Today's post comes from the pen (OK, keyboard) of guest blogger and friend Martin Moulton who was lucky enough to attend this event last night.
Nobel Laureate and American novelist Toni Morrison will never need to make public appearances to sell her novels, so when she said that she relished events like the one held Thursday night at the Historic Sixth & I Synagogue in Downtown Washington DC, she gave the impression that she really meant it. "This is one of the few ways to get to meet real live breathing readers.” And many of her readers filled the gorgeous sanctuary to capacity, including it's upper balconies and welcomed the writer and icon of modern African American fiction with a standing ovation even before she reached the podium. All this was hardly a surprise since this event was one of Sixth & I's special events that sold out month's before it actually opened. (So it was particularly marvelous to have a friend at Sixth & I who could reserve a seat in the first four pews of the sanctuary for special humble and thankful guests like me.) Ms Morrison did a reading from her newest novel A Mercy. The New York Times has already heralded Morrison's latest work as one of the top ten best books of 2008.
A Mercy illustrates the rough terrain in the land yet to be formally organized as the United States when most people — whether they were Native American, African natives, or those of European descent working as indentured servants— worked in veritable slavery. Ms Morrison noted that most great nations in the world had their beginnings rooted in the enslavement of large portions of their populations. But it her novel she begins at a time before slavery had been codified as a distinctly racial institution in America. One scene in the novel gives a fictional account of the historical 1676 Bacon's Rebellion in Virginia which led to laws which made it legal for white gentry to kill or remove Native Americans and kill African American at will without fear of reprisal.
Morrison's reading focused on a story of love in the time of pox, between a black slave woman and her owner. When asked if she might ever focus her writings on something other than slavery (which has only been the setting for three of her novels), Morrison noted, "There can be no final story on 400 years of slavery. There can be no final story on the Holocaust which nails it shut. There can be no final story about wars or other aspects of human history because events happened to real people with real lives."
During a lengthy Q&A session after the reading, a member of the audience asked if Morrison considered herself a regional writer since she often writes about Ohio and other parts of America's heartland. Morrison responded directly noting that historically "regional writer" was used as a pejorative term against women writers, noting the popular notions about Eudora Welty as a "regional writer" — as if to say that these women writers' "regional" work did not sufficiently carry the weight to speak to national or even universal subjects and ideas.
Morrison said she came to the title of the novel, much like her many other books with brief even one-word titles because "words as titles have a resonance beyond their denotation and connotations." In the case of A Mercy, she suggested that "only God grants miracles, but only humans can offer a mercy" to one another.
Morrison holds a BA in English from Howard University and a Masters in English from Cornell University. She has been a professor at Howard, Texas Southern University, State University of New York and Princeton University. She currently serves on the editorial board of The Nation magazine.
Martin Moulton - Shaw Resident