By JK Fowler
The yawning Great Hall of Cooper Union. Saturday, May 1st, 2010. The Hall is surprisingly empty for the three big names about the grace the stage. Banter and name-dropping occurs in the front row, the publishers of van Niekerk come up to me and we trade some information about The Mantle. The curtains are swept to the left and out steps K. Anthony Appiah, dressed from head to toe in black: a black necktie, vest, a black silk stripe down the sides of each leg and black loafers. He looks absolutely refined, head held high, papers clutched to his chest with long slender fingers tightly wound. From behind enters Toni Morrison, a slight limp, dressed in graceful beige silks, a flowing softness to her demeanor, dignified yet humble in her movements. Marlene Van Niekerk is not far behind, short cropped curly hair, pronounced jaw-line, zebra-colored top and black pants. A strong presence, her movements meaningful and pronounced, at times sharp and biting. All three sit and the event had begun.
The topic of that evening's conversation was to be Van Niekerk's novel, Agaat published by Tin House Books in April of 2010, a novel that centers on the relationship between a white Afrikaaner woman dying of ALS and her black caretaker. Not in the reading mood at all, Morrison began, she received this book, opened to the first page and was immediately taken by the sensibility and insight of the writing and approach.
Van Niekerk explained that with both novels, Agaat and Triomf, she received reviews filled with animosity from the Afrikaans community, one critic asking Van Niekerk how she could possibly give away their soil away to a colored person (referencing a plot development in the latter section of Agaat).
Morrison, with her surprisingly light, airy and playful voice and Appiah in his carefully chosen, well-countenanced, and tightly-controlled manner of speaking, both highly praised Van Niekerk's work throughout the evening. Appiah at one point asked Van Niekerk if the stark separation of men and women in her novels was an accurate depiction of life in South Africa. Van Niekerk explained that as an Afrikaaner lesbian, she has always been on the outside of the main arena and has therefore been privy to the dressage of women, noting that it is very difficult for men and women, particularly in the Afrikaaner culture, to grow in intimate relationships.
Also of note was their discussion of the common relationship between white children and their non-white nannies, a key aspect of life in South Africa (one cannot help but think of the common New York sight of non-white nannies pushing white children around the streets in over-sized strollers). In the early days of the Cape Colony (modern-day Western Cape province more or less), it was not uncommon for the black nanny to suckle the white child and although uncommon today, this sense of intimacy between child and nanny still remains to a great degree. Morrison, in a poignant moment, noted that this first love for the child with this woman that they have spent so many of their waking hours with as children is forbidden when they awaken to their sexuality in puberty. The children are taught that their first love is something that must be thrown away, forcibly forgotten, refused. What occurs in the wake of such a trauma?
Asked by Appiah what it is like for Van Niekerk to write in the language of Afrikaans, the language of the oppresser during the apartheid regime, Van Niekerk responded that while there is a sense of complicity, we have no control over where we are born nor the language we are brought up speaking. The challenge, she stated, was to decide what to do with that language once you write. Through the burgeoning Afrikaans literature and music movement that has emerged in recent years, Van Niekerk sees hope that the language and culture's positive attributes will be given more space in the cultural foray. To do this, Van Niekerk underlined, there is a sediment of history within the language and culture, we must remember what has been said and done with it in the past, and only by recognizing this history can a new path for the language of Afrikaans be forged.
As a fairly new writer, one could not wish for a more supportive and loving atmosphere from two individuals of such high esteem. Van Niekerk often beamed as Morrison praised her use of architecture, her brilliant writing, her loving construction of such believable characters. Appiah definitely spoke less during the hour but when he did, it was to praise Van Niekerk's utilization of her position as an "outsider in an outsider culture" to bring to the fore Agaat, a poignant and apt allegory of modern-day South Africa.
The last part of the conversation was the Q&A session and the brunt of questions, not surprisingly, were delivered to Morrison. Asked about the notion that we live within a post-racial society after Obama, Morrison chuckled and stated that this notion was never real, that it was a good dream and fantasy but never was based in reality. She noted that in Paradise, she attempted to rid her work of racial signals, the code language of what color her characters were. "That's the least important information you have about a human being," she stated laughing. But people want to belong, or not belong, he stated. We create these words and these groups to differentiate but difference is not the problem. The hierarchy is. She noted that belonging is very important for Americans as most of us never belonged here to begin with. This struck a chord in the audience and reminded me greatly of Colm Toibin's discussions of Henry James' sense of "homelessness" in New York City.
The conversation soon ended to an emphatic and expected round of applause from the audience. Arms locked together and Appiah trailing behind, Morrison and Van Niekerk walked slowly off the stage through the curtains and the crowd dispersed.
Panelist's Bios (click on their names to go to their works):
Kwame Anthony Appiah (moderator): born in London in 1954 and grew up in Ghana. He is the President of PEN American Center. Since receiving a BA and a PhD in philosophy at Cambridge University, he has taught in the United States, most recently as professor of philosophy at Princeton University. Among his works are three mystery novels and a variety of works in philosophy and cultural studies, includingCosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. He reviews regularly for the New York Review of Booksand lectures around the world about topics in literature, philosophy, and African and African American studies. He co-edited the Dictionary of Global Culture and Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience. He is currently working on two books, one about honor, and the other about the idea of the West.
Marlene Van Niekerk: an award-winning poet, novelist, and short story writer. Her publications include the short story collection The Woman Who Forgot Her Spyglass, the novella Memorandum, and the novels Triomf and Agaat. Triomf, translated by Leon de Kock, was a New York Times Notable Book in 2004, and won the CNA Literary Award, the M-Net Prize in South Africa, and the prestigious Noma Award (the first Afrikaans novel to do so). In 2007, Agaat received the Sunday Times Literary Prize and the Hertzog Prize and was translated as The Way of the Women by Michiel Heyns, who received the Sol Plaatje Award for his translation. Van Niekerk is currently an associate professor in Afrikaans and Dutch literature and creative writing at Stellenbosch University in South Africa.
Toni Morrison: the author of numerous works of fiction, non-fiction, and children’s literature, most recently, the novel A Mercy. She twice has received the Pulitzer Prize–for Sula (1974) and Beloved (1988)—as well as the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Nobel Prize for Literature. Most recently the Robert F. Goheen Professor of Humanities at Princeton University, she lives in Rockland County, New York.