Hay has a habit of throwing up big moments, and this was one of them. En route to see Toni Morrison, many of the audience will have heard that Maya Angelou had died. Still more had not heard the news until Razia Iqbal announced it from the stage. The collective intake of breath, the sound of genuine shock and sadness, was not just audible; it reverberated around the Tata Tent, where we had just heard 83-year-old Morrison deliver an hour-long, flawless and unflaggingly insightful interview. She remembered her Depression-era Ohio childhood, reminisced about the party given by the Nobel committee in 1993 and waxed lyrical about Barack Obama as a writer. Finally, invited to say something about Angelou, her friend, contemporary and peer amongst the peerless, the grand old lady of American letters froze for a moment. The news was too raw, the death too recent – like that of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who had been remembered at an earlier event – for comment to be passed.
But then, off-the-cuff, Morrison delivered her moving eulogy. Angelou had, she said, had ‘nineteen talents and used ten’. She finished: ‘there is no duplicate, no duplicate.’ Even Morrison herself, whom everybody present might have been thinking is the nearest thing the world has to another Maya Angelou, would not take the public role adopted by the extraordinary woman who went from a childhood mute to speaker at President Clinton’s inauguration. Morrison was present at the Obama inauguration, one of the few times she has felt really proud to be an American, but for her writing is an intensely private act. If people like it, and honours come, and public acclaim – the kind of rapturous reception she received here at Hay, a standing ovation at the end – all of that is ‘gravy’.
The interview with Iqbal – a confident, intelligent, human presence onstage alongside the writer – validated that warmth many times over. Time and again, Beloved was referred to, not just as the high watermark of Morrison’s distinguished career, but as a book that has informed the interior life of by now generations of students. Iqbal studied it at university, as did many in the audience – including me – and it seemed somehow fitting in the week when controversy broke out over Michael Gove’s perceived intervention in the English school curriculum, that we should be discussing a book that is required reading for most Americans.
The relevance of that novel’s themes and its famous dedication to ‘Sixty million and more’ is, despite everything, still ‘not addressed’, according to Morrison. Her project – ever since her first book The Bluest Eye (1970) – has been to ‘derace the language’. The only time Morrison forgets anything in the whole interview is when she fails to recall which book by Hemingway contains a line that has always made her think about how she portrays her characters. ‘I didn’t forget the line, though,’ she says pointedly. ‘Two men came towards him. One was Cuban, the other was black.’ She pauses before asking, ‘What if they were both Cuban?’ It is that ‘white gaze’ – ‘present even in the best slave narratives’, where the reader is assumed to be white – that Morrison has worked against her entire career. ‘I don’t describe people,’ she says, ‘I concentrate on who they are.’
Despite all this, however, the interview begins with a discussion of how Morrison has always been defined – whether by herself or by others – as an ‘African American woman writer’. This, she admits, is what she is. It is a rare writer indeed whose entire oeuvre could be said to have been devoted to one overarching project, but even early on – writing ‘sort of secretly’ while working as an editor at Random House – Morrison knew her life’s work was the documentation of the life and lives of her people. She has never been to the continent of Africa, despite having been invited, although there is regret over never having delivered the Steve Biko Lecture in South Africa, more than once having been invited to do so. But Morrison’s work has been central to an understanding of the African-American experience.
The Bluest Eye was inspired by a childhood friend, Eunice, who really did want blue eyes. Morrison’s debut was an exploration of what came before ‘Black is Beautiful’. And it was the beginning of a lifelong journey into the psyche of her nation. The New York Times called her ‘the closest thing America has to a national writer’. Song of Solomon, Barack Obama has said, taught him ‘how to be’. The Nobel committee honoured Morrison’s contribution to world literature when she was only halfway through her Dantesque trilogy comprising Jazz and Paradise as well as Beloved. And the plaudits kept on coming.
But none of it has changed Morrison’s stance, or blunted her ability to sear to the heart of America’s unhealed wounds. She dances around a question about her friend Gabriel Garcia Marquez and his friendship with Fidel Castro but it is clear from her point blank refusal to participate in a projected inauguration ceremony for Hillary Clinton – in an imagined equivalent of how Maya Angelou read for Bill – that Morrison is anything but an establishment figure.
This is a woman who still turns up to literary festivals at the age of 83 and offers honest analysis of the world’s current travails: ‘If you can take poor black folks and poor white folks and make them hate each other… then they won’t attack you. That’s been working brilliantly [for the powerful].’ On next year’s 150th anniversary of the end of the American Civil War, she avoids the invitation to make a statement about race, instead offering that the war, as with most things in society – then and now – was about ‘wealth and money’. There is a huge murmur of assent in the room. ‘You’ve moved from being a citizen to a consumer,’ she says, ‘and you know what you are now? A taxpayer.’
The passing of Maya Angelou, in the wake of Mandela – who received the Nobel Peace Prize in the same year Morrison was honoured for Literature – is a reminder that the global village is losing its elders, a generation of battlers who retained a rare moral authority to pronounce on such matters and be listened to by both powerful and powerless. Young people in America, Morrison contends, in a rare generalisation, have moved beyond race. Asked whether she is still writing, she jokes about ‘the dregs’ before saying she has been working on ‘something about now. Something contemporary. Society now is fast-paced, slippery, changing. It’s hard to write about, but I did it.’ She speaks with the unnecessary self-deprecation of one who could write about anything with clarity and insight and verve, in the company of thousands who clearly feel she can do no wrong. Even when Morrison’s phone goes off mid-interview, Razia Iqbal collapses into laughter and says ‘That’s brilliant.’
It would have been a privilege to share a marquee with one of the world’s greatest living novelists at any time, but to share with her the afternoon when the whole world mourned the passing of another great ‘African-American woman writer’ was beyond compare. That’s the very special essence of Hay Festival, when for two weeks the global village comes to some muddy fields in Powys to ‘imagine the world’.
Illustration by Dean Lewis