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December 1999

Beloved author

A report on Toni Morrison's reading and discussion at the Amerika Haus in Munich

Beloved author An evening with Toni Morrison An increasing number of preeminent authors are including Munich as a stop on their European book tours. Recently, the highly acclaimed author Toni Morrison caused a lot of excitement by giving a reading at the Amerikahaus. Best known for her 1987 novel Beloved, for which she received the Pulitzer Prize in 1988, Morrison read from her last novel, Paradise (January 1998), which was published in German in October of this year. Paradise is a story set in a small Oklahoman town founded by former slaves. Much of it takes place in a communal home for women at the edge of town. The novel begins as the house is being laid siege to by local men. “They are nine, over twice the number of the women they are obliged to stampede or kill and they have the paraphernalia for either requirement: rope, a palm leaf cross, handcuffs, Mace and sunglasses, along with clean, handsome guns. ” Paradise is not an easy read. It takes patience and, above all, an open mind. As scenes of the book are not arranged in chronological order, it is difficult to follow. On that, Morrison once commented, “We don’t think in chronological order. When you think of an event or a story that happened in your life, you think about it in bits and pieces — here and there and from different points of view.” The 68-year-old radiates an overwhelming aura of calm — there is a peace about her. Before starting the reading, she described her need to indulge her own preferences. “I am deep into another project at the moment,” she explains. “When that happens, the books that I have written before become both very familiar and very strange. Paradise is being published for the first time here in Germany, but I began writing it in 1992. All this means that when I go on tours and I have to read this again, it is difficult to find something I want to read [from the book] that is interesting to me.” Interesting to Morrison or not, those who have the privilege of hearing her read are mesmerized by her voice and her language, which builds, shifts and folds onto itself. After the reading Morrison answered a few questions. When asked about Paradise and how it was conceived she said, “I began thinking about the problem of the limitations we put on our imaginations… how thin, how weak, how poor in a land of plenty. Also, [I thought about] the dilemma that our society poses. We all know what the right thing to do is and, nevertheless, in the constant struggle [to create our own paradise] the ideas still seemed to me to be not just old fashioned, but still based on the images of the old epics. The descriptions are of plenty: nectar, gold streets, jewels and eternal rest. All that seemed redundant in a time when we live with theme parks and other recreations of that image. The other thing [I had in mind] was trying to track what it would be like to actually arrive in a place after a journey and some difficulties with the serious purpose of creating an earthly place like a utopia, but not, because it was very closed. Would one be vulnerable to the same things there as before they arrived?” Has Morrison seen progress in the acceptance of “black fiction?” “When I started [as an editor] in 1965,” she explained, “it was very difficult. Not to find worthy works, but to persuade the publisher that there was a readership for them. Once the readership was clear . . . then it was easier to secure contracts for young people, emerging writers, female people, black people, because those were the people who agents didn’t already have in their pocket. Then the second problem was having them well treated, meaning well edited. That they weren’t dismissed. For example, I was not able to publish three books by African Americans in the same season because [no matter how different the works were] they would all be reviewed as one because the press would say, ‘three black people wrote three books.’ They wouldn’t distinguish, so I would withhold them and release them separately so each book would get the attention it deserved. We have come a long way since then.” When describing her love of books, she said, “For me, whether I wrote it or you wrote it, it doesn’t matter. A wonderful book is just a terrific thing. To find yourself in that place. And there is this brand new way of looking at the world and different language to say the same old things about the moon.” For all the deeper meanings of her novels and the grandeur that surrounds a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Morrison is surprisingly down to earth. As she concluded her talk at the jam-packed Amerikahaus, she was asked what she would request if she were granted three wishes. With a wide grin she stroked her gorgeous gray dreadlocks and replied, “Well, I guess I would just wish for a thousand more wishes.” <<<

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