U sponsors Nobel winner’s lecture

by Kaana Smith

Amid laughter and applause, Nobel laureate Toni Morrison spoke Monday at Northrop Memorial Auditorium about the connections and divisions between literature and history.
“Recorded history is insufficient for writers,” Morrison said. Many historical accounts, especially those of marginalized peoples, have often been treated as fragmented associations or expanded footnotes to history as it has traditionally been taught in schools, she said. Subsequently, for her, Morrison said, history was always about somebody else and not about the vast experiences of her ancestors.
“My relationship as a novelist to history, as you can tell, is wary,” Morrison said. But she said the cool eye she uses in reading history is no cooler than those of historians who have doubts when reading fiction.
Morrison’s use of poetic language, myth and her narrative story-telling of the black experience in America — particularly the experience of black women — has earned her numerous awards, including the 1993 Nobel Prize for Literature.
Her extensive use of history in her writing has also earned her critical acclaim for her six major novels, including “Beloved,” for which she was awarded the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for fiction by an American author. The novel was based on an historical incident in which a slave woman who killed her child to avoid having it live as a slave.
Morrison’s continuing interest and research into what history omits rather than what it reveals that has led to her latest writing endeavor. During her lecture, Morrison read an excerpt from a tentative manuscript based upon the development of townships by African-Americans around the turn of the century.
Her research revealed an effort by African-Americans in newly formed Oklahoma townships to dissuade and turn away droves of freed slaves who came to them in search of a new life. Poor and unable to bring economic growth to a new township, they were shunned by their own people — people who shared a similar past — and left to find a new life elsewhere.
Information available beyond those simple facts is sketchy, Morrison said. Existing records do not expound further on what happened to those left to fend for themselves. Morrison’s new novel seems to address this unknown, explaining what might have happened.
“Sometimes what is always there isn’t enough,” Morrison said.
In working on her new manuscript, Morrison said she finds the more she writes, the more she still feels she has left to write. This experience differs from her previous novels, which tended to exhaust themselves as she wrote them.
Although the main topic of her lecture addressed connections between literature and history, she allotted time to answer questions from the audience. Questions focused primarily on race relations and the fate of artists in U.S. society.
Morrison is one of 39 guests who have been invited to speak at the University by The Humphrey Institute of Public Affair’s Distinguished Carlson Lecture series since 1980. The lecture series was founded by Curtis L. Carlson in the spirit of his friend Hubert H. Humphrey, who sought to bring world-renowned speakers to the University to encourage discussion of political, social and global issues.