Mo Yan, a Novelist and Short Story Writer

Mo Yan was born 17 February 1955

Little known fact

Guan Moye finally adopted his pseudonym as his official name after having difficulty claiming his royalties because of the convoluted administrative process in place while still serving in the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA). (Wang)

Much better-known fact

Mo Yan, Wade-Giles Romanization Mo Yen, was a pen name for Guan Moye and it means “don’t speak,” an admonishment from his parents in rural China many years ago.

Guan Moye grew up in Shandong province in northeastern China where he left school to become an agricultural worker and a factory worker during the Cultural Revolution. He enlisted in thePLA and ultimately became an officer. While serving, he became educated through self-study and an assignment to a PLA institute where he began to write. Using the pseudonym Mo Yan, he became a novelist and short-story writer known for his imaginative and humanistic fiction—not always with the warm approval from Chinese leadership, particularly while he was still serving in uniform. His work found popular acclaim and awards starting in the 1980s. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2012, the first citizen of the People’s Republic of China to do so.

Early life and career

Guan Moye’s parents were farmers in a poverty-stricken village in the People’s Republic of China—very much like the fictional Gaomi County in his fiction. It was there with his family that he survived the Great Famine of 1958-61. During the end of the turbulence of the Cultural Revolution of 1956-66, he left school in the fifth grade to work in agriculture and later in a factory. In 1976, he joined the PLA to escape the isolation and poverty of the province. In Change, described as a novella posing as an autobiography, he describes several unfulfilling assignments as an enlisted man. However, he showed enough promise that when his unit is given a quota for a test for entry into a PLA institute of higher learning, he was given the opportunity. The unit’s quota was lost toward the end of his six months of self-study before he could stand for the testing, but his enhanced knowledge led to his being appointed during an army-wide push to increase literacy as a military base mathematics instructor and later as a political instructor—both positions normally filled by officers. In 1982, he accepted a commission as an officer and did get another opportunity to take the admission test. As a result, he earned an appointment to the Literature Department of the PLA’s Arts College, from which he graduated in 1986. During that time of intense study, he found initial success in publishing his work. He was well known as an author by the time he was invited to attend Beijing Normal University for a Master of Literature and Art, awarded in 1991. He left the army in 1997 and became a newspaper editor, continuing to write fiction, still drawing on his rural hometown to create his imagined setting and his vibrant characters warring, loving, and enduring the crushing experiences of his formative years.

Major relationships

In 1979, he got permission from his superiors to go home on leave for a few days, get married, and return to his unit alone. Under those constrained conditions, he married Du Quinlan, and they celebrated the birth of a daughter in 1981.

Writing career

In Change, Mo Yan recalls several failed attempts to publish his writing: a short story “Mama” and a six-act play Divorce. His first published short story, a “Rainy Spring Night,” appeared in Baoding literary journal Lily Pond in 1981, followed the next year by “The Ugly Soldier.”

In 1984, the year he entered PLA’s Arts College, he earned a literary award from the PLA Magazine, adopted the pseudonym Mo Yan, and published his first novella, A Transparent Radish.

In 1986, Red Sorghum won the national best novella award, becoming an internationally known film the next year. This sequence launched Mo Yan’s career as a writer as well as the careers of the film’s director Zhang Yimou and the lead actress Gong Li.

Since then, Mo Yan has published more than a dozen novels and has received every major national literary award China has to offer. In the process, he has had works pulled off the shelf and banned more than once because of his satirical treatment of Chinese institutions and historical movements—seen through the eyes and experiences of the people rather than the makers and implementers of policy.

Mo Yan writes about the gut-level aggression and bravery of peasants against Japanese soldiers, against both sides of the Chinese Revolution, the Great Leap Forward’s forced migrations and collectivization, the Great Famine, and the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath—through oral traditions, histories, and personal observances. He portrays the violent vitality of men engaged in war and sex, and he elevates the resilience and forbearance of the women he has seen in these histories. The women are extolled for their determined and creative drives to endure their lot (exploited and taken for granted) while the men drink, love, and fight single-mindedly. Critics note that in most of his novels, “a blunt and unrelenting masculinity…serves as a stark contrast to the usual tame and sexually repressed heroes of the proletarian literature of previous generations.”

In his writing on these social and economic themes within their historical contexts, Mo Yan draws on his determinative experiences and on settings in the county-level city of Gaomi in eastern Shandong province. He has lived in, endured, and escaped rural isolation and famine. He has witnessed and lived with the legacy of grim decisions made by common people under duress.

