Literary Icon Toni Morrison Receives $25,000 PEN/Saul Bellow Award

Nobel prize-winning author Toni Morrison has been awarded the 2016 $25,000 PEN/Saul Bellow award for achievement in American fiction. She adds the award to her 1988 Pulitzer Prize ( for Beloved), Presidential Medal of Freedom (2012), Nobel Prize in Literature (1993) and many other honors. 85-year-old Morrison is best known for her richly detailed characters in novels such as Jazz, Song of Solomon and Tar Baby. In 1988, Beloved was adapted into a film of the same name starring Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover.

Morrison was selected by a panel of judges including previous recipient Louise Erdrich – who won in 2014 – writer Francine Prose, and novelist and journalist Dinaw Mengestu. Chicago-Tribune reports that PEN announced the winners of several other awards on Tuesday, and all will be honored at a ceremony at the New School on April 11.

“Her fiction is invested in the black experience, in black lives and in black consciousness, material from which she has forged a singular American aesthetic,” said Erdich. “Toni Morrison not only opened doors to others when she began to publish, she has also stayed grounded in the issues of her time. At every turn, she has commented upon and enlarged the conversation about what it is to be black, female, human, universal. Her brilliant and bracing fiction continues to address what is crucial, timely and timeless.”

Toni’s epic themes makes her one of the most banned authors in American libraries, with her novel The Bluest Eye often appearing in the top 10 most challenged books. Many educators believe the book is inappropriate for high school classrooms because it depicts rape and incest. The book explores the racist culture in which we live, and society’s obsession with white skin and blue eyes. Proponents of the book believe it can be used to by educators to start discussions about culture, body image, and self-esteem.

The Bluest Eye was published during an era when the Black Panther Movement was pushing the slogan “black is beautiful,” and many books written by black male authors had a ‘screw whitey’ tone. The movement helped Morrison realize that she “would not try to “explain” black life to a white audience,” The Guardian notes.

“All the books that were being published by African-American guys were saying ‘screw whitey’, or some variation of that. Not the scholars but the pop books. And the other thing they said was, ‘You have to confront the oppressor.’ I understand that. But you don’t have to look at the world through his eyes,” Morrison explained. “I’m not a stereotype; I’m not somebody else’s version of who I am. And so when people said at that time black is beautiful – yeah? Of course. Who said it wasn’t? So I was trying to say, in The Bluest Eye, wait a minute. Guys. There was a time when black wasn’t beautiful. And you hurt.”

Morrison, Obama
(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Morrison became the first African-American woman to win the Nobel prize for literature in 1993. The Nobel jury said her novels were “characterised by visionary force and poetic import,” and give “life to an essential aspect of American reality.” She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012, and honor bestowed to individuals “who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private [endeavors].” The White House called her one of America’s “most celebrated novelists.”

Toni Morrison published her 11th novel, God Help the Child, in 2015. Prior to that, she released Home, about an African-American veteran of the Korean war. On March 2, she kicked off a series of six lectures at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre.

[Images courtesy Neilson Barnard/Alex Wong/Getty Images]