Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison has been writing for nearly 40 years, telling stories for nearly 70 and reading for even longer. At a packed lunch in the Omni Hotel on Friday, Morrison captivated an audience of over 500 by incorporating all three.
Sponsored by Read to Grow, a statewide nonprofit organization that promotes early-childhood literacy, the event doubled as a fundraiser and a chance for Morrison to introduce her new book, “A Mercy,” which was released last week.
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At times thoughtful and measured, at times breaking into a rich laugh, Morrison began her talk by praising Read to Grow’s early literacy programs, including Books for Babies, in which the organization distributes free books to parents of newborns.
“You can think what a program like this would mean to a population like mine,” said Morrison, reminding the attendees that teaching a slave to read would have been a crime 200 years ago. “So I associate reading with a certain kind of liberation.”
She emphasized that telling stories to children was just as important as reading to them, because, she explained, it requires them to invent their own details and develop a “powerful imagination.”
But the author soon moved on to a meditative discussion of her books, her work and her creative process.
Morrison recalled listening to older relatives spin tales for hours at family gatherings when she was growing up in Ohio. Morrison’s relatives had her retell the stories she had heard from their mouths, a challenge she said she reveled in, adding her own embellishments to make the stories more outrageous. The stories, many of which she described as violent and “really terrible,” whetted her appetite for books, and to this day influence her writing, she said.
But Morrison firmly denied that anything else in her life shows up in her novels.
“Nothing in my life is worth writing about. I know that story,” Morrison said adamantly. “I write books to answer questions.”
She said she values the freedom to imagine people and details for herself, and if she confined herself to real-life facts, there would be no room to invent.
Morrison — whose voice, even at 77 years old, is low and resonant — said her storytelling as a child helped her develop a sense of how language and sound work together.
“The rhythm in a period or a comma is lifesaving to me,” she told the audience.
To the hushed delight of the guests, Morrison then read the first few lines of “A Mercy,” which reviewers have hailed as a rich prelude to the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Beloved.”
As Morrison ended her talk and began signing copies of her book, guests stood expectantly in line, waiting to meet her.
“Definitely, we’ll read [‘A Mercy’], and I really want to read ‘Jazz’ now,” said Jane Youngberg, a senior from Wilbur Cross High School whose essay on why she wanted to see Morrison earned her a ticket to the lunch.
When they finally handed their books to Morrison to be signed, several guests wanted to tell her about the effect her work had had on them.
“It was just amazing to hear the voice of these books,” gushed Sarah Larsson ’12. “She has such a pure vision of the world.”
The director of the Long Wharf Theatre’s spring 2008 production of “The Bluest Eye,” Eric Ting, told Morrison the lead actress in his production, Oni Faida Lampley, had agreed to act in the play despite battling breast cancer because she was so inspired by the book.
“She did it because of you,” Ting said emphatically, pointing at Morrison.