Interview with Toni Morrison

            Dr. Toni Morrison delivered six lectures on campus this spring as the 2016 Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry. She has published 11 novels, most recently God Help the Child (2015) and various works of non-fiction criticism. Dr. Morrison won the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012, the National Humanities Medal in 2000, and the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature for giving “life to an essential aspect of American reality.”

            Prof. Morrison generously agreed to meet with Fiction Board member Chloe Brooks on April 13, 2016. Here is the transcript of the conversation.

 

ADVOCATE:

            Throughout your magnificent lectures you turned to various texts, from a medical journal to a Flannery O’Connor short story to your own novels, to illustrate the concepts you discussed—from the role of the stranger to the "color fetish." In your last lecture, you connected contemporary history in your discussion of globalization with a specific literary work you admire, in such a way that one seemed to explicate the other, not in a direct but comprehensive, productive way. Your own works all embed literary narratives within specific historical moments and contexts, but the relation between the two does not stop at mere historical detail. How do you view the relation between imaginative literature and historical events? How does the former, with all the freedom afforded fiction, alter the “picture” of history for the reader?

           

Dr. Toni Morrison:

            I'm up to the last part. But on the penultimate question in there about the relationship between history and literature, I think there's data, and then there's information that comes from data, and then there's knowledge that comes from information. And then, after knowledge, there is wisdom.  I am interested in how to get from data to wisdom. And literature, it seems to me, is wisdom.  Some literature is knowledge, some is just data. But if I can get a "happy" ending—which is when for the characters I'm writing about, something happens that they move from wherever they are in the beginning to knowledge or wisdom, they know something they never would have acknowledged or realized if it hadn't been for my book—that for me is what literature does.

            I did an introduction for Primo Levi. I knew his work, I didn't know it all, but I knew enough. And I read some things that people have said about him, mostly echoing the horrors of the Holocaust. And that was there, but what impressed me enormously about his writings was how he always found humanity, always, he always looked for that, within that context. And what he wrote about are the people who gathered together to save somebody, or the people who shared some food, or the people who died with something in their mouths that they said, that impacted him. Actually, I don't think he gave a shit about the guards. He never talked about them.  They were not even people to him—they were like robots that kill people. And they were irrational.  Like, he took an ice cube to suck, and the guard came and took it away, and he said "why, why'd you do that?" And the guard said, "There are no why's or answers here." So that was it. They were almost non-thinking.  But the people, the humans, were the ones in the barracks. His poems were not so even-keeled, but his writings were.

 

ADVOCATE:

It's possible to write about evil in an interesting way . . . I think of Hannah Arendt, for instance.

 

MORRISON:

Yes, she does, but she says "the banality of evil." That's right. She's on it.

 

ADVOCATE:

You spoke about that during a question and answer, about evil being boring. Is that it—that evil is unthinking?

 

MORRISON:

            Evil is not interesting. What is it, chopping off someone's head? We used to do that as kids, you know, you tear up paper dolls and stuff. I know everyone's done it in the history of the world, but maybe everybody was dumb and they were just looking for something interesting to do. What's really interesting and hard is being good. That's really hard, thinking that way. I remember the Amish people 20 years ago, somebody shot up everybody in their school.  Sent the teachers out and lined up the girls and killed them. And the people, the Amish people, buried their dead, but first they went to see [the killer's] wife, and ask her if she needed anything, and "what about the children—can we take care of you, do you need anything?" And there was a lot of press, the newspaper people came down, "Oh my God, isn't this terrible." And [the Amish people] wouldn't talk to them. They had one thing to say—I think the leader said "God judges." So the story changed in the press from the deaths of these children to the fact that the Amish wouldn't talk. 

            That was a category of something that I thought put evil in its place. It's not that it didn't happen and they're not dead, but we're not talking about it—that's not our main thing. We want to see what we can do to help this widow. We don't even care if you put him in jail. It's not even about forgiveness, they just step away. 

            My metaphor is that evil always has a top hat and a cape, and goodness is over there in the corner. For me it's just too easy, if you hate your country or your wife, so you kill them. You can't think through that, you can't feel through that, you can't do the work. And now we have guns.  Solution? I don't think so. 

            Well, that's my version. It's not Christian. It's just a pure mindful use of one's brain, and language, that's all we got.  If we had no language we'd have nothing. I don't care what the whales do, and the birds—yeah, I got it.

 

ADVOCATE:

Why do you look for "data" in history? Is there something interesting to you about imagining from within historical circumstances?

 

MORRISON:

            First of all, it's what I know. And there are parts of it that I don't know that I want to know about. The past is interesting to me because it's been dumbed down or flattened out, or academically nitpicked so you can't get any life out of it, you just get data.

            And I also have difficulties with contemporary language. Big difficulties. I counted, you know, something like 160 words have disappeared from the English language because of the use of the word "like." "I'm like, he's like"—not "thought," not "as if ."

