Tony Morrison, Solomon Soula, Professor discussed on Slate's Culture Gabfest

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Slash gabfest all right back to the show. Tony morrison was the author of some of the most acclaimed novels in the american cannon. Now release the global literary canon among them song of solomon soula beloved. She wrote her first book. The bluest i i well an editor at random house and raising two children as a single mother she followed it up with soula and then broke fully through into the literary mainstream with song of solomon over the course career she won every conceivable honor up to and including of course the nobel prize for many years. She was a professor at princeton. She was a monumental public figure. In this country in a way that possibly helps us forget that she was above all just an astonishing writer a great novelist. Sir jackson is professor at the annenberg school at the university of pennsylvania selena and she joins us to talk about tony morrison. Welcome to the podcast for having me. Am i right in thinking that in some ways morrison is like you know dickens pickens or shakespeare even now that we need to return her to a human scale in order to understand the magnitude of her greatness somewhat ironically yeah absolutely <hes> i i know that i had seen something somewhere where someone <unk> early on in her career that she was black william faulkner and of course you know she would very much bristled at that for a a lot of reasons of virtue sort of this bigger than life person because she influenced so many people's careers her writing was so fantastic fantastic <hes> and she worked as an editor and hattie no <hes> the power to make way for a lot of particularly black and african american writers in her career ear <hes> and by all accounts you also was just a lovely person. I mean she was human. She had a story she was a child of the great migration you know grew up in ohio working working class and she told me stories that were actually very ordinary stories about black life in america but in a way that was just so fantastic and so eloquent that she really has become you know this sort of legendary figure and she did she did take the we'll call will william faulkner the white tony morrison for this conversation but she did say he did come i did she took something of the density and lyricism awesome of his very american modernism but then made it completely originally her own talk a little bit about the quality of horizon. Oh oh yeah absolutely i mean i still i think anything's it was absolutely groundbreaking and important about her writing was that she showed that the way that we're in class that black people speak is poetic eh literary and so she didn't try to replicate the grates that had come before her. Although she had read many of those grades she wasn't trying to replicate the pros or the cadence of or the style of those crates. She was really writing in a way that was super authentic to the community she was from into the live. She had experienced people in her lives and two lives that were really rarely acknowledged or celebrated in sort of canon literature but at the same time her unique you know cadence word play pros tone. She had a little bit of magical realism in the way she wrote was just so fantastic and so beautiful beautiful that when you read her writing it's you know i mean there have been. There's been outpouring of of folks responding to her. Passing in so many figures ears have said that they her her writing brings them to tears that they have to stop and go back and reread passages because there's lumps in their throat or because they're so inspiring until he really had this really important unique style that also wasn't replicating sort of what was supposed to be acceptable mainstream mainstream way of writing but was really authentic to an honoring where she came from and the people that she was writing about yeah. I mean one of the things that i a one of the things that was going around online <hes> after her passing that i had forgotten about but was from as don't know when the interview took place but she's is be inter- interviewed by a white journalist and the white journalists asked her. You know it's it's it's strange. I'm paraphrasing but she's like. It's strange right right that you don't. You don't really include that many white people in your stories and what do people think about that antonis. Toni morrison's response was just so so it encompasses. I think everything you're saying. Which is that like. She says i think i don't exactly remember what twenty but she she used the word racist she said like you have to understand how like that kind of thinking how that is like a very like implicitly racist things to say or to think <hes> and the fact that morrison was really writing not to a white audience and to black audiences is i think really early different from a lot of the black authors who came before her <hes> as well. We'll certainly at least those that had been acknowledged. <hes> <hes> you know as part of the canon before her i mean yeah absolutely that was what was so significant about what she was doing. There is a school. I can't remember what i'm talk- it came from hers where she said something. She says something like you know. I stood at the edge and claimed that it was central and i made the mainstream come to me ray and so she was very much committed and it was a part of the inherent politics of the work that she was doing in addition to the fact that she was just this foundationally foundationally amazing inspiring moving writer in her her use of the english language and of pros <hes> but she also just insisted assisted that books didn't have to be written for the white gays. They didn't have to be written for white people. They didn't have to be about white characters and yet that those stories stories could still be all the things that had been historically celebrated as canonical <hes> they could still be coming of age stories stories. They could still be intergenerational family stories they could still be about warren conflict in poverty and wealth and you know all these things that are part of the canon without having to center whiteness and she she you know