Presented by the Chicago Public Library, the event also honored Northwestern University Artist in Residence Eula Biss (Notes From No Man’s Land, The Balloonist), who received the 21st Century Award. Biss reflected on discovering that “not all libraries are public” after the Columbia and NYU libraries wouldn’t let her in, and recalled falling asleep in the Iowa City public library as a grad student, waking up next to a snoring vagrant. “A space where grad students and homeless people sleep side by side seemed very right to me,” she said.
Mayor Daley spoke about the importance of libraries, arguing that “There should be no excuses why a child cannot be educated in the city of Chicago, with all the libraries we have.” He did eventually remember about schools as well, saying, “You know how the education system in America is always being questioned, and it should be questioned. I wish more of you would question it.” (I’m assuming he doesn’t mean the media, especially if it’s pointing out how his TIF program sucks money away from the public schools.)
Finally, Toni Morrison was presented with the Carl Sandburg Literary Award, skipping the traditional acceptance speech to sit down and talk with Oprah Winfrey—except Winfrey wasn’t there. Arriving on the stage a minute or two later, Winfrey exclaimed, “I was sitting back there with my shoes off because I thought you were going to speak!”
Once it got started, the discussion was fascinating.
Asked about her writing process, Morrison responded that she gathers characters and then gets to know them. “I don’t judge them. I just bear witness and let them work it out. They’re like ghosts—they talk all the time and they don’t have any interest in anything but themselves. So I have to get them to shut up.”
Morrison mentioned that she received 12 rejections for The Bluest Eye before someone took it. Winfrey asked what kept her going during that time. “Arrogance, I guess,” Morrison said. “I love to read. I know what’s good and what’s bad. I just thought they were all wrong.”
The two discussed Morrison’s affinity for “outlaw women.” Just after Morrison described the title character of her 1973 novel, Sula, as a “little fast girl,” Oprah asked if her characters represent her. “Heavens, no!” Morrison laughed. Then she backpedaled a little. “Maybe they’re either parts of me or yearnings. I wish I could have been an outlaw girl, but I wasn’t.”
They also talked about race and gender in writing, and how it’s changed. When she started writing, Morrison said, the presumed reader was white. The main character in Invisible Man, she pointed out, wouldn’t have been invisible to her. “I didn’t want to write for that audience, but didn’t want to be so parochial that people outside the group couldn’t love it.”
Morrison wrapped up by talking about going to China and feeling like she needed to fill up her suitcase with books because she’d be gone for three weeks. “I’m afraid to be in a world without books. And if I were to be in a situation where there were none, I would just have to write them.”