Bermudians recall ‘mesmerising’ writer

  • Literary leaders: Nobel laureate author Toni Morrison with the late Cyril Packwood, head librarian and historian, during her 1989 visit to the island to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Bermud National Library (Photograph supplied)

    Literary leaders: Nobel laureate author Toni Morrison with the late Cyril Packwood, head librarian and historian, during her 1989 visit to the island to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Bermud National Library (Photograph supplied)


Nobel Prize-winning author and academic Toni Morrison was a “mesmerising” speaker 30 years after she visited the island to help mark the 150th anniversary of the Bermuda National Library.

Ruth Thomas, a former government cultural affairs officer, said she was a regular guest for dinner at Ms Morrison’s home in New York state with people like film-maker Spike Lee and poet Amiri Baraka after they were introduced through a friend.

Ms Thomas accompanied her friend, the American playwright Shauneille Perry, to New Year’s Day dinners at the author’s home in the 1970s and 1980s.

She said: “She was always in the middle of a book, and her use of language was mesmerising to listen to,” Ms Thomas said. “She also cooked wonderful meals. She would get annoyed with us because we could never eat it all.”

Ms Morrison, who died on August 5, aged 88, will be honoured by the Bermuda International Film Festival with a second showing of Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am at 6.30pm on Wednesday at the Specialty Cinema in Hamilton.

The documentary was shown on the island two days after Ms Morrison’s death.

Ms Morrison started the 1970s with the publication of her debut novel, The Bluest Eye, and as her fame grew, so did the roster of guests at her dinners.

Ms Thomas said American writer James Baldwin was a no-show one year because he insisted on being driven to the house.

She added: “Toni would have writers and actors there and would hold forth — I don’t think I said a word; I would just listen to her. She was very sensitive and hated injustice. She was very concerned about the plight of blacks in the past.”

Ms Thomas said: “She had a vibrant face and thick hair like a lion, with a very powerful expression, very intuitive and discerning.”

She added that racial discrimination stalked Ms Morrison’s guests on their journeys to her house in an upmarket area.

Ms Thomas said: “Her home was in a very secluded, wealthy, white area, and most of her guests were black and would have come from far away.

“One year [poet] Amiri Baraka walked in furious, because the local-area police had stopped him.

“The police watched you the whole time you were in the area. I remember being followed.”

Ms Thomas met Ms Morrison again in 1989 when she picked her up at the airport with the late politician Louise Jackson, who threw a party for the author at her home.

Cyril Packwood, a historian and then the head of the library, had suggested bringing Ms Morrison to the island to mark the library’s milestone.

Ms Jackson, a board member who had attended Washington’s prestigious Howard University at the same time as Ms Morrison, orchestrated the visit.

Ms Morrison’s bestseller, Beloved, had won a Pulitzer Prize the year before and Ms Morrison was at the height of her fame.

Ms Thomas said: “She was sizing the place up. She’d never been here before, and she was fascinated by the ocean, the colour of it.”

Florenz Maxwell, a historian and former head of the Youth Library, also met the author.

She said: “There was something about her presence that awed you.”

Ms Maxwell said The Bluest Eye was her favourite of Ms Morrison’s books.

She added: “She was famous, and I was in my glory meeting her. I liked the emphasis she placed on the positive side of liking your blackness. She inspired me as a writer, and writers need as much inspiration as they can get, particularly in an isolated place like Bermuda.”

Ms Maxwell said: “She wrote in the same vein as I wanted to.”

She added the two might have met years earlier because she was offered the chance to attend school in Lorain, Ohio, where Ms Morrison, one year her senior, was born and raised.

Ms Maxwell said: “A woman who came to our church conference heard me recite a poem I had composed, and asked my father if she could take me to the high school at Lorain.

“My father didn’t want me to go. Later I realised I would probably have gone to the same high school as her.”

Tickets to The Pieces I Am are $15 and are available at www.ptix.bm, or at the Speciality Cinema box office

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Published Aug 15, 2019 at 8:00 am (Updated Aug 15, 2019 at 6:26 am)

Bermudians recall ‘mesmerising’ writer

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