The Nobel Committee’s “Bio Notes” describe his work as a “mixture of fantasy and reality, historical and social perspectives.” His work, they say, is “reminiscent in its complexity of those in the writings of William Faulkner and Gabriel García Márquez.” Mo Yan would agree to having been influenced by those two icons, but several critics declare his voice is quite distinct from those voices. The Notes go on to allude to “a departure point in old Chinese literature and in oral tradition,” a claim that some scholars like Sun take great exception to as discussed below.

Mo Yan’s Change is clearly an example of a “people’s history.” He provides us with a bottom-up lens rather than a top-down one of a country in stormy fluctuation. As his writing evolved, he experimented with his narration to the extent he cast himself as a character in one of his novels like Vonnegut. “All his novels create unique individual realities, quite different from the political stories that were told about the countryside in the Maoist years, when Mo Yan grew up” as Guan Moye. (Flood)

In fact, he draws in the reader to actively consider which of the many cataclysmic events the characters are surviving because no labels are put on movements or political platforms or even wars; it is very much the way common people in remote areas view these events that bring armed men into their areas and other men and women to recruit local men and women to the point that relatives are reluctantly coercing and bullying one another when they get the upper hand. And then there are those—in the usual point of view of a closely observed Mo Yan character—who are avoiding taking sides and suffering at the hands of those with weapons.

Mo Yan provides his readership of the novel Big Breasts and Wide Hips with reminders of the propagule pressure on rural families to produce male offspring—to the point of uncles discretely (at the urging of their own wives) providing services as active sperm donors for the wives of sterile nephews. He gives us a view of the Japanese invasion in the 1930s and the warring between the Nationalists and the Maoists through the eyes of a small boy without ever using the labels of those events—conveying a truly surreal and violent drama not understood at all by the rural Chinese. He delivers the horrific unintended consequences of agrarian and industrial policy like the Great Leap Forward—consequences he survived as his family struggled through the Chinese Famine.

He treats social decrees like the One Child policy developed later in hauntingly personal prose in Frog where he draws a portrait of an agonized world of “desperate families, illegal surrogates, forced abortions, and the guilt of those who must enforce the policy.”

Mo Yan says he has been greatly influenced by a broad spectrum of writers such as William Faulkner (Nobel 1949), James Joyce, Gabriel García Márquez (Nobel 1982), Minakami Tsutomu, Mishima Yukio, and Ōe Kenzaburō (Nobel 1994).

Critical look at controversies and aesthetics

The Chinese government warmly received the news of the Nobel Prize award, mentioning Chinese writers and the Chinese people have been waiting for such recognition for far too many years.

Then the criticism began. There were those writers and dissidents who criticized his lack of solidarity with other intellectuals who were continually denied freedom of expression in the Peoples Republic. These comments were echoed by European literati like 2009 Nobel Laureate Herta Müller who grew up and wrote under the Communist regime in Romania. (Maslin and En Khong)

En Khong criticizes Mo Yan for dealing with China’s troubles at the local level and indicates this focus shows Mo Yan’s alignment with state strategy for the allocation of blame away from the political center.

Charles Laughlin, a professor of Chinese Literature at the University of Virginia, published “What Mo Yan’s Detractors Get Wrong” on ChinaFile to take on the early disparagers reproving Mo Yan of what they asserted was trivialization of grave historical calamities through the use of black humor and amusement. Laughlin maintained that Mo Yan’s intended readers already knew that “the Great Leap Forward led to a catastrophic famine, and any artistic approach to historical trauma is inflected or refracted. Mo Yan writes about the period he writes about because they were traumatic, not because they were hilarious,” he declared.

“The effect of Mo Yan’s work is not illumination through skilled and controlled exploitation, but disorientation and frustration due to his lack of coherent aesthetic consideration. There is no light shining on the chaotic reality of Mo Yan’s hallucinatory world.” This is the way Anna Sun, Associate Professor of Sociology at Kenyon College, starts out her blistering critique. She declares Mo Yan’s writing as coarse, predictable, and lacking in aesthetic conviction. “Mo Yan’s language is striking indeed,” she writes, but it is striking because “it is diseased. The disease is caused by the conscious renunciation of China’s cultural past at the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.”

However, if one reads her whole critique, it becomes clear her real discontent lies in Mo Yan’s use of language and his failure (due to, she admits, the fact he was denied access given the time of his birth and formation) to acknowledge through emulation and cultural reference the two thousand years of Chinese Literature that preceded Mao.

