by Lake Bunkley
Hilton Als, a theatre critic at The New Yorker magazine, joined Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison for a discussion of her books, her life and race’s role in both. The talk was part of The New Yorker’s New Yorker Festival—an annual event spanning three early-October days and nights, all of which brought icons from the world of letters to the public sphere. Hence Toni Morrison’s spearheading the festival; for who but the “matriarch of American literature,” as a fan called her when questions were fielded from the audience, would be fit to inaugurate our nation’s book-savviest celebration? Other Festival-attending literary luminaries included Don Delillo, this year’s recipient of the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, Lin-Manuel Miranda of “Hamilton,” and recent awardee of the MacArthur Fellowship, Ta-Nehisi Coates.
The night began with a wheel-chaired Toni Morrison helped up the stage by Als and some aides. The whole affair, awkward though it was, resembled more a monarch being carried in a litter than anything else. Upon taking the stage, Morrison made a comment about the quality of her entrance, only some of it discernable. Her naturally soft voice, made softer by age and as yet un-microphoned, was hardly audible; nonetheless the ensuing laughter set the tone for the rest of the evening.
Indeed, this conversation with the author could easily have been mistaken for an interview with a comedian—so often did Ms. Morrison have the audience at in laughter. She shared many an anecdote, some old, like her father’s forbidding white people in the house, and some new: in her youth Ms. Morrison did some acting, and admits that the role she was best in was that of Queen Elizabeth in Shakespeare’s “Richard III.” And it’s hard to call this fact—though new—surprising, as regality is a word oft-employed when Toni Morrison is mentioned. Toni herself was oft-employed, too, she revealed. One of her first jobs: a pseudo-housemaid job in a white woman’s house. Morrison, at the time, was adolescent and couldn’t bear her employer. So she complained to her father, who reminded her “you don’t live there. You live here” and that she ought to just go to work, get your money, and come home. “And I’ve never had a problem with employment since,” Toni ended the tale.
Morrison’s frequent discussion of her father throughout the conversation was not wholly happenstance. Hilton Als—when he introduced Morrison with a half-eulogy, half-curriculum vitae—set parameters for the conversation. He wanted special attention paid to the male black body, and hoped to use Morrison’s oeuvre as lens through which to view recent brutalization of black citizens and lodestone to which to return after discussion. Morrison adhered to this suggested conversational route whenever she remembered to, but more often she was discursive, taking whatever trains of thought arrived. And this is when Toni Morrison the Figure gave way to Toni Morrison the person—the Toni Morrison who dislikes the title of her most recent novel, “God Help the Child,” and of her earlier works “Song of Solomon and Paradise,” which, she told the audience, she wanted to name “War.” The conversational aspect of the conversation truly made the discussion personal and accessible.
Lake Bunkley is a Contributing Writer. Email her at email@example.com