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An Interview with Toni Morrison

From Brick 76

Brick 76

Toni Morrison, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993, was born in 1931 in Lorain, Ohio. Her grandparents had all fled the Jim Crow South. Her Pulitzer Prize–winning novel Beloved (1987), set in post–Civil War Kentucky and Ohio, grew from a news cutting on a runaway slave who killed her child rather than have her recaptured, and was tried not for murder but for theft of property. In the novel, the dead child returns in ghostly form. It began a trilogy of novels that included Jazz (1992), set in 1920s Harlem, and Paradise (1998), set in the 1970s in an all-black town in Oklahoma founded by freed slaves. In Paradise, a convent-turned-women’s-refuge is stormed by a group of townsmen—a midnight-skinned aristocracy that insists on racial purity.

Morrison’s most recent novel, Love (2003), is set before, during, and after the Civil Rights Movement at a hotel resort in coastal Florida that was once the preserve of upwardly mobile African Americans, but which closed down with the advent of integration. Bill Cosey, the hotel’s owner, is a phantom figure “swamped by his own past history,” over whom adoring women—including his widow, Heed, and granddaughter Christine—squabble long after his death.

Morrison’s early novels are The Bluest Eye (1970), Sula (1973), Song of Solomon (1977), and Tar Baby (1981). Her non-fiction includes Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992), which argues that American literature has been shaped by an unspoken “dark, abiding, signing Africanist presence,” giving rise to the lazy, metaphorical shortcuts of “American Africanism.” Since 1989 Morrison has held a chair in the humanities at Princeton.

I spoke to Toni Morrison in her Manhattan apartment on December 10, 2002, and we continued on the phone from London on September 25, 2003, as Love was about to be published.

MJ: Beloved began a trilogy about women’s love in extremis and about roads to freedom—breaking out from slavery. How was the trilogy conceived?

TM: In 1983, I started thinking about the ways in which women love things. I thought it was going to be one book with three parts, but it turned out to be three books. The women are in historical situations in which the act of love is compromised or impossible, or requires some Herculean or heroic activity. In Beloved, it seemed a powerful metaphor that claiming responsibility for your children could be seen as anarchy or revolution or sabotage. For Sethe, it was freedom; the battle was to have and be responsible for her children—in other words to love them.

Jazz was connected with flight out of a situation that was intolerable because of racism; to be internally displaced and still not be able to exorcise the demons from a racial past that would influence, distort, and disfigure love unless you were insistent on reconciliation. The first and second books were about love of children, or of a lover, wife, husband. In Paradise I wanted to talk about spiritual love, of God. It was another kind of flight of people in the nineteenth century, who were trying to make a town exclusive to black people.

MJ: Beloved and Jazz show the pain and necessity of remembering against the impulse to forget, that perhaps freedom is a delusion without confronting the past. Yet Paradise seems to caution against the danger of remembering too much.

TM: Or putting what you remember in aspic, as something that doesn’t permit change. So much of human history is selecting what to remember, deifying or reifying some aspects and forgetting others. I’m not suggesting the past haunts us, but until one comes to terms with it, the past will be a haunting—something you can’t shake. It’s particularly true in the United States because most of its history was erasure—forgetting Europe. This was the new people, the new country; everything was in the future, the frontier. Only recently has the U.S. become very nationalistic and involved in restating the past, reconfiguring it in different ways for different sects and sections of the population. Manipulation of the past is very much what we do these days.

MJ: All three novels began from the germ of a real event, but they look behind the official histories.

TM: A central theme used to be that African Americans had no history, no languages, no country. They were like cultural orphans—although everything in their culture denied that: art, music, custom. Then the history texts made available to us were excised; there was distortion of the Reconstruction. It was a country trying to forge an identity that was race-neutral—unsuccessfully because the oppression was severe and devastating, for whites and blacks.

MJ: You’ve said that surviving enslavement made black people the first modern people.

TM: If you think of slavery as a reign of terror in which the victims were stripped of the normal places for sustenance and had to invent and reinvent, in that sense they were modern, not clinging to tradition for the sake of it. They were thinking up new ways to survive and flourish, whether in music or language or social behaviour. Everything in the society was designed to destroy the family, because you can’t successfully have a slave society with marriage and passing on property and wealth. So they had to develop new relationships; black women took in children. It was life under duress, but new forms came. Women having children without stable fathers present was key for slaveholders because you had a piece of property that could reproduce itself—the children were slaves. That strain held in parts of the community where there was no sin attached. There may have been some clucking of the tongue, but no one ostracized children or women. Later, after the women’s movement, women could choose not to have children, or to have them without a husband, as a “freedom.” What was repression and cruel necessity at one time became a statement of liberation at another.