Regardless of the sincerity of Mo’s social and political critique, Sun sees his language as a language that survived the Cultural Revolution, when the state implemented a radical break with its own literary past. “Mo Yan’s prose is an example of a prevailing disease that has been plaguing writers who came of age in what can be called the era of ‘Mao-ti,’ a particular language and sensibility of writing promoted by Mao in the beginning of the revolution.” (Sun)

The burden of this heritage can be seen not only in Mo Yan’s work, but also in the work of many other revered literary writers—even political dissident writers outside of China like the novelist Ma Jian. “This is perhaps the ultimate tragedy of the fate of contemporary Chinese writers: too many of them can no longer speak truth to power in a language free of the scars of the revolution itself.” (Sun)

There are some critics who recognize that the need for obliqueness under difficult circumstances can also make the case (that Mo tries to make in his own defense) that literary imagination can become more resourceful under stressful conditions.

“Such is the case with Mo Yan’s deeply interesting fiction,” says Mishra. However, Mo Yan’s writing is rarely discussed because of the political choices he has had to make. The West is very uneven in the standards they apply to writers’ politics. While Mo’s choices can be considered shameful, that level of scrutiny is not applied to his counterparts in the West. (Mishra)

Professor Laughlin offers a comprehensive analysis of Sun’s article about what is artistically wrong with Mo Yan’s fiction and, therefore why, in her mind, it does not deserve the Nobel Prize in Literature. He notes that Sun does not describe or interpret specific works by Mo Yan, though she declares that his main translator, Howard Goldblatt, creates translations of Mo Yan’s work that are artistically superior to the originals. He also points out that Sun does not identify any other deserving Chinese writers and that, by her argument, it is not clear that the prize should ever go to a Chinese writer. (Laughlin)

The “mostly devoid of aesthetic value” assertion by Sun doesn’t obtain for long, as the literature professor points out, the history of the world and its literature have departed from the moral certainty of Dickens some time ago. Laughlin, the scholar of literature, schools the sociologist about how the emergence of avant-garde techniques like stream of consciousness or psychological realism in the wake of World War I (Mann, Woolf, and Joyce) provided a means of coping with historical trauma. He points to of the absurdism of a Kafka, Orwell, and Borges as alternative ways to deal with the ghosts of socialism, bureaucracy, and alienation since then. (Laughlin)

Finally, Laughlin notes that Mo Yan “grew up in cruel times and at times treated people with cruelty, only reflecting on or regretting it much later, too late for his remorse to remedy the damage.” It is apparent in the reaction to Mo Yan’s award that we want Nobel laureates born in repressive societies to be heroes. However, Laughlin points out, the appearance of heroism often disguises human frailty and even cruelty. And, if artistic expression of that reality “requires courage, it also requires honesty, it requires being painfully honest, and such honesty is not beyond the reach of contemporary Chinese literature.”

Magical realism and hallucinatory realism

Magic realism can prompt readers to connect more intensely humanistic and sociopolitical realities than realist fiction—perhaps because the introduction of ambiguity pushes the reader into an active process of turning over the ambiguity to resolve it based on individual experience and education.

Hallucinatory realism has links to the concept of magical realism. Hallucinatory realism connotes a notion of a dream state, and that was the term used in the explanation for awarding Mo Yan the Nobel Prize in Literature. Certainly, there are moments in Mo Yan’s narratives such as Large Breasts and Wide Hips where the narrator’s descriptions take up the reader into the distortions of the moment’s visual or tactile experience, often to be brought down harshly by the reality of the situation—along with the narrator who is experiencing violence up close and personally.

In this brand of magical realism, there is not so much turning a perception over and over (as in Western minimalist exaggeration) as it is a turning once over to consider the age and experience of the character perceiving the distortion and to nod at the briefness of the momentary escape from the reality of a grim moment.


A few quotes of Mo Yan 

“I saw the winner of the prize both garlanded with flowers and besieged by stone-throwers and mudslingers.” He concluded, “For a writer, the best way to speak is by writing. You will find everything I need to say in my works. Speech is carried off by the wind; the written word can never be obliterated.”
“Why did a novel about the Sino-Japanese war have such a great impact on society? I think my novel expressed a shared mentality of Chinese people at the time, after a long period of repression of personal freedom. Red Sorghum represents the liberation of individual spirits: daring to speak, daring to think, daring to act.”


