PARIS — Toni Morrison is "beloved" in France, the country's culture minister said Wednesday, as he inducted the celebrated U.S. novelist into the elite Legion of Honor society.
In a ceremony in a gilded hall in the ministry, Frederic Mitterrand pinned a red and gold medal onto the celebrated author's jacket as a scrum of photographers snapped away.
Mitterrand called Morrison – a Nobel laureate and winner of the Pulitzer Prize – "the greatest American novelist of her time."
"I want to tell you that you incarnate what's most beautiful about America ... (that) which gives a black child, born during segregation into a modest family in a medium-sized Ohio city an exceptional destiny," Mitterrand told Morrison, as she listened on from a gilt-covered armchair nearby. "You were the first woman writer to tell the painful history of Afro-Americans."
"I am very moved because I think it's very special to be with you, Toni Morrison, and to be able to tell you how much we admire you and we love you.... You're 'beloved,' he said, with a nod to the 1987 novel "Beloved," which won Morrison international acclaim.
Mitterrand then launched into a reading of an excerpt from the French translation of Morrison's "Jazz."
Taking to the podium after Mitterrand's address, Morrison hailed his rendition as "exquisite."
"I've always felt welcomed in France and especially in Paris, and it's important to me, the receipt of this medal, the Legion of Honor, because now I know in addition to being welcomed, I am prized," said Morrison, her long gray dreadlocks falling in a cascade down her back.
Following the ceremony, journalists swarmed Morrison to get her reaction to the Democrats' defeat in Tuesday's midterm elections.
"I'm not here to talk about Obama, I'm here to talk about me," she eventually said in exasperation, as they continued to pester her.
Morrison, an Ohio native who was born Chloe Anthony Wofford in 1931, began writing in 1970. She won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1993 and a Pulitzer Prize for "Beloved" – which in 2006 was deemed the best American novel of the past 25 years by a group of critics and writers assembled by The New York Times Book Review.
Some of her other works, including "Jazz," "Song of Solomon" and "The Bluest Eye" have also won her worldwide acclaim and have been translated into scores of languages.
With Wednesday's ceremony, Morrison was made an officer in the Legion of Honor. She had already been made a knight in another top French honor society, the Order of Arts and Letters, Mitterrand said.
Created by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802, the Legion of Honor recognizes military, cultural, scientific or social contributions to France, including by people who are not French citizens.