambara, Henry Dumas - as well as compiling The Black Book, a historical anthology of documents of African-American life, one of which would inspire the story of her acclaimed 1987 novel Beloved."
"Toni was unapologetic about writing from a black point of view: 'My world did not shrink because I was a black female writer. It just got bigger,' she said, and her readership, too, expanded. Similarly, she knew the importance to publishers of the black perspective. 'It’s not patronage, not affirmative action we’re talking about here, we’re talking about the life of a country’s literature' – these pertinent words of hers headed an article I wrote for The Bookseller (23rd September 1988), together with Lennie Goodings, who was also part of Greater Access to Publishing, or GAP, the organisation co-founded with pioneering black publishers such as Jessica Huntley of Bogle-L’Ouverture campaigning alongside the likes of Virago and the Women’s Press for change within the industry’s workforce.
"As an editor Toni was committed, meticulous, principled; as a writer, passionate, innovative, thought-provoking – and in both roles quietly fearless. What a role model for us all."
Announcing Morrison's passing yesterday, Knopf editor-in-chief Sonny Mehta said: “Toni Morrison’s working life was spent in the service of literature: writing books, reading books, editing books, teaching books. I can think of few writers in American letters who wrote with more humanity or with more love for language than Toni. Her narratives and mesmerizing prose have made an indelible mark on our culture. Her novels command and demand our attention. They are canonical works, and more importantly, they are books that remain beloved by readers.” Robert Gottlieb, Morrison’s longtime editor at Knopf, said: “She was a great woman and a great writer, and I don’t know which I will miss more.”
Clara Farmer, publishing director at Chatto & Windus, said: “A monumental voice in our culture has fallen silent and this is a sombre and sad day. Toni Morrison changed the way a book could be written and opened doors to others with her provocation that 'if there’s a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it'. She was one of the world’s greatest writers – her gorgeous, shimmering works will continue to shine for many generations to come. She was, and remains, beloved by everyone at Chatto & Windus, and Vintage, publisher of all her novels. We send our best thoughts and love to her family, and to all her readers who will feel the cruel jolt of such a loss.”
Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. The Bluest Eye was her first novel, published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston in 1970. She followed it with Sula in 1973, and nine subsequent novels, all of them published with Knopf in the US. Her 1998 novel Beloved saw her awarded the Pulitzer Prize. That was followed by the Nobel five years later, with the Swedish Academy recognising her as an author “who in novels characterised by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.”
Farmer said the last time she saw Morrison was at her home in upstate New York, on the Hudson River. She told The Bookseller: “Ms Morrison (as she liked to be called) had a great sense of style and liked good shoes. She served trifle and we drank vodka. On a side-table by the window was a yellow legal pad - she explained that this was her new novel, written in longhand.
“Back in the 1980s she had been gazing on the river and contemplating the true-life story of Margaret Garner, the young mother who, having escaped slavery, was arrested for killing one of her children rather than let her be returned to her owner’s plantation. And it was sitting on that porch that Toni had imagined a heroine who was not the murderer, but the murdered girl: as Toni wrote in her introduction to Beloved, her heroine ‘walked out of the water, climbed the rocks, and leaned against the gazebo. Nice hat.’ It gave me goosepimples to be sitting with her creator – drinking more vodka – and enjoying that same view.
“We talked about her family – including her severe great-grandmother, the subject of a forthcoming lecture. And we laughed about how she and I had just about managed to negotiate the mud in Hay-on-Wye with her wheelchair on an earlier trip to the UK. Her smile could light up an audience of thousands – and we all relied upon her piercing assessment of the modern world, be it politics or literature, to help guide us through. Our beloved laureate. We will miss her so.”
A string of tributes have been paid from around the globe. Ex-US President Barack Obama, who awarded Morrison the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012, said her writing was a “a challenge to our conscience and a call to greater empathy”. Margaret Atwood commented: “That her strong voice will now be missing in this age of the renewed targeting of minorities in the United States and elsewhere is a tragedy for the rest of us.”
Writing in the Guardian, which carried a huge picture of Morrison on its front page, novelist Chigozie Obioma called her “America’s greatest writer”. The BBC called her “one of the leading lights of US literature and a champion for repressed minorities”.
Giving the booksellers' perspective, Kate McHale, Waterstones campaign manager, said: “We are very sad to hear of the passing of Toni Morrison. Hers are among the rare books that hold not only the highest critical acclaim but also a profound love in the hearts of her readers. Her death is a huge loss to literature, but we know that she will continue to be discovered, and treasured, by generations of readers to come.”
The Morrison family said in a statement: “It is with profound sadness we share that, following a short illness, our adored mother and grandmother, Toni Morrison, passed away peacefully last night surrounded by family and friends. She was an extremely devoted mother, grandmother, and aunt who reveled in being with her family and friends. The consummate writer who treasured the written word, whether her own, her students or others, she read voraciously and was most at home when writing. Although her passing represents a tremendous loss, we are grateful she had a long, well lived life.
"While we would like to thank everyone who knew and loved her, personally or through her work, for their support at this difficult time, we ask for privacy as we mourn this loss to our family. We will share information in the near future about how we will celebrate Toni’s incredible life.”