Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison addresses race, writing, citizenship

By Matthew Stone

Striking a conversational, spontaneous tone and interspersing her remarks with witty asides, Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison last Tuesday introduced a packed and engaged audience to her writing process and explained the issues addressed in her written works.Morrison, in delivering Tuesday’s convocation address, became the third high-profile speaker since March to visit campus for the inauguration of the Institute for Global Citizenship.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman kicked off the speaker series in March, followed by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan ’61, who spoke here and attended a luncheon in April. The Institute is an ongoing bureaucratic reorganization that administrators say will incorporate a trained focus on global citizenship throughout the college.

In her speech, Morrison briefly noted that her visit was in service to the Institute. She said that now is a “critical” time to engage in global affairs as a citizen.

“A lot of energy and intelligence are put in the service of limitations, of defining borders, whether they’re cultural, political or racial,” said Morrison, a Princeton University professor and 1993 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Should such trends continue, Morrison said, grave days loom ahead for the state of education, when it becomes a challenge to preserve “unbought [sic] science, sound history, integrity of art [and] not its celebrity.”

Morrison devoted the remainder of her address to discussing her written works, which include eight books that have garnered widespread acclaim. In May, The New York Times named her novel “Beloved” as the “best work of American fiction of last 25 years.” (She later called the idea of ranking novels “unwise” in response to an audience question.)

Quoting extensively from her works, Morrison described her writing process.

“The ending is the heart of the narrative,” she said. “I cannot begin a book until I know the ending.”

Morrison counted handling characters who have lives of their own as among her writing challenges.

Characters can “talk for years,” Morrison said. “You have to shut them off if you want to do something different.”

Morrison said that in her writing, she has tried to explore various themes, including civil rights, the women’s movement and men.

The latter theme proved to be “very different writing,” Morrison said.

“[Men] seemed so complex,” she recounted. “What I was not prepared for was the overwhelming presence of women in their lives. I was dumbfounded.”

The author lost track of time and, after speaking for an hour, asked for the time and promptly cut off her speech.

“That’s the end of this,” she said.

The subsequent audience questions focused largely on Morrison’s writing.

Responding to one question, she said that she, as a black woman writer, would not compromise her writing in order to gain acceptance from white readers.

“I’ve spent all this time over at the edge and you all have to come over here,” she said.

Morrison evaded a question from a student seeking the author’s input on how the Institute for Global Citizenship could retain “integrity” and avoid “demarcation” from other sections of the college.

“Invite people like me,” she said flippantly.

Students appeared to have warmly welcomed Morrison to campus.

Sonia Hazard ’08 said that she was glad to hear a woman speaker after two male speakers–Friedman and Annan.

“I loved that she actually talked about her work and not that damn Institute for Global Citizenship,” Hazard said.

Newly arrived at Macalester, Paul Richie ’10 praised Morrison for her ability to touch on multiple topics within the course of her speech and the question-and-answer session.

“She never seemed out of her element,” he said.