The legendary Toni Morrison sits down with Pam Houston to discuss the beginning (Ohio), the middle (her revolutionary first novels), and her latest (the magisterial Love).
We feel lucky if, during the course of our lives, we have a chance to sit and talk with one of our heroes. But when our hero not only lives up to but surpasses our expectations, we feel something closer to chosen, even blessed. Such were my feelings on a humid summer morning at Toni Morrison's apartment in lower Manhattan, where we began an extraordinary conversation that would—to my delight and surprise—last all day.
Toni Morrison on:
Ms. Morrison is a person who gives you her full attention; who wants, even in the context of an interview, to have a conversation; who is entirely self-possessed without being the least bit self-obsessed; who is at every minute teaching, and at every minute eager to learn. She exudes a comfortable elegance, from the work of art that is her hair—masses of neat, identical dreadlocks, every color between black and white, pulled away from her face and braided into a kind of inverted fountain that falls down her back—to the delicate green and gold sandals. The occasion was the publication of her eighth novel, Love, which, like many of her other novels (Paradise, Jazz, Beloved, Sula) bears a one-word title. Love is built—"like a crystal," Ms. Morrison says—around two women, Christine and Heed, best childhood friends, whose relationship disintegrated because of the internal pressures of desegregation and the sexual shenanigans of one powerful man named Bill Cosey. Christine and Heed are old women when the novel begins, living in stalemated silence on separate floors of a dilapidated seaside resort when a young female con artist named Junior upends their lives.
"The idea of a wanton woman is something I have inserted into almost all of my books," Ms. Morrison said. "An outlaw figure who is disallowed in the community because of her imagination or activity or status—that kind of anarchic figure has always fascinated me. And the benefits they bring with them, in spite of the fact that they are either dismissed or upbraided—something about their presence is constructive in the long run. Sula, for instance, was someone the other characters missed terribly when she was gone, even though she was the pariah. In Love, Junior is a poor, rootless, free-floating young woman—a survivor, a manipulator, a hungry person—but she does create a space where people can come with their better selves."
She said she was alarmed when she realized the title of this book might be Love, but the fact of her alarm was so interesting to her, it kept her from dismissing the idea.
"It is easily the most empty cliché, the most useless word, and at the same time the most powerful human emotion—because hatred is involved in it, too. I thought if I removed the word from nearly every other place in the manuscript, it could become an earned word. If I could give the word, in my very modest way, its girth and its meaning and its terrible price and its clarity at the moment when that is all there is time for, then the title does work for me."
Ms. Morrison has perfect elocution and speaks more precisely, more articulately than anyone I have spoken to in my life. She is soft-spoken and regal, except for the odd moment when she erupts into raucous laughter and throws herself sideways into an overstuffed chair. Her humor and authenticity put me so at ease, it was hard to remember I was in the presence of a Nobel Prize winner.
Ever since Ms. Morrison began her first novel, The Bluest Eye, in 1965, writing has always been her place of clarity, an "unsullied place of envisioning and imagining," a place where she has been totally free. When I ask her how she silenced the naysaying voices that sit on the shoulders of so many young writers, she laughs again.
"I guess I was just that arrogant. Nobody was going to judge me, because they didn't know what I knew. No African-American writer had ever done what I did—none of the writers I knew, even the ones I admired—which was to write without the White Gaze. My writing wasn't about them."
"Things were going very fast in 1965, so I decided I wanted to write a novel that was not a warning but was just literature, and I wanted to put at the center of that story the most helpless creature in the world—a little black girl who doesn't know anything, who has never been center stage. I wanted it to be about a real girl, and how that girl hurts, and how we are all complicitous in that hurt. I didn't care what white people thought, because they didn't know anything about this. This was the age of 'black is beautiful,' and, well, yeah, that is certainly the case; however, let us not forget why that became a necessary statement.
"This was brand-new space, and once I got there, it was like the whole world opened up, and I was never going to give that up. I felt original. I hate to admit that because it sounds so self-regarding, I didn't feel like an original human being, but the work was original. You know that feeling—that if you don't write it, it will never be written? You think, Eudora Welty can't do it, only you.
On The Greater Good
Whether she's talking about fiction or society, Ms. Morrison's agenda never strays from the greater good, the common good, and how by honoring our own intricacies, as she so relentlessly honors the intricacies of her characters, we might—in these uncertain and dangerous times—bring about a gentler world.
"I tell my students, 'When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game.'
"This is the time for every artist in every genre to do what he or she does loudly and consistently. It doesn't matter to me what your position is. You've got to keep asserting the complexity and the originality of life, and the multiplicity of it, and the facets of it. This is about being a complex human being in the world, not about finding a villain. This is no time for anything else than the best that you've got."
Printed from Oprah.com on Tuesday, May 21, 2013
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