that that that interview that you're referencing. She's so eloquent. I mean that was one of the things a lot of people have talked about really admiring marring about her. Is that her response to that that interviewer. She's completely calm and together and she says you know so. I can see that you can't understand deeply racist. Your assumption is that that i would need to center white characters. You know the journalists you see. She takes like this gulp. We see that the lump in her throat in them and part of it is because toni morrison's poise <hes> in interviews news in in speaking and you know people who have spent time with our have said she was just so <hes> poised that her pros in real life was similarly clearly. You know just undertaking the way that her pose in her books were in terms of just the statuesque -ness of it. I want to ask et cetera. I think the consensus is and it certainly has been my experience as a reader of her work that beloved her. One of the novel won the pulitzer prize for her. <hes> is really her crowning achievement. <hes> is in in in a career that had many many great novels beloved is the one that sort of stands dance head and shoulders above the rest. I think about ten years ago <hes> the new york times book review did a poll of what has been the greatest novel of the past twenty five years and beloved. I was the one that was chosen by the most writers and critics <hes>. Do you think that's appropriate beloved the the stand out among her work. Oh i would never i i mean you know i think there are so many of her novels. I would say of course beloved is one of the most prized and you know the irony of it <hes> winning <hes> <hes> the president has been named one of the most important if not the most important american novel is that at the time that it was released there was actually i understand a bit of controversy where within the literary community folks didn't you'll like it received the the level of respect that it should have avenue actually took time right <hes> for it to become this canonical texts but i mean she has other texts that are are just incredibly <hes> well beloved as well along with beloved which song of solomon in particular is often <hes> named as as one of her most important tax six on the bluest although it was not <hes> awarded the type of prizes and the type of a literary critic critical literary response that beloved song of solomon was the bluest eye many people name as sort of the most influential of her novels or the one that the most people have read or have personal experiences in reaction to <hes> but all of her books <hes> tar baby <hes> paradise jazz. You know i mean so many of them are unique <hes> but certainly i think that beloved and song of solomon in particular are to do that in literary circles are often held up as sort of the the tony morrison novels to read before we wrap up the segment and obviously there's no way that we could do complete justice morison's legacy in such a short amount of time but <hes> one of the reasons we wanted to have you on to talk about this was because you share this really lovely twitter thread last week right after her passing about your experience <hes> with encountering morrison's work and when another student encountered conjured her work for the first time. Would you mind just sharing that with our listeners. Sure sure yeah and i'll i'll paraphrase a little bit but you know this was a story from for many years ago when i was a student and in a classroom in i had a friend in the classroom who was african american but had been adopted by a white family in in had grown up in a predominantly white really white religious community where there was very little sort of diversity and hadn't really been exposed <hes> too many he <hes> stories about black life or black american experiences and in this particular class <hes> we the first book we read it was a african american literature class in the first book that we read was in fact the bluest eye and there was this experience that you know now i am an educator and i've had many moving in sometime startling sometimes difficult moments in classrooms with students where people react to content all kinds of different ways his but to this day was still one of the most kind of emotional moments that i've experienced in a classroom <hes> where when the professor asks for responses to the bluest eye he he raised his hand and said you know i didn't know that black people could write books and i didn't know that black people could write like this and there was just this silence for in room where he was on the verge of tears on sort of naming this out loud and <hes> you know for certain people you know i mean it was interesting because <hes> on twitter i had people respond. How is that possible you know toni morrison's canonical etc but depending on your age depending on where you went to school in where he grew up it is very very possible you know to get to college and never have have read a black author <hes> and that was his experience and he he told us that he had already read it twice you know in susan assigned reading in class and it was is just such a sort of moving unsettling experienced that he very clearly was seeing something yet and you know kind of reported seeing a lot of his own life and his own experiences in this story <hes> he had never really seen reflected on the page before or been able to name before for <hes> into that speaks to something beyond the fact you know the the professor in our class was actually painted asking us to engage in literary criticism you know talk about the use salaam pros and this and that text but that outside of all that the powerful the powerful in what is powerful backer stories is awaited waited they hold up a mirror to people's lives that often don't or might not see themselves reflected in literature particularly you know at the time that she was writing in writing that was true <hes> until yeah. I mean not something that has always stuck with me now that i'm an educator just the power that <hes> you know having in texts written by black authors can have <hes> in the classroom is something that has always really stuck with me..

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