A few quotes about Mo Yan

“If China has a Kafka, it may be Mo Yan. Like Kafka, Yan has the ability to examine his society through a variety of lenses, creating fanciful, Metamorphosis-like transformations or evoking the numbing bureaucracy and casual cruelty of modern governments.” — Publishers Weekly, on Shifu: You’ll Do Anything for a Laugh

Red Sorghum represents a new articulation of the Chinese national spirit, a cry for the liberation of libido” — Anna Sun.
Mo Yan is “probably the most translated living Chinese writer, very well known, very respected [and] although he’s had his spats with the literary censors … generally speaking not regarded as politically sensitive” — SOAS professor of Chinese Michel Hockx (Flood)


Awards, Prizes, and Nominations (selected)
2005: Kiriyama Prize, Notable Books, Big Breasts and Wide Hips
2005: Doctor of Letters, Open University of Hong Kong
2006: Fukuoka Asian Culture Prize XVII
2007: Man Asian Literary Prize, nominee, Big Breasts and Wide Hips
2009: Newman Prize for Chinese Literature, winner, Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out
2010: Honorary Fellow, Modern Language Association
2011: Mao Dun Literature Prize, winner, Frog
2012: Nobel Prize


Notable Works

Red Sorghum (1986, English 1993)
The Garlic Ballads (1988, English in 1995)
The Republic of Wine (1992, English 2000)
Big Breasts and Wide Hips (1996, English 2004)
Shifu, You’ll Do Anything for a Laugh (2000)
Life and Death are Wearing Me Out (2006, English 2008)
Sandalwood Death (2004, English 2013)
Wa (Frog) (2009, French 2011, English 2014)


En Khong. “Nobel winner Mo Yan and China’s cultural amnesia: The Nobel laureate’s comments on literary censorship were unforgivable,” The Telegraph 7:00AM GMT 14 Dec 2012.
Flood, Alison. “Mo Yan wins Nobel Prize in literature 2012: Novelist, the first ever Chinese literature Nobel laureate, praised for ‘hallucinatory realism,’ ”The Guardian Thursday 11 October 2012 07.38 EDT mod Wednesday 4 June 2014 00.21 EDT.
Laughlin, Charles. “Why Critics of Chinese Nobel Prize-Winner Mo Yan Are Just Plain Wrong,” ChinaFile December 12th, 2012. Web. 21 February 2016.
Mishra, Pankaj. “Why Salman Rushdie should pause before condemning Mo Yan on censorship: The Nobel laureate’s political choices are deplorable, but why don’t we expose western novelists to the same scrutiny?” The Guardian Thursday 13 December 2012 08.30 EST; last modified on Friday 15 January 2016 13.34 EST.
Mo, Yan. Big Breasts & Wide Hips. Translated by Howard Goldblatt. New York: Arcade Publishing, 1996.
Mo, Yan. Change. Translated by Howard Goldblatt. London: Seagull Books, 2012.
Sun, Anna. “The Diseased Language of Mo Yan,” Kenyon Review OnLine
Talks At The Yenan Forum On Literature and Art May 1942. Marxists Internet Archive. Internet encyclopedia project Web. 10 February 2016.
Wang, David interview. ChinaX: Introducing Mo Yan SW12X Uploaded on Feb 18, 2015. Wood, James. “Tell me how does it feel? US novelists must now abandon social and theoretical glitter,” The Guardian, October 5, 2001 5 October 2001 20.05 EDT Modified 5 January 2010 12.09 EST.


Richard Perkins is a regular contributor to The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, and he is working on a historical novel and a collection of stories. He lives with his wife in Northern Virginia.

Sherman Alexie—Writer, Film Director, and Comedian

Born: 1966

Little Known Facts

There was an early expectation that Sherman Alexie would suffer mental retardation because he was born with hydrocephalus (or, water in the brain). He underwent brain surgery, and he suffered seizures throughout his childhood. 

He planned to be a doctor, following an uncle’s suggestion that after credentialing, he return to help his reservation; so in college, he enrolled in a pre-med track. 

Some Native Americans have reacted to his success by calling him a “fucking apple”—white on the inside and red on the outside—for having “sold out” to corporate publishing. His response: “Get off the reservation and make your own luck happen.”

Much Better Known Facts

Sherman Alexie grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation.

When he found his mother’s name written in a textbook assigned to him at the reservation school, he made a decision right then that he would not attend the reservation high school.

Snap Shot

Sherman Alexie is a contemporary novelist, poet, short story writer, screenwriter, film director, and comedian who is not always celebrated by his fellow Native Americans. He overcame physical and socio-economic adversity and broke out of the reservation mentality he describes in his poetry, prose, and films. He is an award winner in all three areas and gives highly animated and entertaining interviews.

Early Life and Non-Writing Career

Sherman J. Alexie, Jr., a Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian, was born in October of 1966 and grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington, about 50 miles northwest of Spokane.

He was born a hydrocephalic (water on the brain), and underwent brain surgery at the age of six months without the doctors or his parents expecting him to survive. When he did survive, the prognosis was that he would live with severe mental retardation.

