When Maya Angelou was honoured at the USA’s 2013 National Book Awards, it was Toni Morrison who presented her with the Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community.
At the ceremony, Morrison spoke with clear emotion of her ‘personal pleasure’ at being able to hand over the prize to a friend who ‘inspires delight as well as awe’.
Now both in their eighties, it wasn’t the first time that one of these grandes dames of American letters had taken the opportunity to lavish praise on the other in public. The previous year, Angelou was a member of an all-female trio who hosted an event called Sheer Good Fortune in honour of Toni Morrison.
The title was inspired by the dedication from the author’s novel Sula, ‘It is sheer good fortune to miss somebody long before they leave you’, and this sentiment is clearly something that her friend has taken to heart for some time. When Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature back in 1993, Angelou decided to throw her a party because, as she would later recall, she felt it was something the United States should have done.
As two African Americans, two women, two writers of a similar age, these two have sometimes found themselves grouped together for the crudest of reasons. Morrison in particular has sometimes been keen to distance herself from Angelou in a literary sense – describing the author of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings as a very different writer from her.
Nonetheless, they clearly have the greatest respect for each other, both as artists and women. As Angelou says they have been ‘sister friends’ for decades, and have been able to call on each other over the years for personal as well as public support.
They especially enjoyed being able to bond with each other at a past book festival at Wales’s Hay on Wye, when both were far away from home at a time when their mothers were ill. And, as Morrison recalled in her recent awards tribute speech for her friend, when her son died one Christmas, Angelou was the very first non-family member to call her up on the phone with what she describes as ‘that unmistakable voice of sheer balm’.
In Toni Morrison’s recent speech to honour her friend, she described Maya Angelou’s many attributes, which range from the artistic to the personal to the culinary. As she says, ‘Maya can cook.’
This month we’re challenging ourselves to make lists of all the things we admire in each other and then we’re going to do something creative with it. Maybe we’ll polish up the wording and mount it on a card or, like Morrison, we might turn it into a crafted prose piece, or perhaps a poem. Or we could come at things from a different angle entirely, working parts of our lists into a painting or collage, even icing them onto a cake.
We’ll be letting you know what we decide to do and showing you something of what we produce.
We are interested in hearing recommendations of other female writing friendships that we could showcase on this site. If you know of a literary pair of women, past or present, who have supported each other’s work, do please get in touch.