On Tuesday, December 11th, the Center for Fiction hosted their annual benefit at Cipriani in the Financial District. This benefit was co-chaired by Michael Ondaatje and Lee Child, and honored Knopf Editor-in-Chief Sonny Mehta.
You can hear Ms. Winfrey’s remarks uploaded in eight part videos, introduced by the Center For Fiction Board Chair Erroll McDonald here.
Below is a transcript of Erroll McDonald’s remarks followed by the remarks of Ms. Oprah Winfrey with my personal annotations in square brackets:
MR. McDONALD: “The Center inaugurates tonight its Lifetime Achievement of Excellence Award which will be given to a living genius of imaginative prose of any kind whose work has found a lasting impact on the culture, and whose influence is ever more about to be. The award will not be given routinely every year. But only when the Center For Fiction hears irresistible silence on necessity. As it did when it decided to recognize Toni Morrison as its first honoree. Toni Morrison, the most celebrated and revered writer in the world. Renowned for her elegance, mind, literary prowess, and moral compass, Toni Morrison is a world historical pathway. As she approaches her 88th Birthday, Morrison has proven herself to be an indisputably unique and essential presence in the American literary canon…She refuses to idealize Love. Love is only as good as the lover, the narrator of The Bluest Eye tells us…The love of a free man is never safe…yet, hopefulness erupts…and Morrison’s methodical and relentless dismantling of all master narratives of oppression. The better to give voice to the voiceless. Through deliciously deceptive narrative strategies and procedures, and prose of…and lyrical precision, Toni Morrison commands by indirection that we all must be taken at our full complexity as we navigate the now classic, now treacherous waters of time. The Center for Fiction was proud to confer on Toni Morrison its very first lifetime of excellence in fiction award. As Toni could not be with us tonight, I accept the recognition on her behalf. She was adamant that I express her deepest appreciation for our and your passionate embrace of her work. [Applause]…
MS. WINFREY: “Before I even started the book club, I would read books and you could look in the back of the phone book, they have a picture of the author, they tell you what city the author is in, you call the city and get their number, because most authors were listed, it used to be. Anyway, I once asked Toni Morrison why she didn’t start writing until she was thirty nine years old [my current age] and she said ‘I thought everything I had wanted to read had already been written.’ And lucky, for us, she came to realize that that was not true, and in 1970 published The Bluest Eye, in her words, so ‘she could read it.’ I was just talking to Lee Haber, our book editor of O Magazine. Lee and I were having this discussion the other day and we were talking about how its impossible to actually imagine the American literary landscape without a Toni Morrison, whom we are here to celebrate tonight.
Of course, she won the biggest awards. I remember when she won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and then the Nobel prize for Fiction and then Maya Angelou held a party for Toni Morrison in her backyard and everyone was there. I felt like I was a little girl with all of the amazing African American authors that I’ve grown up with, and there was a moment where Ms. Morrison wanted something to drink and I went ‘I’ll get it!’ and Maya goes ‘sit down. We have people to serve.’ But the truth is, she is so much more than all and every accolade that has ever been bestowed upon her. Her art and the way she actually views and inhabits the world are inextricable from one another. She is our conscience. She is our seer. She is our truth teller. [She tells the truth most eloquently in Beloved and in her eleventh novel God Help The Child about the necessity of navigating the lies we’ve been taught since childhood in order to experience what “some call romantic love” (God Help The Child, p.175)] She is a magician with language. And she knows how essential words are. She uses those words to wake us [Morrison does this eloquently in the relationship that unfolds between the protagonist Bride and the woman Bride calls her “best friend” Brooklyn] and to educate us, to make us grapple with our deepest wounds [as her protagonists do: Pecola in wanting blue eyes; Sula in wanting to sleep with Jude; Milkman in wanting gold instead of his ancestral history; Jadine in wanting to be a model; Sethe in wanting to protect Beloved; Joe Trace in his desire for Dorcas; the Morgans in keeping the Ruby community “safe”; the cook “L” in poisoning Bill Cosey; Florens in “giving herself” to the Blacksmith; Frank in rescuing his sister and not the Korean girl; and Bride in “correcting what she can, learning from what she can’t correct”]. It’s exhilarating for me. And sometimes its even been life changing for me, every time I pick up a piece of work of Toni Morrison’s.
But one thing it isn’t, is easy.
So, when I first started the Oprah Book Club back in 1996, and I started because one of my producers, Alice McGee and I started, we would exchange books all the time. She said ‘since we love books so much, why don’t you just share books with our audience, with the viewers.’ And I said, ‘Oh Alice, you can’t get anybody to…you can’t talk about books on TV! Not for an hour! Because people have to read the book. You especially cannot talk about fiction, which we love. Alice and I have been exchanging fiction books for years. So she said, ‘why don’t you ask the people to read the book?’ Oh. Novel idea. And the first time, I thought: ‘Oh, my goodness. Maybe we can introduce this television audience to Toni Morrison.’ The audience was ready. So I tried something else. And then for my second book club pick, I decided I would ask readers to take up the challenge in the infinite joy of reading Song of Solomon. Its the only book that, no matter how many times I’ve read it, I can still find surprises on every page. A turn of phrase, a sentence that’s so fluid that you just want to spoon feed every word to yourself. So, when I read that first Toni Morrison novel, a love affair was born right then. Also, more books chosen for Toni Morrison than any other books chosen, four in all. And I was so excited because it was an opportunity to have millions of people who have an opportunity, who otherwise might not had ventured into Morrison territory, come to worship at her altar, as I do. So, Toni Morrison observed this in her Nobel acceptance speech in 1993. She said that ‘word work is sublime. Because it is generative, it makes meaning that secures our difference, our human difference. The way in which we are like no other life.’
So for fifty years, and before that as an editor of books by others [including “The West And the Rest of Us” by Chinweizu and “They Came Before Columbus” by Ivan Van Sertima] she has been shaping our culture, she has been contributing to our politics, and profoundly enriching our minds and our hearts with those words. Her intellect is only a partial source of her power. The rest of its primal. Because she both receives and refracts our pain. The pain of being a woman. The pain of being a young brown girl obsessed with having blue eyes. The pain of yearning to be someone you’re not. The pain of loving a man who’s not worth it [Ycidra in Home] or losing a man who is [Ryna in Song of Solomon], the pain of our history. Her words are just everything. They are beautiful and they’re exquisite, and they’re mournful and they’re rejoicing, and they’re not gentle because they don’t permit us to turn away from our pain. ‘A writer’s life and work are not a gift to mankind. They are its necessity,’ she said. Toni Morrison’s enduring gift to us is that legacy. And will be her legacy of wisdom. Of suffering. Of love. Of beauty. Of words that can never be forgotten or erased. We die, she said. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives. There’s no doubt that Toni Morrison is the empress supreme of doing life. I am here tonight, simply to say, long may she reign. Long may she reign.”
Special thanks to Erroll McDonald and Linda Morgan of the Center for Fiction, my sister Denia, my father, my mother, Nahesi and Sean Doorn, Ann Hoffman, and Virginia Diamond for making this post possible. -RF.