Toni Morrison, the first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, has died at the age of 88, according to her family.
The author of the novel Beloved and a seminal voice in African-American literature died on Monday night at Montefiore Medical Center in the US city of New York, her family said in a statement.
“It is with profound sadness we share that, following a short illness, our adored mother and grandmother, Toni Morrison, passed away peacefully last night surrounded by family and friends,” they said.
“Although her passing represents a tremendous loss, we are grateful she had a long, well-lived life,” the statement added, describing her as “the consummate writer who treasured the written word”.
The author of 11 novels, Morrison received a series of honours during her lifetime, including the Pulitzer Prize, the Nobel Prize for Literature and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Born in Ohio during the Great Depression, Morrison was an academic and an editor before she wrote her first novel in 1970.
“Beloved,” published in 1987, became her best-known work, telling the story of a former US slave after the Civil War that was based on real events. It was eventually turned into a film with Oprah Winfrey.
“Toni Morrison’s prose brings us that kind of moral and emotional intensity that few writers ever attempt,” then-president Barack Obama said as he awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012.
Uncensoring the past
Morrison helped raise the United States‘ multiculturalism to the world stage and helped uncensor her country’s past, unearthing the lives of the unknown and the unwanted, those she would call “the unfree at the heart of the democratic experiment”.
In her novels, history – black history – was a trove of poetry, tragedy, love, adventure and good old gossip, whether in small-town Ohio in “Sula” or big-city Harlem in “Jazz”.
She regarded race as a social construct and through language founded the better world her characters suffered to attain.
Morrison wove everything from African literature and slave folklore to the Bible and Gabriel Garcia Marquez into the most diverse, yet harmonious, of literary communities.
“Narrative has never been merely entertainment for me,” she said in her Nobel lecture. “It is, I believe, one of the principal ways in which we absorb knowledge.”
Tributes quickly poured in for her on Tuesday.
“She was a great woman and a great writer, and I don’t know which I will miss more,” Robert Gottlieb, Morrison’s longtime editor at Knopf publishers, said in a statement sent to AFP news agency.
Sonny Mehta, chairman of Knopf, said he could “think of few writers in American letters who wrote with more humanity or with more love for language than Toni”.
“Her narratives and mesmerising prose have made an indelible mark on our culture. Her novels command and demand our attention. They are canonical works, and more importantly, they are books that remain beloved by readers,” he said.