In spite of these adversities, Alexie learned to read by age three, and was reading novels by age five. All these things separated him from his peers at an early age, making him the object of ridicule on the reservation. Consequently, he discovered his own isolation within his reservation that was in itself an isolation from the rest of America.

As a teenager, he made a conscious decision to attend high school off the reservation in Reardan, about 20 miles south of Wellpinit, where he suspected he would get a better education. At Reardan High, he was the only Indian (apart for the school mascot). He performed well academically and became a standout player on the basketball team. He was the high-school class president, but he points out that earlier on the reservation, he was a bookworm whose nose was broken six times by bullies. This collection of middle school and high school experiences ultimately inspired his first young adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian.

In 1985 after Alexie graduated from Reardan High School, he attended Gonzaga University in Spokane, on a scholarship. After two years at Gonzaga, he transferred to Washington State University (WSU)  as a pre-med student. 
Alexie’s plan to become a doctor was set aside after he fainted several times in human anatomy class, and he soon found another path after he found his way into a poetry workshop at WSU.

Alexie developed a problem with alcohol at Gonzaga, but after learning that Hanging Loose Press agreed to publish The Business of Fancydancing, he immediately gave up drinking at the age of twenty-three. He has stayed sober ever since. 

Alexie has done stand-up comedy with musician Jim Boyd, a Colville Indian. They collaborated to record the album Reservation Blues, which contains songs from the book of the same name. In 1996, Boyd and Alexie opened for the Indigo Girls at a concert to benefit the Honor the Earth Campaign.

In 1997, Alexie embarked on another artistic collaboration with Chris Eyre, a Cheyenne/Arapaho Indian, who discovered Alexie’s writing while at the New York University’s film school. They collaborated on a film project inspired by Alexie’s “This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona,” a short story from The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. Shadow Catcher Entertainment produced the film that was released as Smoke Signals at the Sundance Film Festival in January 1998. The film won two awards: the Audience Award and the Filmmakers Trophy. 

After success at Sundance, Smoke Signals was distributed by Miramax Films in 1998 and in 1999, the film earned a Christopher Award, an award presented to the creators of artistic works “which affirm the highest values of the human spirit.” Subsequently, Alexie was also nominated for the Independent Feature Project/West (now Film Independent) 1999 Independent Spirit Award for Best First Screenplay.

In 2002, Alexie made his debut as a director with The Business of Fancydancing. He wrote the screenplay based loosely on his first poetry collection. The film was produced and distributed independently, and subsequently earned numerous film festival awards.

Major Relationships

Alexie lives in Seattle with his wife, Diane, and two sons.

Writing Career

Alexie found encouragement from his poetry teacher, Alex Kuo, to the point he realized he’d found his new path in life. As a WSU graduate with a BA in American Studies, Alexie received the Washington State Arts Commission Poetry Fellowship in 1991 and then the National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowship in 1992.

The year after he left WSU, his poetry collections, The Business of Fancydancing and I Would Steal Horses, were published. His first collection of short stories, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, was published by Atlantic Monthly Press in 1993, earning a PEN/Hemingway Award for Best First Book of Fiction and a Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Writers’ Award.

In 1998, Alexie competed in and won his first World Heavyweight Poetry Bout competition in June 1998 in Taos, New Mexico. He went up against then world champion Jimmy Santiago Baca. During the next three years, he went on to win the title again and again, becoming the first and only poet to hold the title for four consecutive years. 

Taking A Critical Look

Some, like author and critic Gloria Bird (Spokane), argue that a work by a Native American author is capable of subverting Native American identity and sovereignty by idealizing preconceptions that form an outsider’s mythologies of the American Indian. Essayist Nicolas Myers insists that Alexie shouldn’t be painted with this brush and is adamant that Alexie’s Reservation Blues does not promote any totalizing representations. While the novel does addresses many mythologies, it is done in an exaggerated and ironic manner. It “never falls into a trap of stereotypical representation because it never allows for fixed representation of any kind.”

Magical Realism

Alexie’s imagination plays tricks on the reader and Professor Kenneth Lincoln sees him as the best Native American example of one stealing into Olympus to claim legitimacy while neither proving himself to be the “bungling host” nor “the agile parasite.” Throughout Reservation Blues there are “mirrors that redirect any determined gaze until the readers find themselves gliding along with the characters—on an unstoppable ride of laughing, gut-wrenching indeterminacy,” says Myers in his recalibration of Gloria Bird’s criticism of Alexie for exaggerating the negative dimensions of life on a reservation while side stepping the obligation she feels he has to present his community in a more positive light.
There is more to Alexie’s exaggeration than this. There is a deliberate technique being used here that is familiar to readers of Latin American Magical Realism, where exaggeration and hyperbole are often utilized to convey a sense of the unreality of the real—a point made and explained by Gabriel García Márquez in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize.

