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Toni Morrison Exhibit at Princeton University Highlights Her Creative Process


In a 1993 interview with The Paris Review about her writing practice, Toni Morrison explained how she achieved the literary feat that is her novel “Jazz.”

“I thought of myself as a jazz musician, someone who practices and practices and practices so that I can invent and make her art look effortless and graceful,” she told the literary magazine at the time.

Behind masterpieces such as ‘Jazz’, ‘Beloved’ and ‘The Bluest Eye’ lies a painstaking craft that Morrison honed over his decades-long career – which is explored in an upcoming exhibition at Princeton University in New Jersey, where Morrison taught for 17 years.

“Toni Morrison: Sites of Memory,” slated to open Feb. 22, examines the creative methods of the celebrated author and Nobel laureate. Drawing on an extensive archive including manuscript drafts, speeches, writing plans and correspondence, the exhibition promises to offer new insight into Morrison’s literary mind.

A handwritten manuscript page from Morrison’s novel “The Bluest Eye”, along with other papers from the author’s archives. Credit: Princeton University Library

“The focus here is really on exploring the process behind these polished texts — what it’s like to imagine, to write at all of these different times,” said curator Autumn Womack, who is also an assistant professor of English and African American Studies. .

The exhibition, divided into six sections, provides insight into Morrison’s thought process and writing practice at various points in his career. Diaries from her time as editor at Random House show how she took time to write her own novels between work obligations, while yellow notepads she filled with notes and drafts shed light her thinking as she wrote later novels such as “A Mercy”.

Womack, a scholar of 19th- and 20th-century American literature, has worked extensively with the Morrison Archive since arriving at Princeton in 2017, using the materials in a course she taught on authorship and reading practices. . As she and her students perused the collection, Womack said she discovered that Morrison’s writing practice was “imbued with a kind of patience”.

Autumn Womack, assistant professor of English and African-American studies at Princeton, is the exhibit's senior curator.

Autumn Womack, assistant professor of English and African-American studies at Princeton, is the exhibit’s senior curator. Credit: Brandon Johnson

“As writers, we often want to get to the finished product and know we’ve cracked the code,” she said. “But you see (Morrison) trying and over and over and over and over again, asking questions, looking at different objects, trying different research methods, trying different narrative voices.”

The exhibition takes its title from Morrison’s essay “The Site of Memory”. In it, the author detailed a creative practice that started with an image in her mind, which then prompted questions that she set out to explore. As the meaning of the image became clear, it finally came to the text.

This process comes to life in the exhibit, Womack said. Viewers can see how Morrison drew inspiration from a newspaper article about Margaret Garner, an enslaved African-American woman who killed her own daughter rather than allow her to return to a life of slavery, for the premise of “Beloved”. They can trace how an image taken by photographer James Van Der Zee planted the initial seed of “Jazz”.

“You see her keep asking the questions until she comes across the story,” Womack added.

When Womack began curating “Sites of Memory,” she said it became clear to her that the exhibit needed to reflect the collaborative, multidisciplinary elements that were so evident in Morrison’s work. That’s why the archival exhibit is just one in a series of community events and initiatives Princeton is organizing around the author.

The exhibition features a range of documents from Morrison's archives, including this small notebook.

The exhibition features a range of documents from Morrison’s archives, including this small notebook. Credit: Brandon Johnson

“Cycle of Creativity: Alison Saar and the Toni Morrison Papers,” an exhibition presented by the university’s art museum which also opens in late February, will combine materials from Morrison’s archives with works by sculptor Alison Saar to explore how both artists illuminate aspects of the black American experience.

In March, the university will host a symposium that will bring together writers, scholars and artists to examine Morrison’s work and its impact on American culture, with a keynote address by novelist Edwidge Danticat.

A spring lecture series and undergraduate courses on Morrison’s work are also in store, according to a press release.

The “Toni Morrison: Sites of Memory” exhibit will be on view at the Milberg Gallery at Princeton University Library in Princeton, New Jersey, from February 23 through June 4.

Top Image: Toni Morrison attends the Carl Sandburg Literary Awards Dinner in Chicago on October 20, 2010. (Photo by Daniel Boczarski/FilmMagic)

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