This weekend I took the junior and senior students in my Toni Morrison elective to hear her speak alongside South African writer Marlene van Niekerk and Kwame Anthony Appiah, President of the PEN American Center. The event took place at Cooper Union’s Great Hall as part of the annual PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature.
During the talk, Morrison declared Niekerk’s novel Agaat, “exactly the most extraordinary book that I’ve ever read in a long time . . . you must read it.” Agaat won the prestigious Hertzog Prize in 2007; the prize recognizes the very best in Afrikaans literature.
Niekerk commented on the rewards of writing in Afrikaans: “It’s an indigenous language. The writer has a double task when writing in Afrikaans. You must acknowledge its history as well as remedy, help, and do something with it. Afrikaans comes with layers.”
Morrison herself commented on the challenges of language: “You can’t penalize language.” At the same time, she also observed that since Obama’s election, “the language that is at our disposal to talk about race [has been] destructive and limiting.”
Pushing further her observations about the ways in which US dialogue on race has become inflamed and inflammatory, she warned against using race as a litmus test for assuming someone’s politics and perspective: “[Race] is the least important information about a person you should know, it’s not a penetration of a personality.”
After the talk, both Morrison and Niekerk signed copies of their books. My students waited in line with giddy smiles, ready to ask her their burning question: “What is the significance of the number four in Beloved?”
Her answer: “It has no significance. The critics have done a better job at figuring it out than I have. I trust what they have to say.”