The 7 October 1993 announcement that American author Toni Morrison had won the Nobel Prize in Literature came as a bit of a shock to the literary world. A professor of English at Princeton University at the time of the announcement, Morrison was the author of half a dozen experimental, ethereal novels that focused on the inner lives of black Americans. She had not been among the writers discussed by Nobel-watchers as possible contenders (a short list that happened to be comprised entirely of white European males).
The announcement was not a surprise to the many admirers of Morrison's fiction, including novels such as Song of Solomon, Beloved and The Bluest Eye. It also came as no shock to Morrison herself. Morrison was raised in an African-American community in Ohio by parents, Morrison has said, who "made all of us feel as though there were these rather extraordinary deserving people within us."3
That belief followed her to college at Howard University and to graduate school at Cornell, where she wrote a master's thesis on William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf. Her confidence sustained her through a divorce, single motherhood and a career as a literary editor, during which time she wrote novels at night while her two sons were sleeping. Today, Morrison is a Nobel laureate, Pulitzer Prize winner, a retired professor and one of America's most respected authors. Her novels stand beside the works of writers like Faulkner and Woolf as triumphant classics of modernism.
Critics and curious fans have asked Morrison why she chooses to write exclusively about black people, suggesting that there is something exclusionary or prejudiced about her choices. Morrison fires right back that no one ever asked James Joyce why he only wrote about Irish people, or why Dostoyevsky seemed so hung up on Russians. Morrison's writing informed America - and the world - that literature does not belong to any single culture, and that no one need apologize for telling the world as they see it.