LIVE FROM THE NYPL
Shifting a Literary Axis:
Toni Morrison and Junot Diaz in Conversation
“I think the most sustained love of mine, the one that’s carried me through all these years, is my relationship with Toni Morrison. I’m telling you, I’m one of those people who’s still cracking my head on many of the ideas Toni Morrison both suggested and elaborated on in her work.”
On December 12, 2013, the apprenticeship of a new American hero took place at the New York Public Library.
Not Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison; she already is a hero(ine).
But Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Díaz who paid homage to Morrison in a one-hour talk.
Díaz doesn’t just talk the talk. He walks the walk of his vision for a new way to be a man—with full appreciation for the accomplishments of a woman who changed the course of his life.
Diaz, the bestselling Dominican-American author opened the night’s conversation by saying “Certainly the axis of the world shifted for me when I went to college. In my first semester, first week at Rutgers University, I was in my first class with Abena Busia, and she was teaching Song of Solomon. The axis of my world shifted and has never returned.”
He was referring to Morrison’s 1977 novel about four generations of a family mistakenly named Dead whose story is told through the eyes of “Milkman,” a rare male protagonist in Morrison’s catalog. Song of Solomon was the novel which put Morrison on the literary and cultural map.
Morrison asked, “Has your life improved, then, do you think?” Soft-spoken, playful, flirtatious.
Díaz’s response: “Yeah. Much warmer and brilliant place I am in now.”
Ungrammatical and unable to take his eyes off Morrison, Díaz appeared captivated by the stunning 82-year-old woman seated across from him onstage.
He commented that Morrison, as an editor for black authors, shifted the entire canon of black literature. “There was an unspoken premise of your books that there is a black woman as the reader,” he pointed out.
Morrison agreed. “It would be like Tolstoy. You’re Russian and you write for Russians, not for little colored girls in Ohio. However, once you take your own area in your own soil and dig deep into that, and if you’re good enough at it, it becomes available to everybody. You don’t have to direct your work at a vague audience that you think is perhaps not yours.”
Díaz brought up the thin line between the animal and the human as “something that occurs throughout your work.” He referred to the image in Morrison’s 2012 book Home of two fighting stallions “that rose up like men. We saw them. Like men they stood.”
“Besides the fact that you can outwrite every motherfucker on the planet, sentence by sentence,” Díaz said, flashing a peace sign to the audience with boyish enthusiasm, “no matter what the hell’s going on in the world, I’m always lying in bed and I’m like, yeah, the best writer in the world is of African descent.”
Morrison referred back to the animal images, adding that when you see those horses stand up and fight, then “you know something about masculinity, beauty, brutality, and power. It’s a way to pull the reader in, so that they have a truly visceral response to a character’s thoughts.”
Diaz’s own restrained masculinity was on display throughout the evening. His questions were discerning, considered. He didn’t get in the way of Morrison’s responses.
Referencing Morrison’s 1973 novel Sula as an example of female friendship not often explored in literature, Díaz derided the cultural imperative for female characters in literature or “that hetero-normative over-emphasis on the dude who is going to enter her life,” as false. “My sister’s most important relationship was with one of her girlfriends,” he told the audience, who responded with a knowing laugh.
“So, I wanted to thank you, Madame,” Díaz concluded reverentially. He turned to the audience, stipulating he would take four questions: two from people under thirty and two from women. In fact, he took questions from three women and one man.
One woman asked which authors had inspired Morrison. Her response was “none.” She paused, then added, “Sometimes a line of poetry will kick something off. I just relish other people’s writings enormously. As an editor, I have to have that separation. The inspiration thing is a little bit overdone.”
With questions over, the audience rose, joining Díaz in a standing ovation for Morrison.
Some of us applauded for Díaz too, an author committed to showing the world how to be a new kind of man. Not easy for a Dominican-American dude from New Jersey.
Watch the LIVE short of Toni Morrison and Junot Díaz in conversation.
Watch the full conversation by clicking: LIVE from NYPL.
Rozsa Gaston is an author who writes playful books on serious matters. Women getting what they want out of life is one of them. She studied European intellectual history at Yale, and then received her master’s degree in international affairs from Columbia. In between, Gaston worked as a singer/pianist all over the world.
Gaston worked at Institutional Investor Magazine for eight years, then WR Capital Management before devoting herself to writing full time. She is the author ofParis Adieu(2012), Running from Love (2012), ;Dog Sitters (Astraea Press: 2013), Lyric (Astraea Press: 2013), and Black is Not a Color (coming out in Feb. 2014). She is a board member of the Yale Alumni Association of Greenwich.