Toni Morrison was the speaker at a wonderful book talk hosted by the Brooklyn Public Library and our neighborhood's Community Bookstore, at the synagogue Beth Elohim in Park Slope, in Brooklyn, New York. Toni Morrison was interviewed by a Princeton Professor, an expert on the writings of Ms. Morrison. The event was sold out in advance, and lines to enter the building and attend the event started at 6:30 pm. I had set my iPhone clock alarm for 6:00, so I would leave the house on time, and get there early to avoid standing on line for too long. Procrastinating as ever, and printing out my ticket at the last minute. I left the house at 6:15 and walked over. I ran into a friend of mine from my Brooklyn Bookclub, and joined her on line. We found seats in the middle not too far back and sat together, chatting to fill the time until the event began. Being able to share this experience with my friend made, what felt like an important event, even more fun. My friend confided that when she had heard it announced that Toni Morrison had won the Nobel Prize in 1993, she had danced happily around her apartment in celebration of the world's recognition of this great writer.
It turns out that Ms. Morrison is in a wheel chair now. I didn't know. The audience started clapping in appreciation of her, and rose to stand and clap some more, as Toni Morrison was wheeled onto the stage. Toni Morrison's face was clear and radiant, and she had a queenly presence sitting before us all, in her wheelchair, nodding to us in acknowledgment of our accolades. I liked that she took care of herself and was not afraid or ashamed to ask to be made more comfortable, by having the position of her wheelchair adjusted so that she faced the interviewer at an angle and did not have to turn her head repeatedly during the discussion. It was interesting to learn that Toni Morrison taught at colleges throughout her life and presented many academic lectures, including some series of lectures at Harvard University. She mentioned presently working on a paper about what allows us to belong, and not be an other, in today's society.
Ms. Morrison was promoting her latest book, now out in paperback, "God Help the Child." She spoke about the characters in this most recent novel, and ones in prior novels. She started off by saying that her characters in "God Help the Child" are unreliable, and the audience laughed in appreciation. She went on to say that she had wanted to title the book, "The Wraith of the Children," but her editors at Knopf did not like that title. The audience at Beth Elohim, did not agree with Knopf, and applauded Morrison's original title.
Morrison talked about talking for one of her characters who had lost his voice box and could not speak for himself. She listed novels by other authors in which the good characters often had not much of a voice, for example, in one book there was one character who stuttered. Morrison opined that "Goodness is more interesting than evil. It's more complex."
Upon being asked about what advice she would give to young writers, she said that she would tell them to write about what they didn't know, to make something up. "Forget yourself, invent something, and move along." Morrison pointed out that young people in their 20's didn't know enough about life yet. Her advice was the opposite of what one usually hears. Most authors, when asked this question will advise you to write about what is close to you and what you know. Morrison felt that her aspiring student writers should wait until their 50's to do that, because, only then would they have life experience and be ready to write about what they knew. As to writing about what she knows best, herself, Morrison noted that there was no memoir on the horizon because, "They won't let me lie, so what's the point?" But this latest novel is not to be her last. When asked if she is working on her next novel, Morrison replied that "It is the best thing I have ever written. So far, the title is "Justice"."
At the end of the evening in answer to one of the questions submitted by members of the audience on white index cards, Toni Morrison harked back to one part of one of her books that was most meaningful to her. I believe it was her novel, "Sula." Her character cries out at her friends death. Ms. Morrison repeated that cry, a few times, so that we in the audience really heard it, the sound her character made in grief. She then said that it meant that her character was mourning not just her friend's death, but the fact that she hadn't done enough. Ms. Morrison extended that to our collective selves, asking us, "isn't it true that none of us have done enough? Think of all the things you could have done for someone you love, tiny things. There are moments when each one of us could have done one more thing, and we didn't because it was easier to not do it." Her thoughts and feelings resonated with the audience.
My son, Josh, and his girlfriend, Elena, were off work today, and as a treat for my husband and myself, went to a dim sum parlor in Sunset Park, and brought back a big bag of freshly made dim sum, consisting of sticky rice, all sorts of our favorite dumplings, and some eggplant with black bean sauce. The four of us had a brunch time feast together, and caught up on what was happening in our lives, and in the world. Remarkably, and thankfully, little was said about the recent Iowa caucus. During the conversation I mentioned the book talk with Toni Morrison. My son went into his old bedroom and got out a couple of Morrison's novels that he had read in college. The pages were marked with his underlines, and notes. Morrison, was one of his favorite authors in college. He told us that he remembered that in one of the novels he read, and he could not remember which one (no worries, as Morrison could not remember the titles of some of the novels she had written - and we who are at that stage of life understand completely), the author described grandchildren coming to visit their grandmother. The grandmother missed color in her life and would have the grandchildren wear colorful clothes or bring colorful things when they would come to visit her. When they would forget to do so, she would have them stick out their tongues, so she could see some color. What a great story in the retelling.
I am sad to admit that I have not read much of Toni Morrison in my lifetime. I imagine there are many out there like me, who may only know of her work, by the movie based upon her novel, "Beloved." I am inspired by having heard Toni Morrison speak about her work and life, and look forward to reading her novels. If you want to see clips of Morrison speaking first hand, check out You Tube - there is a lot out there. You will see first hand that Toni Morrison is a powerful speaker, and such an interesting individual, a treasure of our human race.