Books: Paradise Found

The Nobel Prize changed Toni Morrison's life but not her art, as her new novel proves

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After finishing her sixth novel, Jazz, published in 1992, Toni Morrison began casting about for the subject of her next book. Constant reading, a habit and passion she developed as a little girl, eventually led her to an obscure chapter in 19th century U.S. history, shortly after the Civil War: the westward emigration of former slaves into the sparsely settled territories of Oklahoma and beyond. Some found the promise of a new life in wide-open spaces, touted in numerous newspaper advertisements in the 1870s, irresistible, and a challenge besides. Morrison was struck by a caveat that often appeared in those ads: "Come Prepared or Not at All."

As she began imagining how this historical material might generate a work of fiction, Morrison bumped into one of the banes of creative artists everywhere: the intrusion of the outside world into the space of private concentration. Drat the luck, in October 1993 she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

"I was so happy that I had a real book idea in progress," she says of the beleaguered period following the announcement. "If I hadn't, I would have thought, 'Uh-oh, can I ever write a novel again?'" At that moment, deluged by congratulations, invitations and preparations, never mind another novel, Morrison found herself stymied by her acceptance speech. She had no free time to work on it, and when she stole some, she produced nothing she liked. "I called someone at the Nobel Committee," she remembers, "and I said, 'Look, if you're going to keep giving prizes to women--and I hope you do--you're going to have to give us more warning. Men can rent tuxedos. I have to get shoes, I have to get a dress.'"

Her friend, the designer Bill Blass, rescued her, taking her into his fitting rooms and outfitting her for her appearance at the awards ceremony in Stockholm. More than four years later, Morrison still grows dreamy and wide-eyed at her introduction to haute couture. "They had everything; they had all these people around trying to make something work on me. On me."

Morrison has learned since, of course, that the Nobel Prize carries burdens somewhat heavier than the problem of what to wear to the celebration. Although every writer drifts into daydreams of winning the prize, actually having it can produce some nightmarish side effects. A crushing mantle of gravitas descends on the winners.

People honored for making up stories or poems or plays are then expected to make pronouncements, in front of packed houses, on public issues. As an African-American woman, Morrison has faced such expectations constantly. "Most of the questions I get after readings or talks," she says, "are anthropological or sociological or political. They are not about literary concerns."

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