Oprah’s Influence

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These articles by Nicole Plett and Lisa Jardine were published

in U.S. 1 Newspaper on February 25, 1998..

Toni Morrison’s `Paradise’

They shoot the white girl first. With the rest they

can take their time. No need to hurry out here," intoned Toni

Morrison from the podium of McCosh 50 on the campus of Princeton

University.

It was almost exactly one year ago, the occasion was a reading of

the work in progress that became "Paradise," the Nobel

laureate’s

first novel to follow her historic prize.

Morrison will read from her completed novel, "Paradise," at

a benefit event at Nassau Presbyterian Church, on Friday, February

27, at 7:30 p.m. A question and answer session follows the reading.

At press time tickets for the reading were sold out.

"I had the choice of reading something published, but my whole

attention is involved, engaged, and locked in this manuscript I’m

working on," Morrison told last year’s capacity audience. The

title of the novel, "Paradise," she described as "possibly

the most overused title in the world." Her original choice had

been "War," but her publishers "didn’t like it much,"

and she was overruled.

The Ivy League setting could not have been more classic — the

imposing, oak-paneled auditorium, stone Gothic arches, wood and iron

seats, each with its own little fold-down desktop, overlooked by the

upstairs gallery, bounded by elegant turned wood rails.

This is storytelling at its most elemental. The storyteller locked

into communion with a rapt audience. Morrison weaves her words,

phrases,

sentences, and thoughts calmly, yet with breathtaking eloquence. The

audience listens in reverential silence.

At 66, Morrison is dressed fashionably, in a simple and comfortable

black suit set off by a coffee-colored scarf, her myriad, tiny gray

braids drawn are together into a heavy braid down her back.

In quiet, incantatory tones Morrison takes her listeners on a

blood-chilling

tour of the Convent, a decadent mansion that was once "an

embezzler’s

folly," as seen through the eyes of the nine men of Ruby who have

come to annihilate its innocent inhabitants, a motley group of women

(of unspecified race) who have found a refuge there from the accidents

of their lives. "The target, after all, is detritus: throwaway

people that sometimes blow back into a room after being swept out

the door," says one of the characters, a young man with a gun.

The reverential mood of the hall turns palpably to dread.

"Although it is the dawn of a July day, there is a chill

within,"

Morrison continues. "The chill intensifies as the men spread

deeper

into the mansion, taking their time, looking, listening, alert to

the female malice that hides here and the yeast-and-butter smell of

rising dough."

The war that is "Paradise" takes place in Ruby, Oklahoma,

a fictional town founded by former slaves, that remains a town

exclusively

of and for African-Americans, described as a place where "race

exists but doesn’t matter." With fortune and harmony now failing

in Ruby, its male leaders seek their scapegoat.

"The book coalesced around the idea of where paradise is, who

belongs in it," explained Morrison, in a January, 1998, interview

with Dinitia Smith in the New York Times. "All paradises are

described

as male enclaves, where the interloper is a woman, defenseless and

threatening. When we get ourselves together and get powerful is when

we are assaulted."

The volume of critical and popular acclaim that has arisen around

the work of Toni Morrison is great indeed. Her six major novels —

"The Bluest Eye," "Song of Solomon," "Sula,"

"Tar Baby," "Beloved," and "Jazz" — focus

on the unique joys and sorrows of black American women’s lives. They

have collected nearly every major literary prize: the 1993 Nobel

Prize,

the Pulitzer, the National Book Foundation medal, the Pearl Buck

Award,

and the title of Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters from

France.

She joined the faculty of Princeton University as the

Robert F. Goheen Professor in spring 1989. Before coming to Princeton

she held teaching posts at Yale University, Bard College, and Rutgers

University.

Although Morrison would probably say that her heart is in her home

overlooking the Hudson, in her 1996 address at Princeton University’s

250th anniversary convocation, she expressed a strong affection for

her academic home. "This place is redolent with the breath of

the emotional life lived here and the intellectual life made manifest

here," she told her audience. "Those trees down there on

Witherspoon

Street — how they reach across the pavement and the shops and

the pedestrians to touch each other . . . If you are there in spring

at twilight, falling petals cover the walkers and the road like

snowflakes

in December."

Morrison grew up poor as Chloe Anthony Wofford in the rust-belt town

of Lorain, Ohio. Her father was a ship welder, and her mother, Ramah,

a homemaker. Yet her parents instilled in all their children a strong

sense of their own worth. "I always knew we were very poor. But

that was never degrading," she told one interviewer. "My

parents

made all of us feel as though there were these rather extraordinary

deserving people within us. I felt like an aristocrat."

As a teenager, she cleaned the houses of white families after school.

