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In her own words: 30 unforgettable quotes from groundbreaking author Toni Morrison

The revered author and Nobel laureate passed away Monday at 88, leaving behind a remarkable literary legacy.

The revered author and Nobel laureate passed away Monday at 88, leaving behind a remarkable literary legacy

Nobel-winning US novelist Toni Morrison has died at 88. (AFP/Getty Images)

This week the literary world lost Toni Morrison, a groundbreaking author and Nobel Prize winner who transformed the North American literary landscape. She was 88.

Morrison penned novels including Beloved, Song of Solomon and Jazz, which centred squarely around black characters and histories, and pushed the boundaries of language itself.

"Toni Morrison passed away peacefully last night surrounded by family and friends," read a statement from her family. "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."

Today, luminaries from Barack Obama to Oprah Winfrey are expressing their condolences.

Morrison was known not only for her inimitable writing, but also for her remarkable wisdom. So to honour the author, we have gathered 30 quotes about everything from writing to love to freedom. Here she is, in her own words:

On writing:

"If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it." — Interview at the New York Public Library, 2013

"A writer's life and work are not a gift to mankind; they are its necessity." — Toni Morrison's Mouth Full of Blood: Essays, Speeches, Meditations, 2019

"As writers, what we do is remember. And to remember this world is to create it." — Mouth Full of Blood

Navigating a white male world was not threatening. It wasn't even interesting. I was more interesting than they were. And I wasn't afraid to show it.- Toni Morrison

"History has always proved that books are the first plain on which certain battles are fought." — Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, documentary, 2019

"Writers are among the most sensitive, most intellectually anarchic, most representative, most probing of artists. The writer's ability to imagine what is not the self, to familiarize the strange and to mystify the familiar — all this is the test of her or his power." — Mouth Full of Blood

"I'm free from pain. It's where nobody tells me what to do; it's where my imagination is fecund and I am really at my best. Nothing matters more in the world or in my body or anywhere when I'm writing." — on NPR's Fresh Air, 2015

On love:

"You're turning over your whole life to him. Your whole life, girl. And if it means so little to you that you can just give it away, hand it to him, then why should it mean any more to him? He can't value you more than you value yourself." —Song of Solomon, 1977

"Don't ever think I fell for you, or fell over you. I didn't fall in love, I rose in it." —Jazz, 1992

On language:

"My grandfather bragged all the time that he had read the Bible. And it was illegal in his life to read. Ultimately I knew that words have power." — Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am

"We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives." — Nobel Lecture, 1993

"Passion is never enough; neither is skill. But try. For our sake and yours forget your name in the street; tell us what the world has been to you in the dark places and in the light. Don't tell us what to believe, what to fear. Show us belief's wide skirt and the stitch that unravels fear's caul. You, old woman, blessed with blindness, can speak the language that tells us what only language can: how to see without pictures. Language alone protects us from the scariness of things with no names. Language alone is meditation." — Nobel Lecture, 1993

"Sexist language, racist language, theistic language – all are typical of the policing languages of mastery, and cannot, do not permit new knowledge or encourage the mutual exchange of ideas." — Nobel Lecture, 1993

On her remarkable catalogue:

"I know it seems like a lot. But I really only do one thing. I read books. I teach books. I write books. I think about books. It's one job." — New Yorker, 2003

On labels like 'black' and 'female' writer:

"I can accept the labels because being a black woman writer is not a shallow place but a rich place to write from. It doesn't limit my imagination; it expands it. It's richer than being a white male writer because I know more and I've experienced more." — New Yorker, 2003

"I've spent my entire life trying to make sure the white gaze was not the dominant one in any of my books." — Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am

On freedom:

"Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another." — Beloved, 1987

"If you wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down." — Song of Solomon, 1977

On work:

"Whatever the work is, do it well—not for the boss but for yourself." — New Yorker, 2017

"I tell my students, 'When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game. This is the time for every artist in every genre to do what he or she does loudly and consistently. It doesn't matter to me what your position is. You've got to keep asserting the complexity and the originality of life, and the multiplicity of it, and the facets of it. This is about being a complex human being in the world, not about finding a villain. This is no time for anything else than the best that you've got." — O Magazine, 2003

"I remember my daddy taking me aside — this was when he worked as a welder — and telling me that he welded a perfect seam that day, and that after welding the perfect seam he put his initials on it. I said, 'Daddy, no one will ever see that.' Sheets and sheets of siding would go over that, you know? And he said, 'Yes, but I'll know it's there.'" — New Yorker, 2003

On getting her start in the publishing world:

"Navigating a white male world was not threatening. It wasn't even interesting. I was more interesting than they were. And I wasn't afraid to show it." — Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am

 

On teaching:

"I don't write when I'm teaching. Teaching is about taking things apart; writing is about putting things together." — New Yorker, 2003

On navigating critics' voices:

"I guess I was just that arrogant. Nobody was going to judge me, because they didn't know what I knew. No African-American writer had ever done what I did — none of the writers I knew, even the ones I admired — which was to write without the White Gaze. My writing wasn't about them." — O Magazine, 2003

On her female characters:

"The idea of a wanton woman is something I have inserted into almost all of my books. An outlaw figure who is disallowed in the community because of her imagination or activity or status — that kind of anarchic figure has always fascinated me. And the benefits they bring with them, in spite of the fact that they are either dismissed or upbraided — something about their presence is constructive in the long run. Sula, for instance, was someone the other characters missed terribly when she was gone, even though she was the pariah. In Love, Junior is a poor, rootless, free-floating young woman — a survivor, a manipulator, a hungry person — but she does create a space where people can come with their better selves." — O Magazine, 2003

This was brand-new space, and once I got there, it was like the whole world opened up, and I was never going to give that up.- Toni Morrison

"This was brand-new space, and once I got there, it was like the whole world opened up, and I was never going to give that up. I felt original. I hate to admit that because it sounds so self-regarding, I didn't feel like an original human being, but the work was original. You know that feeling — that if you don't write it, it will never be written? You think, Eudora Welty can't do it, only you. — O Magazine, 2003

On inequality:

"Complicity in the subjugation of race and class accounts for much of the self-sabotage women are prey to, for it is straight out of that subjugation that certain female-destroying myths have come." — Mouth Full of Blood

"The future was sunset; the past something to leave behind. And if it didn't stay behind, well, you might have to stomp it out. Slave life; freed life — every day was a test and a trial. Nothing could be counted on in a world where even when you were a solution you were a problem." — Beloved

On winning the Pulitzer Prize for fiction:

"I felt I represented a whole world of women who either were silenced or who never had received the imprimatur of the established literary world." — New York Times Magazine, 1994

On winning the Nobel Prize:

"A friend of mine called me up early in the morning and said Toni you won the Nobel Prize. And I remember holding his phone thinking she must be drunk." — Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am

"I decided that … winning the [Nobel] prize was fabulous. Nobody was going to take that and make it into something else. I felt representational. I felt American. I felt Ohioan. I felt blacker than ever. I felt more woman than ever. I felt all of that, and put all of that together and went out and had a good time." — Associated Press interview, 1998

On the mind:

"The mind really is a palace. Not only for its perception of symmetry and the outrageously beautiful, but also because it can invent, imagine and most importantly, it can delve." — Mouth Full of Blood

About the Author

Jennifer Van Evra is a Vancouver-based journalist and digital producer for q. She can be found on Twitter @jvanevra or email jennifer.vanevra@cbc.ca.

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