Toni Morrison, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, was an unusual but appreciated addition to the Ibero-American focussed International Book Fair (FIL).
At a November 25 presentation at the Universidad de Guadalajara rectory, Mexican author and columnist Carlos Monsivais introduced Toni Morrison with an erudite but staid discussion of her narrative techniques and plots. Morrison countered by casting a broad gaze over patterns of globalization, and using graceful, simple language to confront her Guadalajara audience with the distant and shadowy world of Africa and African literature.
Morrison, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, has always been a politically conscious author. In her work, she has explored the experience of black women in a racist culture, and actively uses her influence to defend the role of the artist and encourage the publication of other black writers. In 1988, Morrison received a Pulitzer Prize for her fifth novel, “Beloved,” loosely based on the true story of an escaped slave who murders her child when she is captured.
In a book fair focused on indigenismo, Latin-American culture and Spanish language literature, Morrison cut an incongruous figure, speaking of a kind of racism considered peripheral to Latin America and of a wholly unfamiliar body of literature.
Morrison compared the scope of the movement of workers and intellectuals in the latter half of the 20th century to the slave trade, “the journey of the colonized to the seat of the colonizer.” She challenged the audience to confront complex themes: the threat and promise of globalization, the increasing fragmentation of identities, the distortion of the public and private spheres and the marketing of the developing world as “fashion, film sets and cuisine.”
“To what do we owe allegiance?” Morrison asked. “Is it family, language, culture, gender, religion, race … If none matter, are we urbane, metropolitan, or just lonely?” The audience sighed (many said later that the translator did an amazing job), and Jaime Arias, a professor of medicine, commented that “she speaks just as poetically as she writes.”
The discussion of migration, identity, and globalization certainly struck a chord with her educated audience, but Morrison also tackled a topic entirely outside common Mexican experience and understanding: African literature.
“[The African-American] relationship with Africa is one of mutual ignorance and disdain,” Morrison said. “And African literature has been an inexhaustible playground for tourists and foreigners.” Citing authors like Joseph Conrad, Elspeth Huxley and Isak Dinesen, Morrison derided the archetypal portrayals of outsiders. “We are presented with an Africa simultaneously innocent and wise, corrupting and cleansing, an ancient fetus, waiting to be born and always confounding midwives.” No culture, she said, can allow itself to be seen only through the eyes of visitors.
Guessing correctly that audience members were highly unlikely to have seen a copy, Morrison needed to relate the entire plot of Guinean author Camara Laye’s “Radiance of the King,” using its graceful final lines to end her speech to thundering applause.
It was a tantalizing introduction to a new body of knowledge. Any audience members wishing to learn more about the African topics and philosophies Morrison discussed, however, may be out of luck. African literature is still considered an esoteric topic in the United States and Europe. In Mexico, it seems virtually unknown. At the FIL, Guadalajara’s giant book fair, shoppers can locate fewer than ten books about Africa. One is a translation from German of Katrine Rohde’s “My Life in Africa,” and another is a photo book of tribal customs and dances.
Asking FIL booth employees if they carry African literature tends to elicit interesting responses:
“What? African? No. They have literature?”
“We have this, on voodoo and santeria,” said Dr. Kim Elizabeth Sikorski, owner of Tarots del Mundo, in an honest effort.
“I think there’s a UNICEF stand somewhere,” Jaime from Oceano said dubiously.
“I don’t know any African authors,” an employee at Random House Mondadori admitted. “But we do have J.M. Coetzee. Didn’t he write about Africa?”
Coetzee wrote magnificently about apartheid, but he is also a white South African, who has spent much of his life attempting to emigrate from his native Cape Town. He won the 2003 Nobel Prize for Literature, and is the only African author found at the FIL. Joseph Conrad and Elspeth Huxley were a great deal easier to locate.
Toni Morrison, it seems, was right about portrayals of Africa. And she would not be pleased.