 

ADVOCATE:

There are parts of God Help the Child (Morrison's 11th novel, published in 2015) which I couldn't help thinking must have hurt a little bit, for you—to write like that.

 

MORRISON:

            The dialogue. Oh God. But that's what it takes. And of course I didn't even get into the initial things which you see on computers. Some of them, I get it, but why not just say it? Nobody has the time. Language, demeaning it, I guess they think that makes it more easily understood.  And I don't know if that's going to change.

            When I was writing God Help the Child I had to solve that problem. Because I put the book aside, because I couldn't get the contemporary language. When I put her in a professional category of being in the fashion industry, I could deal with the fashion industry, when I put him as a graduate student I could do that, when I had the woman who had been put in prison falsely.  I knew what prison life was like, not from experience. But I remember calling Angela Davis, and I said, isn't it true that in a woman's prison, the worst crime you could commit is child abuse or child murder, she said absolutely. Whatever you do, whoever you chop up, if you bother a child, you will be beaten, they will toss your mattress. She said that on all the walls of women's prisons, they have pictures of children.

            Maybe [I care about language] because I'm an editor, maybe because I'm picky, but it's all we got, don't shrink it.  Don't dumb it out, make it little.  I wonder how children talk. I got to listen to my grandchildren. They're 10, 11, real smart. I got to listen to them.

 

ADVOCATE:

            Would you comment on the relation between what you are hoping to represent to others and the kind of discoveries, pleasures, and real inspiration the great malleability of language affords you?

 

MORRISON:

            Well, there's a contract that I make between myself, the author, and the reader. I have to figure out how to give the reader certain powers of recognition, or his own knowledge, his own feelings, but I provide them, so we're working together. And I have a lot of respect for readers because I'm a reader.  That's how I got into writing.

            It's seduction, for me. I want to seduce you, and have you happy, pleased, for what you have received, or what you have learned, or what you have felt. And I want to keep you there, and deliver something worth of your attention, of your feelings.

            The best short examples of that are when I write about sex. Because it's never clinical, it's never graphic, there are no bad words, it's all imagistic and open. Because, first of all I prefer language that way about copulation and so on, and I assume your sex is better than mine.  Why, because it's yours. And if you can sink into the language of that, bringing your own inexperiences or experiences to it, of that.

            So that's the most graphic example I can give you, of the writing. But there are many other examples.

            I say in one book, "They shoot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time" (Paradise, published in 1997). Do you want to look, and see who's the white girl? Many people do. Although I never say who she is, ever. And some people spend some time [trying to find out]. Some people spend a little time, and then they get involved in the book, and then they don't care. It's a hat trick, but it really is not irrelevant because of the nature of the book. I thought that was an interesting way to talk about race, by signaling it and then cutting it off. Does it matter? That's me inviting the reader to abandon it all. Artifice with a point.  It's not just beauty, it really is about learning. It's bliss when you give up all that stuff that separates you from other human beings. It's hard, but you break down all that stuff.

            And I felt when I left Princeton that there wasn't a great deal of that left.  I felt that so much of that was being broken down. You could have a conversation about race, maybe, but they'd gotten over it in some sense, the blacks and the whites. Now I only taught a few of them, I guess the jocks are still doing what they do, but I was feeling very hopeful when I left there. What's interesting is everybody's talking about it, and maybe that's good . . . but it's happening. I feel hopeful.  In spite of the murders.

            I was telling my son, all this he shot so-and-so, unarmed, that happened all the time. All the time. It was never in the press. It was in the black newspapers sometimes. I didn't know this for a long time, but my father as a boy in Cartersville, Georgia, had seen two lynched people on his street. Two men who owned a country store, they were hanging from trees right outside, down the road.  He was fourteen.  So he left, and went somewhere else. But to have that, to know that, see that, feel that, is a kind of a trauma. He never spoke about it, so I guess that's how he dealt with it.  But I know his attitude about white people was based on that. So I was doing a radio show, and I talked about how he threw a drunken white man down the stairs.  And for me, the horror was he threw out tricycle after him. But the interviewer said, "didn't that upset you?  Weren't you traumatized by that?" And I said, "Well, I would feel just how you did if a black man climbed up the stairs, and your father was there." Silence.

 

ADVOCATE:

            Readers deeply appreciate the political dimension of your work, but for you it seems politics and literature are both infused with and challenged by the same problems and possibilities. Would you say this is true?

 

MORRISON:

            I think it's true. I'm losing the definition now of politics. I sort of don't know what that is anymore. People say politically correct, I don't know what that means. I know what they think they mean.  But most of the really good literature I've read in my life was political, meaning it was important—about something going on in the history of the world—or contemporary. Think of anybody—Dostoevsky or Jane Austen—[their work] was always something that now we would call political.  So I don't see those separations too much, between what is artistic and what is political. Maybe in painting . . . no, I don't even believe that. 

