My wonderful friend Haylz decided to treat a couple of us November babies to an interview with Toni Morrison in SF.
I was excited, but Haylz asked us about this months ago. It's like the time she bought tickets to see Gwen Stefani, and I completely forgot about the concert until like three days before...that Haylz...delayed gratification all the way around :p.
Anyway, I was excited but not entirely aware of how strongly I am in awe of Toni Morrison. That is, until I walked into the Mason Auditorium and saw her walk out on stage. Suddenly, I remembered how many times I've read Beloved, and how I loved but struggled to understand Jazz. I remembered how my grandmother was so confused over why my dad would want to read Song of Solomon so much as to request it for a Christmas present. I remembered how happy my dad was to get that book that my grandma begrudgingly bought him.
I often feel like a horrible English major. I can't quite Chaucer. I loathe the Romantics (with the possible exception of John Donne, but, really, an exception has to be made for a poet who compares orgasms to itches of fleas). I can't tell you about the lost loves of Emily Dickinson). Yet, when Ms. Morrison opened her mouth and began naming authors, I felt at home. James Baldwin! Richard Wright! Ralph Ellison! Zora Neale Hurston! Virginia Woolf! William Faulkner! Yes! I know your predecessors, Ms. Morrison. I know and understand what you're talking about! I really am an English major, just a different sort than people would expect.
Ms. Morrison speckled her conversation with humor, even cracking herself up once, and when the interviewer didn't get the joke, she paused, looked at him and said, "Well, I thought it was funny."
My favorite moment, though, came when an English major of the more typical sort asked Ms. Morrison if she had intended Sula to have so many similarities to Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!. Ms. Morrison said, and I quote loosely here, "Not that I'm aware of...in fact, if I had been aware of it, I would have stopped writing someone else's book." I thought that her answer was perfect. She confirmed what I always suspected, that many authors don't intentionally weave in symbols...the symbols are innate in the story. She even mentioned reading an article that declared that Sula was really, secretly, a lesbian novel. She looked at the audience, gave a mysterious grin and said, "If I wanted to write a lesbian novel, I'd write a lesbian novel...and I'd do it up right."
I knew it!
I can't say that's true for every last author and poet whose work I spent hours analyzing and theorizing over and writing thesis statements about said analyzing and theorizing, but it is, at least, confirmed, that Toni Morrison writes to tell a story and not to trip her readers on hidden symbols and tricky meanings.
The conversation wrapped up, and we were released back into the crisp San Francisco air. I feel replenished as a reader, writer and degree holding English major.
So, thank you, Haylz. You gave me a gift I really needed - perhaps I should write that up in a thank you note ;).