An example of Alexie’s exaggeration is the character Lester FallsApart who, Alexie tells us, is the most accomplished drunk on the Spokane Reservation and a tribal hero because Indians always flock to the kindest alcoholic on the reservation. The Spokane Indian Reservation loved Lester so much that hundreds came to his dog’s wake and funeral.

A first reading might see this as reinforcing the drunken-Indian stereotype. But the products of these exaggerations and the logic of all of it should be seen differently: “The hyperbolic embrace of Lester is analogous to a very real embrace of the vice—a strong critique, in my opinion, of a particular aspect of reservation culture,” writes Myers.
 This conclusion is reinforced by the fact Lester FallsApart is often Alexie’s alter ego when he takes the stage, as well as a recurring character in his fiction and his poetry.

A Few of Alexie’s Quotes

“Up until now, I’ve always written Joshua B. stories. I felt so conflicted about having fled the rez as a kid that I created a whole literary career that left me there. The lesson of both the young-adult book and in a sense the new book is ‘Get off the rez. Be nomadic.’ ” (Konigsberg interview)

“I’d rather see myself played by a Puerto Rican or an Italian with a tan than have them ruin the basketballness of me.” (Konigsberg interview)

“Liz Cook-Lynn [Dakota] is utterly incapable of irony, of understanding irony, of even seeing the ironic nature of her own existence. So, the stances she has are a kind of fundamentalism that actually drove me off my reservation. I think it’s a kind of fundamentalism about Indian identity, and what “Indian” can be and mean, that damages Indians.” (Nelson interview)

“The social pressures, the social rules inside the Indian world, and the essential conservatism, big C and little c, of Indian people, is something that outsiders rarely understand. I mean, Indian communities are theocracies.” (Nelson interview)

A Few Quotes about Alexie

“Sherman Alexie doesn’t believe there is such a thing as selling out. He has no qualms about his commercial breakthrough’s coming when he wrote a young-adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, despite the fact that he had already published 18 volumes of fiction and poetry to considerably less fanfare.” (Konigsberg)

“In War Dances he has given readers a few characters of indeterminate ethnicity for the first time.” (Konigsberg)

“But while I was silent, Sherman Alexie wrote the truth. In his books, I found all the ugly and beautiful stories of reservation life laid out right there on the page, for millions to read. He wrote about our poverty, addiction, and repeated cycles of violence and despair. I both envied and resented the freedom and openness of his words.” (Purser)

“His work is wizened with poetic anger, ribald love, and whipsaw humor. The crazy-heart bear is dancing comically, riding a wobbly unicycle, tossing overripe tomatoes at his audience.” (Lincoln)

Awards and Prizes (Selected)

2003—Regents’ Distinguished Alumnus Award, Washington State University 

2007—Western Literature Association’s Distinguished Achievement Award

2007—National Book Award in Young People’s Literature for his young adult novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. 

2008—Scandiuzzi Children’s Book Award for middle grades and young adults 
2010—PEN/Faulkner Award for short-story collection War Dances

2010—Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas Lifetime Achievement Award

Notable Works

Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, The Business of Fancydancing, and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian


Konigsberg, Eric. “In His Own Literary World, a Native Son Without Borders.” New York Times Books. Oct 20, 2009. Web. 5 October 2015.

Lincoln, Kenneth. “On Sherman Alexie.” Modern American Poet. Web. 10 October 2015.

Myers, Nick. “Birds of a Feather: Representation, Exaggeration, and Survivance in Sherman Alexie’s Reservation Blues.” Web. 10 October 2015.

Nelson, Joshua B. (Cherokee) “Humor Is My Green Card: A Conversation with Sherman Alexie.” World Literature Today. July 2010. Web. 7 October 2015.

Purser, Heather. “Sherman Alexie, How Do You Dare to Tell the Truth?.” YES! Magazine. Summer 2009. Web. 7 October 2015.


Richard Perkins is a regular contributor to The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review and a graduate of The Johns Hopkins University MA in Writing Program. He is writing an historical novel and revising a collection of connected stories.


Toni Morrison—Novelist, Editor, Writer, and Educator

Born: 18 February 1931

Little Known Facts
Toni Morrison’s students at Howard University included Stokely Carmichael (of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, SNCC) and Claude Brown (author of Manchild in the Promised Land, 1965).

During Morrison’s editing of The Black Book in 1974, she discovered the horrific true story that inspired Beloved.

