African-American literature, Afro-Caribbean culture, Beloved, black writers, Caribbean culture, gender equality, Home, junot Diaz, literature, New York Public Library, Paris Adieu, Paul Holdengraber. Rozsa Gaston, race, Running from Love, Song of Solomon, Sula, Toni Morrison, writing
“Two eyes, one tongue, searching for beauty,” was the seven-word phrase Toni Morrison came up with for Director of Live from NYPL Paul Holdengraber, on Dec. 12, 2013 at New York Public Library. He asks for a seven-word phrase from all his guests. Junot Díaz was co-guest. His phrase? “The poor immigrant kid in this library.”The evening marked the first time Toni Morrison and Junot Díaz shared the stage together. Their conversation? Scintillating.
Toni Morrison talks and Junot Díaz shows us a new way to be a man
at Live from the New York Public Library, Dec. 12, 2013
Rozsa Gaston for Wild River Review
On December 12, the making of a new American hero took place at the New York Public Library.
Not Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison; she already is.
But Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Díaz, who paid homage to Morrison in a one-hour talk.
Díaz doesn’t just talk the talk. He walks the walk of a new way to be a man.
The Dominican-American author opened the conversation by saying “Certainly the axis of the world shifted for me when I first went to college. In my first class, first semester, first week at Rutgers University, I was in my first class with Abena Busia, and she was teaching Song of Solomon. The axis of my world shifted and has never returned.” He referred to Morrison’s 1977 novel, which put her on the map.
Morrison asked, “Has it improved, then, do you think?” Soft-spoken, playful, flirtatious.
Díaz’s response: “Yeah. Much warmer and brilliant place I am in now.” Ungrammatical and unable to take his eyes off Morrison, Díaz appeared captivated by the stunning, 82-year-old woman seated across from him onstage.
Díaz commented that Morrison, as an editor for black authors, shifted the entire canon of black literature. “There was an unspoken premise of your books that there is a black woman as the reader,” he pointed out.
Morrison concurred. “It would be like being Tolstoy. You’re Russian and you write for Russians, not for little colored girls in Ohio. However, once you take your own area in your own soil and dig deep into that, and if you’re good enough at it, it’s available to everybody. You don’t have to direct it at a vague audience that you think is perhaps not yours.”
Díaz brought up the thin line between the animal and the human as “something that occurs throughout your work.” He referred to the image in Morrison’s 2012 book Home of two fighting stallions “that rose up like men. We saw them. Like men they stood.”
“Besides the fact that you can outwrite every motherfucker on the planet, sentence by sentence,” Díaz said, flashing a peace sign to the audience with boyish enthusiasm, “no matter what the hell’s going on in the world, I’m always lying in bed and I’m like, yeah, the best writer in the world is of African descent.”
Morrison responded that when you see those horses stand up and fight, then “you know something about masculinity, beauty, brutality, and power. It’s a way to pull the reader in, so that they have a truly visceral response to a character’s thoughts.”
The beauty of Junot’s own restrained masculinity was on display throughout the evening. His questions were discerning, considered. He didn’t get in the way of Morrison’s responses.
Referencing Morrison’s 1973 novel Sula as an example of female friendship not often explored in literature, Díaz derided the cultural imperative for female characters in literature or “that hetero-normative over-emphasis on the dude who is going to enter her life,” as false. “My sister’s most important relationship was with one of her girlfriends,” he told the audience.
At the end of their discussion, Díaz concluded reverentially: “So, I wanted to thank you, Madame.” Then he turned to the audience, stipulating he would take four questions: two from people under thirty and two from women. In fact, he took questions from three women and one man.
A woman asked which authors had inspired Morrison. Her response was “none.” She paused, then added, “Sometimes a line of poetry will kick something off. I just relish other people’s writings enormously. As an editor, I have to have that separation. The inspiration thing is a little bit overdone.”
With questions over, the audience rose, joining Díaz in a standing ovation for Toni Morrison.
Some of us applauded for Díaz too. He’s showing the world how to be a new kind of man. Not easy for a Dominican-American dude from New Jersey.
Catch the Toni Morrison/Junot Díaz conversation at: http://www.openculture.com/2013/12/watch-toni-morrison-junot-diaz-in-a-live-online-conversation.html
Photos courtesy of Jori Klein/The New York Public Library