In the Culture of Mentoring | Julia Leigh and Toni Morrison | Courtesy of Rolex Mentor Protege

NEW YORK CITY |   Sydney novelist Julia Leigh does not expect her mentor to offer “a miracle cure” for her writing but she received strong medicine from the Nobel laureate, African-American author Toni Morrison.

Internationally acclaimed for her 1999 first book The Hunter, Leigh was chosen by Morrison in a competition sponsored by the Swiss watchmaker Rolex. Five emerging talents were picked from 96 candidates in 39 countries to work with masters in various arts.

Leigh, who was 32 years old at the time, received $25,000 US and a year in the US, working on her second novel in regular sessions with the formidable Morrison, a professor of humanities at Princeton University, who was paid $50,000 US for her mentorship.

Having been raised in a family of storytellers who reveled in folklore, Toni Morrison has blended folklore and its rich African-American heritage into her finely wrought novels and essays.

As a girl, Morrison displayed an interest in literature, devouring the works of literary masters such as Tolstoy and Flaubert. She received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Howard University in Washington, D.C. and wrote a thesis on the quintessential Southern author William Faulkner for her 1955 Master’s in English from New York’s Cornell University. Morrison then held a series of teaching posts at leading universities, including Howard University where, at the time of the civil rights movement, she taught English and humanities.

Morrison also nurtured many writers as senior editor for Random House from 1965 to 1983. While editing textbooks and other manuscripts, she completed the first of her seven major novels, The Bluest Eye, published in 1970. This book, which reveals the devastating impact of racism, launched her career as an author of international stature.

toni-morrisonNow aged 88, Morrison has continued producing major works for the past three decades, including Sula (1974), Song of Solomon (1977), Tar Baby (1981), Beloved (1987), Jazz (1987) and Paradise (1998). Among the prestigious literary distinctions she has been awarded for these novels are the National Book Critics Circle Award (1978) for Song of Solomon and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (1988) for Beloved, a wrenching story about slavery. As the world’s first black woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, Morrison was singled out in 1993 for her “novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import” and her masterful use of language.

“I’m not a chatty mentor,“ says Toni Morrison, who acts as a mentor to class after class of Princeton undergraduates. “I’m a working mentor. I can’t talk about nothing. I have to have stuff. It’s not like working with a dancer, who comes in to the teacher every day and can be told: ‘Straighten your leg’.”

Marking up the manuscript

“I left the publishing industry in 1983. Today, there are few real editors any more. The title now is all about acquisitions. It has nothing to do with working on the text. Julia Leigh has never been line edited before which shows you how good she is. Now, when I get her work, I mark it up. We talk about it. What to delete. What to put back. The first time you work that way with someone else is critical. What happens? Are you going to get upset because somebody wrote on your manuscript?”

Learning to rewrite

“Julia got to the point right off. She knows now that what she needs is more of that. We go over every comma, from A to Z. We talk about when to release information, when to withhold it. What the dialogue should sound like. Things like that. There’s a prep-school notion that you get things right the first time. But more you write, the more you realise that you can rewrite. The point, in the end, is to make way for the inevitable.”

When Toni Morrison, born Chloe Anthony Wofford in Midwest America, received the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature from King Carl Gustav of Sweden, she was hailed as one of the outstanding literary figures of our time.

When Toni Morrison, born Chloe Anthony Wofford in Midwest America, received the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature from King Carl Gustav of Sweden, she was hailed as one of the outstanding literary figures of our time.

Although best known for her writing, Toni Morrison is also a lecturer, scholar and a respected teacher. “I take teaching as seriously as I do my writing,” says Morrison, a professor in the Council of the Humanities at Princeton University for the past 13 years. It was at Princeton that she founded, and now directs, an innovative programme called the Princeton Atelier. This unique academic model fosters creative talent by bringing distinguished artists from all fields together with students on campus to collaborate intensively on original performances, productions and exhibitions – works that are then taken to the professional art world.

“Collaborating with artists from different disciplines helps to stretch and freshen one’s own work,” explains Morrison, who has recently expanded her skills by writing lyrics for famous opera singers, including Jessye Norman and Kathleen Battle. “Our legitimacy as artist is bound up in making art matter,” she adds. “Our obligation is to do first-rate work and pass it on.”

In the Culture of Mentoring | Toni Morrison and Julia Leigh | Courtesy of Rolex Mentor Protege

Morrison, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, was made a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters in 1993 and was given the Condorcet Medal in 1994. In 2000, she received the National Humanities medal for her exceptional contributions to the cultural life and thought of her country.

The Hunter tells the dark psychological story of a man on a mission to hunt down the last Tasmanian tiger for cloning, and was written with guidance from Leigh’s previous mentor, the Australian writer Frank Moorhouse.

Among its many honours, The Hunter was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and won the 2001 French Prix d’Astrolabe, and Leigh was named one of 21 writers “for the next millennium” by The Observer in London.

Proteges in other arts were chosen from Jordan, Spain, Argentina and Hong Kong to work with the conductor Sir Colin Davis, choreographer William Forsythe, architect Alvaro Siza and theatre director Robert Wilson.

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