In early 1988, poet June Jordan and critic Houston A. Baker led a formal protest in the media that decried the whimsy through which the contribution to American Literature of Toni Morrison’s five novels had been overlooked. (Times)

Much Better Known Facts
Toni Morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wofford and has also been known as Chloe Ardelia Wofford, Chloe Wofford, and Toni Wofford.

She was appointed to a chair at Princeton University, becoming the first African-American woman writer to hold a named chair at an Ivy League university.

Toni Morrison is the first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Snap Shot
Chloe Anthony Wofford was born in 1931 in Lorain, Ohio and, after demonstrating an early interest in literature; she studied humanities at Howard and then at Cornell University. She pursued an academic career at Texas Southern, Howard, and later at Yale and Princeton Universities. She worked as an editor for Random House. She’s also worked as a literary critic, and a lecturer specializing in African-American literature. She made her debut as the novelist Toni Morrison in 1970 and soon gained the attention of both critical and a popular audience for her epic power, her ear for dialogue, her vivid imagery, and her lyrical portrayals of Black America. She has been a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters since 1981, and has earned a number of literary distinctions, among them the Pulitzer Prize in 1988, before receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. (Nobel)

Early Life and Non-Writing Career
Morrison grew up the second of four children in a black working-class family that possessed an intense appreciation for black culture, including storytelling, songs, and folktales that became an important part of her development. She earned a B.A. from Howard University (1953) where she became known as Toni and an M.A. from Cornell University (1955). She taught at Texas Southern University for two years and at Howard from 1957 to 1964. In 1965, she became a textbook editor for a subsidiary of Random House in Syracuse, New York; she worked home while raising two sons and producing her first novel. By the time she was finished with her manuscript in 1968, she had become a senior editor at Random House and the company was looking for an African-American editor to steer talent as the boom in black literary voices began. Beginning in 1984, she taught writing at the State University of New York at Albany; she joined the faculty of Princeton University in 1989.

Major Relationships
In 1958, Chloe Anthony Wofford married Harold Morrison, a Jamaican architect and faculty member at Howard. She divorced him in 1964 when he returned to Jamaica. That union produced two sons.

Writing Career
Toni Morrison’s first book, The Bluest Eye (1970), was an initiation story about an adolescent African-American girl obsessed with white standards of beauty and longing to have blue eyes. Her second novel, Sula (1973), examined, inter alia, the subtleties of friendship and the notions of conformity within a community. The third novel, Song of Solomon (1977), was an identity-searching story told by a male narrator in search of his identity, and this book brought Morrison to national attention. Then Tar Baby (1981), which was set on a Caribbean island, explored conflicts of race, class, and sex. Her fifth novel, Beloved (1987), was even more ambitious and probed rape, seduction, infanticide, alienation, powerlessness, regret, tyranny, and the paradox of motherhood under slavery and the workings of the supernatural.
In January of 1988, Morrison’s Beloved was nominated for the Ritz-Hemingway, the National Book, and the National Book Critic Circle awards, but won none of them. However, Beloved won Morrison her lasting recognition three months later when it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Since Beloved, Morrison has produced six more novels, two plays, a libretto, a number of children’s books, and a body of non-fiction. In addition to the notable awards below, she has been recognized several times for the impact of her body of work as a whole. In 1996, the National Endowment for the Humanities selected Morrison for the Jefferson Lecture, the U.S. government’s highest honor for achievement in the humanities.

Morrison was awarded the 1996 National Book Foundation’s Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters for being a writer “who has enriched our literary heritage over a life of service, or a corpus of work.”

Taking Another Look
Harold Bloom edited a volume of critical essays on Morrison shortly after her Pulitzer but before the Nobel Prize win, a time when she had five novels for the critics to examine and a time well into the era of politicized responses to narratives, dramas, and poems. He noted that societal and historical resentments could crowd out aesthetic considerations that are the heart of his concerns. In his introduction, he declares he will gauge Morrison’s achievements to that date in “the daunting context of her prime precursor figures, Faulkner and Woolf.”

Marilyn Sanders Mobley, commenting later in the same volume, offers an intertextual look at the relationship between the traditional slave narratives, the beginning of the American literary tradition in prose, and Morrison’s Beloved. She concludes that Morrison makes the details of the traditional narratives more accessible and that she uses memory fragments to explore the inner life of slaves and to more openly portray the dimensions of that life omitted in the traditional narratives as she examines the guilt, alienation and the shame from the psychic scarring of slavery.

