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MonkeyNotes-Tar Baby by Toni Morrison
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HISTORICAL INFORMATION

Many years ago when Toni Morrison was an editor working at Random House, she would ride the New York City subways and spin her stories in her imagination. Those same stories won Morrison, 62, the 1993 Nobel Prize for literature, the greatest honor in the world of books. Awarded by the Swedish Academy, the prize is worth $825,000. Morrison is the first black woman ever to win and only the second American woman so honored.

"I am outrageously happy," she said in a statement. "Winning as an American is very special, but winning as a black American is a knockout. Most important, my mother is alive to share this delight with me."

From her first novel, The Bluest Eye in 1969, to her latest, Jazz, published in 1992, Morrison has explored what it means - in mind, body and soul - to be an African American and a woman yet she also reaches back to the roots of African American culture which is embedded in slavery and domination by whites to write a number of books that are written from the perspective of either a slave or a descendant of slaves in a country dominated by whites. The history of black culture, especially slavery, in the United States is an indelible trademark of Morrison's work.

Indeed, it was her searing depiction of slavery in Beloved that won Morrison the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1988. In the book, a mother who is a slave slits her baby's throat rather than see her sold as a slave. Although her topics are profoundly painful, Morrison's voice is memorably lyrical. She writes prose "with the luster of poetry," said the Swedish Academy in awarding her the Nobel prize. "No one writes more beautifully than Toni Morrison," said author Alice Walker. "She has consistently explored issues of true complexity and terror and love in the lives of African Americans. Harsh criticism has not dissuaded her, prizes have not trapped her. She is a writer who well deserves this honor."

She supported herself by working at Random House, editing writers such as Toni Cade Bambara and Angela Davis, but it was to her own fiction that Morrison turned as she approached forty. While The Bluest Eye and Sula were praised, Song of Solomon really put Morrison on the literary map.


Dedicating the book to her father who was a welder, Morrison wrote about a male protagonist named Milkman Dead coming to terms with his life and history. The book won the National Book Critics Award in 1977. While Morrison has set many of her books in small Midwestern cities that resemble Lorain, her book Tar Baby was set on a Caribbean island and includes strong elements of magic.

"She's almost a conjurer," observes writer Audrey Edwards of Essence magazine, noting Morrison's skillful use of magic and mysticism in her novels. "She taps into the spirit world and into the very real spirituality of black people."

Morrison's latest novel Jazz touched on a subject Morrison personally adores, which is music, an art form that runs in her family. She says her mother had a gorgeous voice and sang constantly and one son is a musician and the other is an architect. She is a passionate fan of musicians like Keith Jarrett and John Coltrane.

In person, Morrison has an almost majestic presence. Her dark eyes gleam with a fierce intelligence. As befits a long-time teacher, Morrison possesses a deep, practiced voice accustomed to controlling and moving audiences. Now that her sons are grown, Morrison has returned to the academic world and moved to Princeton, N.J. where she teaches writing and literature.

Morrison also published Playing In the Dark: Whiteness and Literary Imagination, a book of literary criticism based in part on three lectures she delivered at Harvard University. Surprisingly, the book was a bestseller, a reflection of Morrison's selling power in the marketplace.

Both Beloved and Jazz were major best sellers. Oprah Winfrey's company, Harpo Productions, acquired rights to Beloved in 1988. The screenplay is under production.

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