MJ: Paradise stages a kind of debate between segregation and integration, at a time when some people might feel despair now at failures since the Civil Rights Movement, and the current retreat into cultural nationalism.

TM: Oh yeah—words change definition so quickly. It was important to have a very old situation in which separatism was lauded by elements in African American society because they felt living with whites was intolerable. But separation was also segregation that whites imposed. Booker T. Washington was an accommodationist who thought black education ought to be directed toward vocational skills, not academic ones. It was also part of the black Muslim agenda to open small businesses and have a separate economy. Some of these things just go around and around.

In Paradise, the very people outraged by being rejected by whites and lighter-skinned blacks become the most rejecting community. They learned rejection and began to revere the past so intensely that it became a fiat, cast in stone, a museum almost, so that when younger generations wanted to alter things they were upbraided and scolded.

MJ: You’d said you wanted to create a style of writing that was as “irrevocably black” as black music, and to free up the language from racial codes and metaphorical shortcuts.

TM: I changed over the years. At the beginning I just wanted to make black vernacular read the way I hear it; to make it audible, not as illiterate but as powerful. I was as guilty as some early African American writers who, when they tried to report black speech, made it ungrammatical or dropped the “g”—which you wouldn’t do with a white tenant farmer. I struggled with that and tried to get away from it.

I was experimenting with a kind of musicality and space and silence. Then I began to not flag everything as black and white, to see what would happen. Hemingway has two men, one a “Cuban,” the other “black,” though both are Cuban. The black Cuban is deprived of a country; his only signifier is his skin. “Two Cubans” suggests an equality. There’s all this stuff in the language that you try to dig out, to clean it up.

MJ: You said early on that you wrote for and about black people.

TM: It’s still true, but it’s been misunderstood as exclusive. I meant I’m writing for black people’s sensibility, not for black buyers. But I had trouble making people understand that my choice was as effortless as Dostoevsky’s, and if no one could ask him why he “only” wrote about Russians, why ask me why I “only” write about black people? Only white writers are unraced—the “norm.” It’s a dysfunctional argument.

It was amazing to me how freed-up the text became once I took white people out as predominant figures. The only people who did that were black women writers. Black men write about white men because they’re their nemesis; they have to confront that gaze. As soon as I had a tale that was more like life as I knew it, in which racism loomed very large but not these figures, it freed up the canvas.

MJ: Quite often you’re praised as “transcending colour and creed.” What do you think is going on there?

TM: When they say, “Why don’t you write about white people?” it’s meant as a compliment: “You’re good enough to write about me.” One man, a friend who likes my work, said in introducing me, “She’s first-rate. I never think of her as a black writer or a woman writer. I think of her as…” He paused, and I said, “A white male writer?”

In trying to break open the critical language you have to take risks. When I said, “I’m a black woman writer and I write about black people,” I was up against a critical wall of assumptions. I was trying not to say what others had said, that “I’m a writer and race isn’t important to me.” I didn’t want to go the route of some who either exoticize themselves—like Langston Hughes— or are so pompously literate you lose the fabric of the text. I didn’t want to go into either camp, or sneak into the non-black box; I wanted to take centre space and say, “This is what I do.” I wasn’t hiding behind the ethnic text and saying, “You can’t understand this because you’re white.” It was a major effort on my part. The writers who followed don’t want to be “labelled,” but they have a better chance of not being labelled because my generation was so deliberate about it. I didn’t win friends [laughs], but I thought I’d just ride on the quality of the work. If that failed, the argument would fail with it.

MJ: Some feminists objected to your choosing a male protagonist for your third novel, Song of Solomon.

TM: That was really annoying—to predict where you belong and where your imagination goes and what camp you’re in. I am a woman, so I think I look at the challenges faced by women with a clear eye. But I don’t admit to not being able to do that with a man. I’m told what to do in many areas of my life. But not this one.

All my books were questions for me. I wanted to know: What would happen if . . . ? What do friendship and love mean under those circumstances? How far would you go? I don’t want to write about when it’s normal, but when there’s a serious cataclysm and conflict in belief, a complexity of emotion and behaviour.

MJ: This morning a friend called with the sad news that Edward Said had just died. I always wondered if Playing in the Dark was influenced by Edward’s Orientalism?

TM: It was very much influenced by it, conceptually. I’d taught a course at Princeton, “Studies in American Africanism,” on the way traditional white American writers responded to the world they lived in, which was full of enslaved people and black people. I was looking for a language to clarify that view and found Edward’s language appropriate. He asked me to sign a copy of the book for him once, and I said the debt was obvious.

We’d all been apprehensive about his health for years. But I was dependent on his voice every now and then—a necessary voice as well as an eloquent and powerful one. Particularly now, it seems critical that he’d weigh in on things, critique things. He’s sui generis.

