English student meets her muse
May 20, 2009
By: Aretha Phiri
She is the equivalent of a rock star in the literary world. Waiting for her to enter the room packed (even to the aisles) with enthusiasts, you could have sworn we were awaiting the arrival of a mega superstar the likes of Bono, Sting, or Michael Jackson. And the tremendous and hearty applause that greeted her as she made her way into the room and onto the podium is testimony to her reputation.
|Aretha and author Toni Morrison|
Ms Toni Morrison has been in the business of writing literature for at least fifty years now. She has published nine (of her own) fiction novels as well as three (non-fiction) literary criticisms. Morrison is highly respected (not only) in the field of literature and that she has been the recipient of multiple literary accolades, including the Pulitzer Prize for fiction (1988) and the Nobel Prize for literature (1993), is testament to her enduring talent.
Words can hardly express my elation at meeting the woman who has occupied my life for over five years now. Rarely do students get to meet someone of such calibre and who is also the subject of their dissertation. As I sat in a conference room on 18 May at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris where I am on exchange for six months, listening to Morrison read from three of her novels Beloved, Jazz, and her latest, A Mercy, I couldn’t help feeling overwhelmingly blessed.
Her presence can best be described as exhilarating. Her aura is soft and endearing, almost maternal. But beneath it there lies a hint of unintimidated strength. She has, after all, been described by her peers as “fearless”. It is when Morrison opens her mouth to speak that one gets a hint of her ‘fearlessness’. Her voice has a lyrical cadence. It often hits a high, pregnant note, but just when you think you’ve got the tempo, she defies expectation, changing the pace and even the tune. You never know what to expect but it just flows and sounds so darned good.
This is not unlike her writing actually, which is poetic but not sentimental. It resists singular, closed interpretations and is consistently open to the reader’s participation. I was introduced to Morrison’s literature in my first year studying English. Her novels are typically difficult and haunting. But they are extremely engaging and make one think critically about history and identity. Morrison’s reader is always implicated in the community, and that’s probably why, from the evidence in the room, she has such a large inter-racial and cross-cultural following.
After the reading, I was privileged to speak to Morrison personally. She has a cheeky sense of humour. When I explained that I was investigating the construction of racial identity in her work, she responded, “Good luck!” Race is a prickly issue for Morrison and she has famously stated that she writes “black” literature for “black” people. Although I am black myself, I have always been wary as to what that meant. Was that a racially affirming or racist statement? When I asked her about this, she responded with a question. “Do people ever ask why Joyce wrote particularly for the Irish? Or Tolstoy for the Russians?” I had to admit that this had never been “an issue” because the subject had never been raised. “So,” she concluded, “why is it when a black person says he/she is writing for blacks people respond in furore?” Morrison is like that. She is not dismissive; she just has no patience for myopic positions. Neither will she be drawn into superficial debates. An almost similar question was asked in her reading by an audience member. “Ms Morrison, who do you write for?” Her reply? “The best reader I can imagine. Me!”