Critical Mass

PEN World Voices: Toni Morrison, Critic, Offers a Rave Review

By Jane Ciabattari

PEN president K. Anthony Appiah was the eloquent master of ceremonies on Saturday afternoon, May 1, unruffled despite flaws in the sound system, as the venerable and stately Toni Morrison, reigning US Nobel laureate, in a remarkable show of writerly generosity, came onstage at the Grand Hall in Cooper Union to voice her enthusiasm for Agaat, a second novel written in Afrikaans by the South African writers Marlene van Nieker, and published by Tin House Press, whose editor Rob Spillman fell for the book in manuscript.

Toni Morrison was nursing a new hip replacement, but that did not dampen her spirit as she pronounced her assessment: “I was not in a reading mood. I had just been the hospital. I had a horrible hip problem. I opened this book, and I was totally taken in by it instantly. I wasn’t sure who was speaking. I was drawn in by the sensibility. I read it through. It took me two days. It is so beautifully written, so interesting in its architecture, which is where reading really lives. It was fully imagined.”

She paused, and made a wry aside. “There are all the lit crit terms.” Morrison gave a bit of plot summary (details here).

Then she delivered the kicker: “This is absolutely the most extraordinary book I”ve read in a long time. You must read it.”  

When Morrison speaks, we listen. Read an excerpt from Agaat here and  another one here.

The ensuing conversation ranged widely. 

Morrison described Milla, the South African white woman who unable to move, even to open her eyes,  helpless without the care of her black South African companion of 40 years, as “manipulative” and “controlling,” adding, “I felt she was wrong in many instincts, overbearing. The magical thing is how Agaat resists while working with her. She’s loyal not because Milla deserves it, but because that’s just who she is.”

“I think Milla is truly a bitch,” van Niekerk said bluntly.

This led to a discussion of South African politics as also being gender politics. “It’s quite a harsh world,” she said. She later acknowledged that Afrikaans, the language of apartheid, was “an indigenous language with a sorry history,” but added, “You don’t want to lose the tongue. Also you want to acknowledge its history, and try to remedy it.”

At question time, Morrison offered a couple of topical pronouncements. As for which American writer(s) might deserve a Nobel, she carefully avoided mentioning contemporaries. “I’ve always thought the people deserving the Nobel Prize for Literature in this country were playwrights—Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller,…They gave one to Dario Fo.” 

Asked if she believed the US was a post-racial society she said, “I never thought the post-racial idea was real. It’s like a fantasy to me. A good fantasy, but not real. The election of Barack Obama was an occasion for conversation about the possibility of a  post-racial world. I find now there’s really no way to talk about race….. The race is the least important information we get about a human being.”

At the wrap-up, van Niekerk offered up her own recommendation: Native Nostalgia, by Jacob Dlamini, a new young writer worth reading.  “He writes from a black perspective about life during apartheid. He’s quite succinct in rejecting the notion of victimhood; he’s reclaiming cultural dignity.” 

Dlamini, a PhD student at Yale, revisits his boyhood township with Walter Benjamin’s Berlin Childhood Around 1900 in hand. She produced the book, and Appiah held it up.  One more recommendation of one writer by another,  thanks to PEN World Voices Festival.