The capacity audience at Lisner Auditorium could have listened to Toni Morrison read anything.
On the stage in an easy chair, the much-lauded Morrison read from “A Mercy,” her last novel and then surprised the crowd by reading a few pages from an upcoming book, “Home.”
Her reading style is slow and melodic with her emphasis giving stirring and sometimes new meaning to words the reader may not have understood. In “Mercy” Morrison said she wanted to explore “when did the race schism become so much the law of the land.”
She said she struggled with the main character. “The problem was who was going to tell the story. She had no voice. Instead of doing the dialect of the period or inventing a dialect, I decided to write in the present tense,” Morrison explained.
Morrison spent Wednesday at George Washington University, where a bench was erected in her honor at Lisner.
The Toni Morrison Society is placing benches around the country to remind people of the horrific legacy of segregation. In 1946 pickets surrounded Lisner protesting its segregation policy. In 1947 the GW trustees abolished those restrictions. The Society was inspired by a quote from Morrison, who said the memory of slavery was everywhere but suitable markers were absent. “There’s no small bench by the road,” she said.
Though the program was almost over, Morrison did take some questions. The first one was whether she thought the American perspective on race had changed since Barack Obama’s election.
“Racism pays. It is useful. It works. You don’t find anybody writing or on television that says something nice about the president,” she responded. “It never occurred to me that racism disappeared because Barack Obama was elected.”
From politics to gentrification to writing discipline, Morrison fielded a variety of topics. “If it is not clear, I don’t write. Now I know how to skip the bad writing,” she said of her process.
For a sample of Morrison, she is also appearing at the National Book Festival on Saturday. Morrison is scheduled to read at 10 a.m. in the Fiction and Mystery Pavilion.