Magical Realism
The central theme of Morrison’s novels is the black American experience struggling to find themselves and their own cultural identity within an unjust society. She uses fantasy, an almost poetic style, and a confluence of the mythic with the historical to create impressive force and texture. She also uses elements of magical realism when ambiguity suits her style.
Art Historian Ernst Gombrich developed a multi-faceted approach to the analysis of art that included psychoanalysis, Gestalt psychology, and scientific hypothesis testing. He saw the perceptual restructuring of an image in human visual perception as having two parts: projection of unconscious rules guiding our vision and process of inference, which has both conscious and unconscious components. He pointed out that it is the inference tools we use to resolve ambiguity, and it is the results of how we individually resolve ambiguities we find in works of art that are the bases for sometimes widely differing reactions to the same piece of art.

In The Age of Insight, author and neuroscientist, Eric Kandel, explains the contribution to the art-science dialogue of Ernst Kris, a contemporary art historian of Gombrich’s and also a psychoanalyst, as commencing the empirical investigation of processes of perception of both the artist and the beholder. Kris declared that when an artist produces a powerful image out of life experience and conflicts associate with those experiences, that image has in it an inherent ambiguity, which engages the thoughtful viewer. Kandel amplifies this by saying that the extent of the beholder’s share depends on the degree of ambiguity in the work.

Morrison’s thinking about ambiguity is reflected in her interview responses and her work:

“In order to be as free as I possibly can, in my own imagination, I can’t take positions that are closed. Everything I’ve ever done, in the writing world, has been to expand articulation, rather than to close it, to open doors, sometimes, not even closing the book—leaving the endings open for reinterpretation, revisitation, a little ambiguity.”
Salon interview, Feb. 1998

“What difference do it make if the thing you scared of is real or not?”
Song of Solomon

We find Morrison a master practitioner of ambiguity in terms of outright fantasy such as in the opening lines of Beloved where we meet “124”—an address possessing the human capability of being spiteful and performing auto-kinetic demonstrations. Only a few pages later, as we are startled to realize we are inside Sethe’s memory of having to barter sex for the engraving of her toddler’s headstone, we are prompted to turn over whose face has the anger and a new appetite in it, realizing sadly that, whether it is the engraver or his young son looking on, there is a new generation being imbued with racial and probably misogynistic attitudes. Later in the story, we are teased by Faulkner’s brand of magical realism when the look at the threesome going to and coming from the fair with the shadows of their arms and hands appear to be holding hands, though the figures themselves are not. The possibility of a future for them as a threesome is almost palpable—and the central basis for hope in the story. The journey of the spirit portrayed by Morrison in Beloved has ambiguities to be resolved by the characters as well as the readers throughout and the questions that are left for us at the end of the story are truly haunting.

A Few Quotes of Toni Morrison

“I’m interested in the way in which the past affects the present and I think that if we understand a good deal more about history, we automatically understand a great more about contemporary life.” (Time interview, Jan. 21, 1998)

“Love is divine only and difficult always. If you think it is easy you are a fool. If you think it is natural you are blind. It is a learned application without reason or motive except that it is God.”

“What I think the political correctness debate is really about is the power to be able to define. The definers want the power to name. And the defined are now taking that power away from them.”
New York Times Magazine, Sep. 11, 1994

A Few Quotes About Toni Morrison

“I reread Morrison because her imagination, whatever her social purposes, transcends ideology and polemics, and enters again into the literary space occupied only by fantasy and romance of authentic aesthetic dignity.” (Bloom)

“The text of Beloved ends with a call for silence and forgetting, but our response is not that at all…Instead, it is an ironic reminder that the process of consciously remembering not only empowers us to tell the difficult stories that must be passed on, but it also empowers us to make meaning of our individual and collective lives as well.” (Mobley in Bloom)

Selected Awards and Prizes Given to Toni Morrison

  • 1988—Pulitzer Prize for fiction for Beloved (1987)
  • 1993—Nobel Prize in Literature
  • 2001—National Arts and Humanities Award
  • 2010—Officer of the French Legion of Honour
  • 2012—Presidential Medal of Freedom
  • 2014—Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award given by the National Book Critics Circle

Notable Works
Song of Solomon (1977), Beloved (1987)

Harold Bloom. Modern Critical Views: Tony Morrison, 1990.
Kandel, Eric R. The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain
From Vienna 1900 to the Present. New York: Random House, 2012.
“Black Writers in Praise of Toni Morrison,” The New York Times Books January 24, 1988
“Toni Morrison.” Bio. A&E Television Networks, 2015. Web. 17 Aug.
“Toni Morrison.” Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2015. Web. 18 Jun. 2015.
“Toni Morrison – Biographical.” Nobel Media AB 2014. Web. 18 Jun 2015.


Richard Perkins is a regular contributor to The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review and a graduate of The Johns Hopkins University MA in Writing Program. He is writing an historical novel and revising a collection of connected stories.