A Brush With Nobel Prize Winners In Literature
Some of the world’s greatest wordsmiths could be very low key – one of them wasn’t even comfortable having her photographs taken.
I never met Abdulrazak Gurnah, the novelist from Tanzania who is this year’s laureate of the Nobel Prize in Literature. But in my long career as a writer, I have attended classes and conferences overseas where some of the world’s greatest wordsmiths read their works.
From the year 2000 to 2001, I was a Fulbright scholar at the Graduate School of the Department of English at Rutgers University. I only asked for one year so I could take some classes on World Literature and Islamic Mystical Literature, and do research for my Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) dissertation. One of the writers I met was Toni Morrison, who would win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003, for her writing that honored the black memory in American history.
I attended some of her lectures at Rutgers University and I sometimes took the train to likewise attend her lectures and readings at Princeton University. She was a large, tall woman with a sweet and warm voice, and she would always introduce herself in the simplest manner. “Good morning,” she would say, “I am Toni Morrison and today I would talk about the ‘American Novel.’”
This was the woman whose novel, “Beloved,” I read in the PhD class of Professor Thelma Arambulo at the University of the Philippines. And this was the same woman whose same novel I would read again, this time at the class of Dr. Marianne De Koven at Rutgers. Morisson could talk about the difficult novels of William Faulkner with her eyes closed. She just sailed into the classroom and talked to us about “The Sound and the Fury,” that most difficult of novels, took it apart and put it back again as if it were an easy piece of clockwork. She talked about “re-memory” and “whiteness in the literary imagination.” Sometimes, we would talk to her after class and when I asked her if she would be teaching Creative Writing, she just smiled and shook her head. Sometimes, we would walk with her to George Street and wait for the campus bus that would take her to the New Jersey train station.
Doris Lessing was also a soul of simplicity. She attended the 1993 Conference on Contemporary British Literature at Downing College in Cambridge. I had been to Hawthornden Castle that April as an international writing fellow, to write the first draft of my novel “Riverrun.” The British Council Manila kindly extended my stay in the United Kingdom so I could attend the conference in Cambridge in July.
Some people thought that Lessing, who would win the Nobel Prize in 2007, was a snob, but I liked her. She had such dry wit and humor, and she dished her answers as they came into her mind, darting like swift birds. Remember this was the young woman who wrote “The Grass is Singing” when newly arrived in London from Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in 1950. This novel, along with her other books, especially The Golden Notebook (1962), served notice to the world that a startling imagination had arrived.
When asked by a female delegate what she thought of feminism and where it was heading since she wrote all those “feminist” books, Lessing, her white curls tight about her head, turned her gaze at the woman and answered coolly: “Please do not pigeonhole my novels as ‘feminist.’ And frankly, I don’t care about feminism and where it is heading.”
Later I went to her and asked her to sign copies of her two memoirs, “Under My Skin and Walking in the Shade,” which I had just bought at Water Stones. She smiled when she saw her memoirs and she said, “Oh, these books. How could a whole life be distilled in them?”
Later I would meet Lessing again in New York City in the year 2000, when I was a Fulbright Scholar at Rutgers University. I would spend my weekends in New York in the company of writers like Gina Apostol, Eric Gamalinda and Bino Realuyo, with whom I sometimes stayed. One night we were at a restaurant in New York when I saw Lessing enter the restaurant with two people. She had just launched the American edition of her latest novel, “Ben, in the World” and she seemed to be in the company of two publicity people. She looked bored.
So I stood up and introduced myself to her. Her eyes brightened and she said, “I do remember you. You were the fellow from the Philippines who bought my two memoirs at the Cambridge conference many years ago!”
I smiled and asked her for a photograph but she demurred, saying she did not like photographs of her taken. So I just thanked her and then she shook my hand in farewell, saying softly: “I wish you well in your writing.”
The third Nobel Prize winner I met was Seamus Heaney. Professor Heaney, who became Nobel laureate in 1995, was the commencement speaker during my graduation for Master in Philosophy in Publishing Studies at the University of Stirling in 1990. My fellow Filipino, Tina Cuyugan, and I bought copies of his books and went to him during the reception.
I was carrying Heaney’s “Selected Poems”; Tina and I introduced ourselves. He was a warm and happy person and was surprised to see us carrying his books. Some morsels from the oat cookies he was eating fell into the pages of the book I was carrying, and I swiftly closed the pages. Now in my copy of the “Selected Poems,” I have a lovely inscription from him, and in the middle of the book still lie the morsels of oat cookies, as permanent and indelible as his words.
About the author
Danton Remoto’s novel, “Riverrun,” was published by Penguin Books in 2020. “Radiance and Sunrise,” his translation of Lope K. Santos’ 1906 novel, “Banaag at Sikat,” will also be published by Penguin this December.