As It Happens

Toni Morrison achieved her 'extraordinary ambition' to write for everyone, says friend

A Princeton University literature professor remembers her friend Toni Morrison, the Nobel Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner who died Monday at the age of 88.

The Nobel Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner died on Monday in New York at 88

Writer Toni Morrison died Monday at the age of 88. (AP Photo/Guillermo Arias)
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A university professor says her decades-long friendship with writer Toni Morrison started because of their shared belief "in the power of language to reach people." 

Morrison, the Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize-winning author whose 11 novels included BelovedSula and Song of Solomon, died on Monday in New York. She was 88.

Princeton University comparative literature professor Claudia Brodsky spoke with As It Happens guest host Piya Chattopadhyay about her friend. Here's part of that conversation.

When did you first meet each other? 

It was back when Toni was first about to be employed by Princeton University where I had also just been employed. I was in the audience of her kind of inaugural lecture. 

By some extraordinarily fortuitous gesture, I .. was invited to have dinner with her after that lecture. 

This is someone who became a close personal friend because we both shared the same belief in the power of language to reach people. 

Morrison poses with her 1977 novel Song of Solomon. (AFP/Getty Images)

What was Toni Morrison like as a friend? 

Every milestone and every difficult moment that I went through, she was there for. 

I was an expectant mother of a second child more or less at wit's end and I was searching desperately for a name for my child. 

She said, "OK, Claudia. Calm down. Just call her Chloe. I'm giving you that. It will suit her perfectly.  Take that as my gift to you." 

That just simply optimized her understanding of the gift that language is. 

[Chloe] was [Morrison's] name as a young child. ... Did you name your child Chloe? 

I subsequently did. 

It was a perfect name, but I would never have dared to assume it, and she understood what she was doing when she gave it to me. 

Former U.S. President Barack Obama presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to author Toni Morrison during a ceremony on May 29, 2012. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/GettyImages)

You edited some of her work and I'm so curious to know: What does an early Toni Morrison first draft actually look like? 

I certainly wouldn't say that I edited it, but I will say this. 

For a writer like Toni who wants to know specifically how words land, how specific turns of phrase are received, for her to always send me her drafts of manuscripts was an honour to me, but also something that I knew she would take seriously. 

She would listen to what I had to say and I can hardly recount to you the times in which I went through page by page, phrase to phrase, the things that hit me most — that were most remarkable in what she had written. 

There was one moment when I commented on something in the past in Beloved. I said, "You know, you buried that trace of the discovery there." 

She said, "Oh, you saw that." 

She said, "I didn't want to reveal it, but at least I know some people are going to see it." 

She was that kind of writer. She was not writing in bold caps, but she had the ultimate faith that some readers would discern the craft behind what she was trying to communicate. 

She's often celebrated for her writing about the black experience. There has long been a conversation about who she is writing for. What is your sense of who she hoped would read her work? 

I'm almost ashamed to say that I know this for a fact. 

She was writing for everyone. She was writing for women. She was writing for men. She was writing for African-American people. She was writing for all people not African-American. That was her extraordinary ambition, and I think that we can say she achieved it. 

She knew she would only achieve it based on her use of language and her ability to imagine what the experience of actual factual data was like. 

She took great pride in the fact … that she had researched every detail of her works in archives and that her contribution was to add experience to those facts. Those experiences she always, always — I can't stress this enough — hoped would be available, accessible, to everyone. 

Written by Katie Geleff with files from The Associated Press. Interview produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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