“How bleak, unlivable, insufferable existence becomes when we are deprived of artwork. That the life and work of writers facing peril mustbe protected is urgent, but along with that urgency we should remind ourselves that their absence, the choking off of a writer’s work, its cruel amputation, is of equal peril to us.” – Toni Morrison

Upon conferring the 2016 PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction on Toni Morrison, judge Louise Erdrich wrote “Revelatory, intelligent, and bold, [Morrison’s] fiction is invested in the black experience, in black lives, and in black consciousness, material from which she has forged a singular American aesthetic. Toni Morrison not only opened doors to others when she began to publish, she has also stayed grounded in the issues of her time. At every turn, she has commented upon and enlarged the conversation about what it is to be black, female, human, and universal. Her brilliant and bracing fiction continues to address what is crucial, timely, and timeless.”

Toni Morrison’s involvement with PEN America over 30-plus years has steadily challenged restrictive thinking about creation, consumption, and criticism of literature. Through her vocal and consistent articulation of opposition to all forms of oppression, discrimination, and censorship around the world, Morrison reminds us that we must remain steadfast in our protection of the written word and the power that literature has to inspire and transform.

1982: An Evening of Forbidden Books

“Hitler burned books and used a phrase that’s very interesting when he was condemning a certain kind of art in Munich. He said, We have to get rid of the artistic criminal. In other words, the idea of an artist as a criminal because of the production of his art is an idea that I had never heard before and since. In other words, there could be such a thing as an illegal song or an illegal book. And you have to understand that I come from a race of people for whom at one time in the country it was illegal to be taught to read; it was illegal and punishable, by physical punishment and sometimes fatal punishment, to learn how to read.”
– Toni Morrison


1986: Forbidden Writing

Toni Morrison reads from Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Petals of Blood.

1988: Imprisoned Writers, Free Voices

“I like this selection particularly because the intimacy that I feel with the writer and the place it comes from; it is not self-centered … it is about others.”

Toni Morrison reads work from Wole Soyinka, who was imprisoned for his sustained opposition to the military dictatorship in Nigeria in the 1960s.

1992: Writing in a Racialized Society

“It’s important to remind ourselves that in addition to poetry and fictional prose, racial discourse permeates all of the scholarly disciplines: theology and history; the social sciences and literary criticism; the language of the law and psychiatry; as well as the natural sciences. By this I mean more than the traces of racism that survive in the language, and I mean more than the unabashedly racist agendas that are promoted in some of the scholarship of these disciplines. I mean the untrammeled agency and license that racial discourse provides intellectuals while at the same time fructifying, closing off, freezing knowledge about the race upon which this discourse is dependent. By way of example, I’m going to put you through some unpleasant moments …” 
 – Toni Morrison

2008: Toni Morrison Accepts the PEN/Allen Foundation Literary Service Award

“Authoritarian regimes, dictators, despots are often, but not always, fools. But none is foolish enough to give perceptive, dissident writers free range to publish their judgements or follow their creative instincts. They know they do so at their own peril. They are not stupid enough to abandon control (overt or insidious) over media. Their methods include surveillance, censorship, arrest, even slaughter of those writers informing and disturbing the police, writers who are unsettling, calling into question, taking another deeper look. Writers—journalists, essayists, bloggers, poets, playwrights—can disturb the social oppression that functions like a coma on the population, a coma despots call peace…”
– Toni Morrison

2011: PEN America Working Day

“What is the source of this flattened perception of private and public? Part of the confusion may simply be the reckless use of the terms. There is private life, and there is the privatization of prisons, of healthcare, of so-called public schools. The first use emanates from constitutional guarantees as well as a deeply personal claim; the second is a corporate investment publicly traded.”
– Toni Morrison

2016: Dangerous Work: An Evening with Toni Morrison

You know as I do that writing is really a very solitary, singular pursuit. No matter how many characters crowd the fiction of a work, the process itself requires solitude. So it is especially delightful to be in a room of my real co-workers: writers and readers. – Toni Morrison


Conrad Lochner