|English major Joe Mancinik with Prof. Toni Morrison
Prior to her appearance at Lisner Auditorium Wednesday night, our English Department blogger Joe Mancinik, along with a few other lucky English majors, sat down for a dinner and conversation with legendary writer, teacher, and intellectual Toni Morrison. This piece is about the experience.
She speaks softly, lyrically, pleasant tongue-clicks. Grace embodied, Have you ever been in the presence of grace? That most rare category of grace that stems from intelligence. The food, the action of chewing, the aroma of spiced shrimp, her metrical intonation, hypnotic and gentle, lulling her dinner audience into a pleasant catalepsy. Something about her voice has a delectable quality that the tongue-clicks and light, mellifluous way she enunciates makes the catered food that much better.
Inspiration, she is asked, where does it come from? “Questions,” she says softly, “I have questions about a subject or a feeling that leads me to write.” Like love, and its manifestations, which led her to write many of her novels, she says. A mother’s love, as in Beloved, or love of God, as in Paradise. When discussing her process as a writer she whispers, as we all lean in (no one is eating though our plates are still full): “Write through the bad stuff.” And then she chuckles.
Of course, the opportunity to really speak to Toni Morrison, to know her, is too brief in such an occasion. The supernumeraries surround her as the dinner is held behind the stage in Lisner Auditorium. She has to prepare for the event that has brought her here in the first place: a reading and remarks she will deliver to a large appreciative audience of GW students, faculty, and members of the community. Professor Morrison has had a full day–just prior to our dinner she had visited the White House–and her son lingers nearby, a solicitous and worried expression on his face. There is love right there, always near her.
Prof. Morrison’s career represents, to a certain extent, triumph and vindication over oppressive forces. I cannot help but contrast that with the historical memory of my own Southern ancestors, to some of whom such a career connotes humiliation, the unraveling of not only a hierarchy but of an image, a way of seeing oneself, which Prof. Morrison points towards in her critical essay Playing in the Dark: Whiteness in the Literary Imagination.
Prof. Morrison warns against nostalgia, and it is true that it does distract. Anything further risks solipsism. I remain grateful for such opportunities as dinner with Toni Morrison, as staged as such things necessarily are, given to me by this university, to open my eyes and my heart to others, to look past all of the ugliness, to grasp a new beauty that lies within each of us and within myself, a new knowledge, a new hope and perhaps, finally, some reckoning.