She found fascination, nonetheless, in working gadgets, such as a

vacuum cleaner, that she didn’t have at home. Readers will recognize

her experience in the portrait of Pauline of "The Bluest Eye."

Books were a vital part of Morrison’s formative years. "My mother

belonged to a book club, one of those early ones. And that was

hard-earned

money, you know."

Who could have predicted that another book club, the Oprah Winfrey

book club, would have introduced Morrison’s fiction to such an

immensely

increased readership. "It’s true that the interest in Toni

increased

dramatically when Oprah promoted `Song of Solomon,’" stated Craig

Sweeny of Knopf, with characteristic corporate understatement last

week. "This is the largest first printing of any of her books

— 450,000 copies in first printing. And there are now 900,000

copies in print."

"Yes, the Oprah Club selection has had an enormous effect, but

she’s has also been on `60 Minutes’ and on the cover of Time, so we

can’t assign a specific number of books to the Oprah selection.

There’s

no formula for determining that number. We base our numbers on

bookseller

interest."

Oprah’s on-air discussion of "Paradise," set for broadcast

Friday, March 6, will be followed in March by short segments taped

at Princeton University with footage of Morrison teaching her class.

Morrison names as her early literary influences James

Baldwin, and the African novelists Chinua Achebe and Camara Laye.

"They did not explain their black world. Or clarify it. Or justify

it," she says. "These African writers took their blackness

as central and the whites were the `other.’"

"When I began, there was just one thing that I wanted to write

about, which was the true devastation of racism on the most

vulnerable,

the most helpless unit in the society — a black female and a

child."

It was as an undergraduate at Howard University that Chloe became

known as Toni. The fact that she became published under that name

was an accident that she regrets. "I was upset. They had the wrong

name. My name is Chloe Wofford. Toni’s a nickname." Her family

all calls her Chloe, and it was as Chloe, she notes, that she went

to Stockholm to receive the Nobel Prize.

After earning an MA in English at Cornell, she married Harold Morrison

in 1959. The couple divorced in 1964. She moved to Syracuse with her

two sons, Harold Ford (then 3) and Slade (three months), and supported

the family as a textbook editor. When the company was bought by Random

House, she moved to New York City. During her 18 years as a Random

House editor (she stayed through the publication of "Tar

Baby,"

until being offered a professorship at SUNY in 1985), she nurtured

such black authors as Angela Davis, June Jordan, Wesley Brown, and

Toni Cade Bambara.

Raising her sons as a single mother, Morrison credits the

"carapace"

of family and friends for making it possible. Women sharing their

burdens with other women has been her experience as well as her

subject.

Her son Slade, 30, is a painter and musician; Ford, 33, is an

architect;

and she has a granddaughter, Kali, 10, who is Slade’s daughter.

In her 1994 interview with Claudia Dreifus of the New York Times

Magazine,

Morrison says her Nobel Prize represented a special kind of triumph.

"I felt I represented a whole world of women who either were

silenced

or who had never received the imprimatur of the established literary

world. Seeing me up there might encourage [young black people] to

write one of those books I’m desperate to read. And that made me

happy.

It gave me licence to strut."

Morrison compares her work to jazz music: very complicated, very

sophisticated,

and very difficult. it is also very popular. And it has the

characteristic

of being sensual and illegal. "I would like my work to do two

things: be as demanding and sophisticated as I want it to be, and

at the same time be accessible in a sort of emotional way to lot of

people, just like jazz. That’s a hard task. But that’s what I want

to do."

"I’ve always thought best when I wrote," says Morrison.

"Writing

is what centered me. In the act of writing, I felt most alive, most

coherent, most stable, and most vulnerable."

Morrison has homes in Princeton, New York, and her house in

Grandview-on-Hudson,

in upstate New York, now rebuilt after the fire that destroyed it

in December, 1993, just weeks after she won the Nobel Prize. Losing

the structure was inconsequential, she says, compared to the personal

devastation of the fire that stole her photographs, plants she had

nurtured for 20 years, her children’s report cards, and her own

manuscripts.

For months after, she said she couldn’t speak to anyone who hadn’t

suffered the same loss — and the list proved surprisingly long.

Having put away her Nobel Prize money, just over $800,000, against

her future retirement, she couldn’t get her hands on it at the time

of the fire. If she could have, she told an interviewer, "I would

have taken the money and rebuilt my house and it would have been like

most of the money I’ve ever had: as soon as you get it, there’s a

big hole waiting for it."

Like any editor, Morrison finds she still has unfinished business.

"I’m mad," she told the New York Times this January.

