Oprah Winfrey and Toni Morrison: live at the UIC Forum
A testament to the power of literature
Oprah Winfrey and Toni Morrison in conversation onstage at the UIC Forum Wednesday night. ďOnly you, and books, could get me out on a school night,Ē Winfrey told the Nobel Prize-winning author.
Photo: Roberta Dupuis-Devlin
Oprah Winfrey and Toni Morrison, two women who need no introduction, took the stage at the UIC Forum Wednesday night to talk about ó what else? ó the power of literature.
The occasion could not have been more appropriate: the Chicago Public Library Foundationís Carl Sandburg Literary Awards Dinner, where the cityís movers and shakers gathered at a $1,000 to $2,500 per-ticket fundraiser to benefit the libraries.
There were remarks by Jayne Carr Thompson, president of the library board, former first lady of Illinois and a 1967 UIC alumna, and Mayor Richard Daley, whose father helped make UIC a reality. Jim Tyree, CEO of Mesirow Financial, who received an honorary degree from UIC in 2007, presented Morrison with the Carl Sandburg Literary Award.
Then Winfrey, a one-woman media empire, and Morrison, winner of both the Nobel and Pulitzer prizes, settled into comfy armchairs onstage.
ďOnly you, and books, could get me out on a school night,Ē Winfrey said to Morrison.
ďToni Morrison is my favorite author of all time, living or dead,Ē she told the audience, noting that four of Morrisonís 12 books have been Oprahís Book Club selections.
Their relaxed conversation covered Morrisonís early career (she was a single mother of two and a Random House textbook editor when her first novel, The Bluest Eye, was published), her later success, and the writing process itself.
Here are excerpts from their discussion:
OW: ďWriting is at being at the marrow,Ē you said, ďthatís where the excitement is. That is where the journey of good books should lead you.Ē What is your process for getting to the marrow?
TM: I have an idea, a question, an inquiry ó what does this really mean? ó about incidents, locations. Then I have to gather some people, some characters who can work it out for me. Then I have to get to know them, their names. I donít judge them, I bear witness and let them work it out.
OW: Do they tell you who they are?
TM: They try, but I have to tell you, theyíre like ghosts. They just talk all the time and they donít have interest in anything but themselves. I have to shut them up sometimes.
OW: You published your first novel to condescending reviews Ö
TM: All of them were condescending, except one.
The writing process was so exciting to me. I never expected an audience. I thought 100 people would buy the book, and 100 people did (she laughs).
Then the womenís movement was getting started, and the City Colleges of New York decided on a list of books for their students to read. One of them was The Bluest Eye, so 15,000 people every year had to get The Bluest Eye. And it sort of began.
I worked in publishing, I had no illusions about how fast it was going to happen. I got 12 rejections for The Bluest Eye.
OW: What kept you going?
TM: Arrogance, I guess. I love to read and I know the difference between whatís good and whatís bad. And I thought they were wrong. I thought, what did they know?
Sassy outlaw women
OW: What do you love to read?
TM: My habit now is to read things again. Last year I was reading Dickens (Bleak House) slowly, just savoring. Faulkner, the Russians. Once in a while I get a brand new book thatís really quite stunning.
I read detective stories, Carl Hiaasen, all sorts of wonderful, entertaining things. The really good stuff, though Ö the discovery is so exciting, itís a kind of threat in a sense. I have to wait. Iím not reading anything when Iím writing.
OW: All your books engage the outlaw woman.
TM: Iím interested in sassy outlaw women, particularly if theyíre African American.
OW: Do any of these characters represent you?
TM: Heavens, no. I wish I could have been an outlaw girl. This is the outlaw role I lead now, as a writer.
OW: Song of Solomon was really your breakout book. Why was America ready for that book?
TM: Because it was about men. It was a male-centered book. It was difficult for me to enter into the head, the imagination of a man. I wanted to be correct, look at it from the inside, and stepping into that male space was very hard for me.
Race, gender and identity
OW: Much of the criticism written about your work is an outrage ó much of it is centered on identity politics, race and gender. Are you tired of that?
TM: Itís changing, Oprah. In the beginning, every book that was mine, an African American, was perceived to be only about that. And the presumed reader of many African American books were white people Ö Invisible Man? Invisible to whom? Not to me.
I didnít want to write for that audience, but I didnít want to make it so parochial that people outside the race would feel excluded. I wanted to be both culturally specific and universal.
My guide was the Russian writers, who were very Russian. They werenít writing for little girls in Ohio. But I got it.
OW: A 2004 report by the National Endowment for the Arts found an alarming decline in the number of Americans who read literary works. Why should we continue to champion reading?
TM: Language is what human beings do. Unlike cabbages and stalks of corn, we have language. I happen not to remember my life before I could read. Thatís the beginning of being in the world for me.
Why does it have to be easy? If itís easy, itís untrustworthy in a sense. I get dispirited when people say (of her work), itís hard. I donít use any strange words. Even if it were hard, itís rewarding.
Worth every prize
OW: Are you writing anything now?
TM: I have about 120 pages. I have to do a lot of research, though. Itís about a period that I thought I knew very well ó the í50s. I donít know anything. We think of Doris Day, post war, the GI Bill, happy, happy. But at the same time there was McCarthy, the Korean War ó 65,000 people died. There was outrageous violence and racism ó Emmett Till.
OW: All these awards: what do they mean to you?
TM: I never thought about prizes. But every one Iíve every gotten seemed right. The Nobel ó I thought, ĎWhy, of course.í Itís not about me, though. I thought the work was worthy and I always have thought that. The books are worth these prizes, whether they awarded them to me or not.
OW: What brings you pleasure?
TM: When Iím not reading and not writing? O God, I wonder what that would be. I used to garden ... I donít have any real other life. Thatís the way I am.
Iím afraid to be in the world without books. If I were to be in a situation where there were no books, then I would just have to write them.
Below: ďToni Morrison is my favorite author of all time, living or dead,Ē Oprah Winfrey said as she began her interview with Morrison, right.
Photo: Roberta Dupuis-Devlin