April 27, 2011

Guest Speaker

Yesterday, I had the good fortune of attending a reading/talk with Nobel-prize winning author Toni Morrison. 

By now, you very likely have heard about the Rutgers Snooki scandal (just to sum things up: Rutgers paid Morrison 30K to appear.  Rutgers paid Snooki 32K to speak.  Anyone else sick to their stomach?).  I’m not going to rant about this.  I’m also not going to talk about the ethics of a public university which serves a largely under-funded student body spending so many zeroes on things like guest speakers.  Notably, I do not believe that the reading which I attended was part of Morrison’s 30K commencement speech deal.  I’m not entirely certain how/why Morrison wound up in Newark, but I’m frightfully glad that she did.

As an added bonus, we were graced with the presence of Newark’s Mayor Cory Booker who has been making a real splash on the political scene with the things that he’s done for this city.  He’s an articulate, smart, passionate individual and it was a true joy to heard him give Morrison’s introduction.

When Morrison took the stage, I noticed a few things instantly.  First: Toni Morrison is old!  She’s an eighty-year-old woman!  They wheeled her on and off the stage in a wheelchair, though she managed to walk herself to the center-stage table where they had a seat prepared for her.  I suppose I’ve never really thought about her age; like all literary figures she’s ageless to me.  In addition, with the frequent highly sexual and sexualized nature of her works, I don’t really want to think of her as a grandma.

She still has her trademark dreads (though they’re a lovely silver color) and she wore them back in a pink bandana.  Her voice is rich and soothing with an occasional Southern-esque drawl to it which comes out more the more she speaks.  She started out faltering with frequent pauses, but as she became comfortable lit up the stage with energy, light, and life.

She read us a section of a work in progress (which was a treat in and of its own right).  Sitting in the room with hundreds of other people, somehow as she was reading I was brought right up next to her.  As my imagination collided with hers (an image which she herself used in describing fiction), I was no longer seated in an audience but rather in her living room.  She was speaking directly to me, telling me the story, making sure I was listening, seeing what I thought about her work… I would have listened to her go on all day.

Of course she’s a transcendent writer, but more than that she’s an engaging person.  She answers questions with grace and personality, never lacking in an entertaining anecdote which clearly displays her fearlessness.

Toni Morrison writes the sublime (and I mean that in a very aesthetic sense).  Her writing isn’t pretty or neat, it’s not tidy or simple.  Instead, it’s raw and deeply deeply uncomfortable.  I have trouble picking up her books because I know that the entire time I am reading them my stomach will be in knots.  Her books are terrible, powerful, and beautiful.  They are not something I willingly subject myself to more than once every few years.

So to see this little old woman speaking… this little old woman whose mind does and has encompassed and encompasses such genius… is like being in the presence of a true divine conductor.  It’s like some greater literary power flows down through her; like she channels the soul of an age and transmits it to paper and there it is, for all to see.

Maybe it’s time for me to pick up Song of Solomon… it’s been at least six months since I’ve considered slitting my wrists as a direct result of a piece of literature.

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