"Something

I forgot to do is bothering me a lot. The last word in the book,

`paradise,’

should have a small `p,’ not a capital `P,’" she said, referring

to the final sentence of the novel: "Now they will rest before

shouldering the endless work they were created to do down here in

Paradise."

"The whole point is to get paradise off its pedestal, as a place

for anyone to open it up for passengers and crew," continues

Morrison.

"I want all the readers to put a lowercase mark on that `p.’"

Spoken like a seasoned editor. And for the benefit of readers who

haven’t worked on a copy desk, that proofreader’s mark for a lowercase

letter is a diagonal slash, like this, /. Right through the letter.

Go to it.

— Nicole Plett

An Evening with Toni Morrison, Micawber Books,

Nassau

Presbyterian Church, 61 Nassau Street, 609-921-8454. Donation $12

adults, $7 students & seniors, to benefit Save Our Kids (SOKS).

Friday,

February 27, 7:30 p.m.

Top Of Page
Oprah’s Influence

On an Oprah’s Book Club website at the moment you can

join in a passionate debate about Toni Morrison’s new novel

"Paradise."

Ordinary readers unselfconsciously explain how difficult they found

Paradise, but how ultimately rewarding the experience was:

"I’m a everyday mother of three who is looking for

something

of my own to do. Completing `Paradise’ is rewarding in itself. Yes

it’s complicated and challenging but you’ll feel successful when you

get to the end."

"I have read `Paradise’ twice. The first time through

I too was lost. Even after I was finished, I wondered what Toni

Morrison’s

point was. But I remembered that Oprah had said she was reading it

for the third time, so I started reading it again. The second time

through I understood the characters better, and I began to really

think about what was being said, and even discovered some things I

missed my first reading through. This book is deep, and is not one

you can just run through."

Oprah’s Book Club is probably the most significant initiative

in the field of fiction this decade. I’ve been hooked on it ever since

she picked her first book in September, 1996 — unknown author

Jacqueline Mitchard’s, "The Deep End of the Ocean," which

was promptly catapulted into the best-seller list, and went on to

sell almost a million copies.

The books Oprah chose at the beginning were mostly about women and

pain — about women who are, or who become, dysfunctional, under

the pressure of their everyday, working lives, and their struggles

to find some meaning to their existence. "The Deep End of the

Ocean" is the story of a woman whose three-year-old disappears

from a hotel lobby while her back is turned. The writing is painfully

understated, the detail of the family’s failure to understand what

is happening to their lives, or to communicate with one another, is

precise and believable.

But Oprah has moved her Book Club members along a lot since the

Mitchard,

which is still, in the end, a somewhat sentimental book, a book for

readers straightforwardly to identify with. She picked Maya Angelou’s,

"The Heart of a Woman," she picked Toni Morrison’s "Song

of Solomon," she picked Ernest Gaines’s "A Lesson Before

Dying,"

a moving story about a black boy on death row, about fundamental human

dignity, and simple heroism. Selected authors include women and men,

black and white, American and foreign-born.

She has taken her audience on a journey that started with popular

identity politics — being poor, being abused, being dumb, being

a woman, being black, being disabled — moved on to black literary

classics like Angelou and early Morrison, which require some skills

in reading for style as well as content, to a book like "A Lesson

Before Dying," which asks big questions about living well in the

face of the inevitable.

Last Christmas her choice was three little books by Bill Cosby for

beginning readers — elementary school children’s books with black

central characters. So, having drawn her daytime TV-show audience

into serious reading, she is also saying, don’t just leave it there,

make this a family matter, start your children reading and let them

grow in reading maturity alongside their mothers. She offers reading

as solace and salvation — a wonderfully traditional evangelical

thing, to which she gives an important secular twist.

And now, a real book, a difficult book, a book that highbrow readers

are having trouble coming to terms with — as is clear from the

reviews in publications that Oprah’s readers never look at, like the

New York Times and the New Yorker. If Oprah’s readers are going there

with her, and are understanding and responding to "Paradise,"

the 13th book selected, then they are now reading at college level.

There’s a brand new set of feisty book buyers out there, with strong

opinions of their own, and a shared new reading experience. They are

going to alter the literary landscape forever.

— Lisa Jardine

Lisa Jardine, professor of literature at Queen Mary and

Westfield

College, University of London, is currently visiting professor at

Johns Hopkins University. She is a regular columnist for the Telegraph

Newspaper, London, and hosted the late-night arts program Night Waves

for BBC radio.

The Oprah Book Club discussion page, maintained by Canadian student

Rachel Decoste, is at

http://oprah.virtual-space.com/books.

The Oprah Winfrey Show maintains a website on AOL, keyword Oprah.

The discussion of Morrison’s `Paradise’ is scheduled for broadcast

on Friday, March 6, at 4 p.m.


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