In prepared remarks, read by prize-winning poet Elizabeth Alexander and shared with The Associated Press by Whiting officials, Morrison noted that as a descendent of slaves she knew well "the struggle to be allowed to learn to read."
"Reading became a hallowed practice in my family," Morrison explained. "With a background of fighting to read, you may understand how much more difficult it would be to write, to invent what one wanted to read."
The 87-year-old author quoted from her debut novel, "The Bluest Eye," and described one sentence as "meant to attract or repulse or simply shock the reader— anything to get her or his attention. " "My sincere congratulations to the winners of the 2018 Whiting Award come from an intimate knowledge of the power and difficulty of the task," she concluded. "Thank you for your work."
Honorees on Wednesday night included poet Tommy Pico, dramatist Nathan Alan Davis, poet-nonfiction writer Anne Boyer and nonfiction writer Esmé Weijun Wang. Other winners were novelists Patty Yumi Cottrell, Brontez Purnell and Weike Wang, poet Rickey Laurentiis and playwrights Antoinette Nwandu and Hansol Jung.
The Whiting Foundation established the awards in 1985 to help writers fulfill the promise of "superior literary work." Previous winners include Michael Cunningham, Jonathan Franzen and Jorie Graham.