MJ: In Love there’s a reference to Nina Simone. Was that put in after her death?

TM: No, somebody put together a collection of her songs, and she asked them to ask me to do liner notes. Then I got overwhelmed and never did it. But I had this CD and wanted to say something about her voice. I felt bad when she died. She got us through, in a way. She had one of those voices. Singers now, I can’t tell them apart. But Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Aretha Franklin, and Nina never sounded like anybody else.

MJ: Is Love part of the same sequence as your trilogy about the way women love—a quartet?

TM: I wasn’t thinking that. I was thinking of the Civil Rights Movement, what people were thinking before, during, and after it, and the journey of people trying to deal with particular kinds of oppression—what was successful in their response and what was not successful. There were interesting things about the pre-civil-rights days. Though they were full of the obvious legal and social separation, out of that came fabulous businesses and schools that were top-drawer, instances of pride. Then with the development of that middle class, you have a clash with those who have not been welcomed, or who still suffer terribly the consequences of that system of apartheid. That’s what Love was about in my mind, except that was the background.

As the characters began to evolve, I retreated into what I’ve always been fascinated by: those two things I think are singular about human beings and the effort to be human—language and love. You may not have much of either, but those are the distinguishing features, and trying to be a human being is hard. That led me into deeper things.

MJ: The idea of “racial uplift” recurs in the novel— and people’s fear of the girl Heed as a “throwback.”

TM: It’s just a class thing. Heed is perceived, by those who cherish the middle class, as a stain— one unable and unfit for racial progress. She’s uneducated, from a family of no significant contribution—a social throwback or class interloper. Every society as it moves forward is fearful of the ones it leaves behind. Society is based on who gets in and who doesn’t; who penetrates the class, the club, the neighbourhood and who doesn’t. This just happens to have a critical addition of race. Paradise is about the same thing, except their criteria are moral probity and skin colour. The notion of somebody intervening in what you think is a safe haven of money, manners, and acquisition is universal.

MJ: Like ParadiseLove looks back to segregation, with some better-off African Americans lamenting the civil-rights era. What’s your view?

TM: There will always be gains and losses when you’re making a transition. If you came to this country as an Irish Catholic, you’d have gone through the same process: whether to assimilate or not, what to hold on to from the past and what to give up. Most immigrants came here and gave up everything because they didn’t like where they came from. It’s the same for African Americans. What you lose is maybe your history: you sentimentalize it and carry it around as a little token, and maybe that’s good. What you gain is status, power, and a sense of belonging to something larger than you are. The question for African Americans is, what are the benefits? I happen to think it’s not an either/or situation: it seems to me you could have all-black schools and integration at the same time. You can have all-women’s schools and co-education, religious schools and secular schools. It’s just an idiotic duality we’ve imposed on so much public policy that seems to me self-defeating. Abortion rights doesn’t mean everybody has to have an abortion. It’s about increased freedom, not just identifying the one road.

MJ: One of the central relationships in Love could be called a pedophiliac one—Cosey takes an eleven-year-old girl as his wife. What interested you in that?

TM: There’s no pedophilia [laughs]. Everybody’s grandmother was married at thirteen. How old was Juliet, or Helen? It’s such a hypocritical society. When did they decide people have to be married at forty? These are all social constructs where the driving force is not morality but money. The reason not to get married early is people have to work and make money so you can have two cars, two TVs. Children are highly sexualized in this country, and parents are surgically altered to look like them. I’d like everybody to gasp, then think what a good-looking girl is supposed to look like—a twelve-year-old boy. Am I right?

MJ: What’s the connection between the warring women and the background you described?

TM: Their lives are an echo of that, like a shadow line of the political debate in a way—though that should be suppressed. The initial love they had as children, when there were no racial, class, or sexual separations—they didn’t even know they were girls—then moves into a split, a debate, an argument. They were separated, and that you can get over, but not if you force those groups to hate each another. When you take two people who like each other, and some grown-ups with another agenda feel it’s an inappropriate connection, everybody’s “right.” Nothing can trump that except love and language. You have to talk and exercise those feelings of almost witless affection for another human being. If we lose that, the ability to talk to one another, or lose that feeling for the other, there’s really not much left. It’s death—personally, politically, culturally. But I don’t have answers, just maps and questions.

Maya Jaggi is a profile writer for the London Guardian newspaper’s “Saturday Review,” and an award-winning journalist and critic. She reviews widely for the British press and radio, and has been a judge of literary awards, including the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. She wrote and presented the BBC TV documentary Isabel Allende: The Art of Reinvention (2003), and is an executive member of the writers’ association English PEN.

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