            I think it's like music—it certainly is true of opera—where you have an art form describing, relating, concerning a political situation, whether it's love, or women, or death. Or Shakespeare. It seems to me everything he did was political.  And you can do anything you want with it, emphasize this, or that, but the heart of [his work] is Macbeth. It's about something in your life, and the powers that be, whether kings, or queens or armies. That's my feeling. It isn't a question of putting the two together, or separating them, it's a question of letting art do its work. I know there's some poetry that sort of sounds like daisies, but most of the good poetry is also [political], you can feel the heartbeat; it's about some situation that concerns human beings under duress.  It's suggesting a solution, or just acknowledging that [the situation] exists. Art does that.  There are some very powerful contributions to knowledge in the scientific world or the legal world, but art is singular. That's why every dictator gets rid of the artists first. They burn the books and execute the artists first. Then they get on with whatever else they're interested in. Art might do something. It's dangerous.

 

ADVOCATE:

            In an interview late in his life, E.L. Doctorow seemed to say that art and history were one in the same, that "There is really no fiction or non-fiction; there is only narrative. One mode of perception has no greater claim on the truth than the other; that the distance has perhaps to do with distance—narrative distance—from the characters; it has to do with the kind of voice that is talking, but it certainly hasn't to do with the common distribution between fact and imagination."  He later said the thing he'd wanted most, for a very long time—he'd dedicate his whole life to it—would be for the New York Times to let him write the newspaper for one day.

 

MORRISON:

            He was fantastic. Of course I loved his writing, but I liked him too.  He was the only other editor who also became a writer, aside from me. I remember he introduced me at some event.  He said, "I don't think of her as a black writer.  I don't even think of her as a woman writer, I think of her as a . . . " and he paused, and I said, "white male writer."  And he laughed.

 

ADVOCATE:

            You discussed in your lectures the power of the voices of your characters to "take over"—you mentioned that you had the hardest time shutting up Pilate in Song of Solomon—and you yourself take on an extraordinary range of voices throughout your works, from the murdered child of Beloved to the millennial Bride in God Help the Child. Is this for you, as a writer, itself a means of "being and becoming the stranger"?

 

MORRISON:

            Yeah, I didn't think of it that way, but there is this sense of belonging and not belonging. My efforts are to get inside somebody I don't know or somebody I do know, and to find what's strange about that.  The bluest eye was the first one.  I had this friend, we were nine years old, and she had this other life, this desire. And the book is about that. We used her, those of us who were not her, we used her demise, and covered up our own vulnerabilities. It's a perennial examination. I don't have—well I do have, but nobody pays attention—solutions to all these problems.  But I can wend my way toward something that would be a confrontation, an acknowledgement of something that is more interesting, more complicated, and harder.

 

 

ADVOCATE:

            When you talk about listening, or creating and simultaneously hearing the voices of your characters, it sounds sort of like the experience of reading. And you were an editor, and describe yourself still as a reader. Is writing like reading for you?

 

MORRISON:

            It's like reading aloud. It's like telling a story aloud. Cause I always hear it. Somebody was asking me earlier how come I did recordings of all my books. Well I didn't in the beginning; I had two actresses—good actresses—but I never listened to the tapes.  And then one day I did, and I said, 'that's not right." She said the same words. But [when I wrote it] I heard, "124 was spiteful." Boom. Pause.  "Full of a baby's venom."  She had put them together.  It was almost like she said, "because it was [full of a baby's venom]." I mean, you can do that . . . but I said, "no."

 

ADVOCATE:

            In your third lecture, "The Color Fetish," you expressed your desire to write "non-colorist literature about black people." As the first African American female Nobel laureate, you are a symbolic figure for many, who appreciate your work precisely as "colorist literature."  Yet while you write about black people, you seem not to want to write exclusively about blackness. Can you comment on this difference, and the tension between how you are read and what you have in mind when—and why—you write? 

 

MORRISON:

            I used to insist on it being about black people because that's what I knew, and what I wanted to talk about, and [I wanted] to insert that into the world of literature.  And then I wrote, and found myself and the literature complimented as black—"this is a good black book." When I won the Nobel Prize, the New York Times ran an article about whether or not it was an affirmative action choice.

            Now I don't have to do that anymore, now I can just take it out. The word. Not the people, not the facts.  A guy can't go to the toilet, in the 50s, and he has to pee outside, or he has to sit in a certain place on the bus, you know he's black. But I don't close it in a black box.

 

ADVOCATE:

            You mentioned in answer to a question after one of your early lectures, that you told your own writing students not to write about themselves, or the lives they already knew, but to imagine the lives of people they do not know. Would you care to comment on why you chose to force your students to deal with the unknown?

 

MORRISON:

            It was more exciting to me to monitor that project. Because I know that the formula for creative writing in high school or college is write what you know. And I said they don't know nothing.  Imagine something. Do you know what it's like to be a Madame in Paris, when you're too old to have any clients. No, you don't. I don't either. Write about it. They really wrote surprising things, because they were liberated from "write what you know." You're twenty. Shut up.