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'Open-hearted': Australian authors grieve the loss of Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison, the Nobel Prize-winning African-American author who died "peacefully" after a brief illness at age 88, has been remembered as a powerful source of inspiration by Australian female writers.

The much-heralded Indigenous writer and poet, Ellen Van Neervan, was jolted by news of the writer's death at Montefiore Medical Center in New York on Monday night (US time).

Toni Morrison: the literary lion who gave Australian female writers a glimpse at what was possible.

Toni Morrison: the literary lion who gave Australian female writers a glimpse at what was possible. Credit:Lisa Poole

"I felt shockwaves ripple when I first heard of Aunty’s death. She paved the way as an editor, writer, teacher and visionary for black writers and other writers of colour," Van Neervan said. "This capacity-building resonates with me. Literature was forever changed from her contribution."

While raising two children alone, Morrison would get up at 4am to write her first novel, The Bluest Eye, which focused on the feelings of black female children who were taught to regard themselves as ugly. It was published in 1970, when she was 39.

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It's confronting topics of racism, incest, and child molestation drew some attempts to strike the book from school curricula and library shelves.

Morrison's seminal works of literature on the black experience include Song of Solomon and the post Civil War novel, Beloved, a blending of magic realism and gritty reality which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Kind of moral and emotional intensity that few writers ever attempt.

Barack Obama

Her position as a voice for minorities was recognised in 1993 when she became the first African-American woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature and in 2012 former US president Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, saying at the ceremony that her prose brought a "kind of moral and emotional intensity that few writers ever attempt".

Sonny Mehta, publisher and editor-in-chief of Alfred A Knopf, which published Sula in 1973 and nine of her other novels, said Morrison had spent her working life in the service of literature: writing, reading, editing and teaching books.

"I can think of few writers in American letters who wrote with more humanity or with more love for language than Toni," he said. "Her narratives and mesmerising prose have made an indelible mark on our culture."

Among those mentored by Morrison was Sydney writer and director Julia Leigh, author of Avalanche, a personal memoir of infertility, as part of the Rolex Mentor and Protege Arts Initiative.

"I saw how she conducted herself impeccably as a writer and as a friend to so many other writers and artists. Her books are treasures, great gifts for the ages, and her open-hearted engagement in the broader world of letters stands as another enduring legacy.''

Perth-based writer Sisonke Msimang, who was born in exile to South African parents and whose work has focussed on race, gender and democracy, read Morrison in high school.

"First Sula, then The Bluest Eye and like many others, I saw myself in those books. I wasn’t mature enough to understand why I loved her – I just did,'' she said. "And then, when I was in uni, I read Song of Solomon and that was it; I had found a book that made me feel untethered and unsafe and completely alive. That book swallowed me whole. It gave me a glimpse of what was possible in love."

Dr Anita Heiss carries with her daily the exhortation of Toni Morrison to write untold stories.

Dr Anita Heiss carries with her daily the exhortation of Toni Morrison to write untold stories.Credit:Helen Kassila

Morrison’s writing also gave Msimang. the author of Always Another Country: A memoir of exile and home, a sense of what was possible in the realm of ideas and imagination.

"She made me a better writer and a clearer thinker," Msimang said. "Her fiction was phenomenal but her non-fiction was equally sharp, knowing in ways that seemed to transcend the times in which she lived and wrote. She was imperious and difficult and totally unconcerned about being perceived as prickly and tough. In this way, she was a role model both as a writer and as an unapologetic, though always generous, public intellectual."

Editor of the ground-breaking anthology, Growing Up Black in Australia, Dr Anita Heiss, said she carries the words of Morrison with her daily: "If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.''

"She reminds me daily of writing so we can see Aboriginal lives in the Australian literary landscape. Her legacy lives on not only in her literature but in her inspirational wisdom to all."

Linda Morris is an arts and books writer at The Sydney Morning Herald

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