Where did the idea for Sula come from?
Oprah: Where does Sula come from? How did it start with you?
Toni: At the time, this is right after The Bluest Eye 1969–70, I got another idea for this book based on the fact that the feminist movement was just beginning and women were saying, "We have got to stop competing with each other. We should love one another. We should be friends with one another." And I thought, 'That's odd.' In my community, black women have always been other black women's best friends because there were no agencies. There was no one else to go to. When my mother said 'sister' about a neighbor, she really meant it. In church [when] they said 'my sister,' they meant it in this very, very profound way.
Oprah: Or even just in the culture where it's 'Sister so and so.'
Toni: Absolutely. So that's when I began to think about that particular kind of relationship. Suppose I had a bad girl, you know, who really didn't care. She cared about her friend, but she was not a conventional woman. And I got very attracted to the idea, particularly to Sula. ... I've always said I don't want to go to lunch with Sula, but honestly, she was totally mesmerizing throughout that book.
Oprah: Yes. And I think to be a woman living in the world and to have not read the book, then you have missed out on so much of what women have to share with each other, what women have to give each other.
Lori: What I admire about your work is that you take on what's a really tough thing to communicate, which is, I think, the nature of mother-daughter bonds. It's very difficult to really articulate how close and how deep they are. ... Maybe [Hannah is] overwhelmed that someone could love her that much, but at the same time it's frightening that [her mother, Eva] would have the capacity to love [her] that much. Unconditional love.
Toni: Do I really deserve that?
Oprah: That is so significant when Hannah says to Eva, 'Mama, did you ever love us?' Oh, don't you love that? Because I think her explanation is everything every woman, mother, ever wanted to say and didn't. You know, because now we live in a generation where it's 'hug your kids, love your kids.'
Evelyn: Let me tell you, reading this book made me appreciate my mother so much. I love my mother. Sometimes I don't tell her enough that I love her. I love the things about her. Her strength.
Lori: I wonder when Hannah poses that question to her, 'Why didn't you ever play with us?' if it's because on some level she realizes and is overwhelmed by the depth of love that her mother has and this is almost inconceivable. You come back to it: 'I can't believe that a human being loves me so much.'
Toni: She's trying to negotiate this whole thing about love. 'Did you ever love us? Why didn't you say so?' You know, her daughter just wants to know, 'Was this ever really love?' And all she can say is, 'I stayed alive...for you.'
Were the women in the book bad mothers?
Oprah: Was it you who said in your letter, Lori, all of these women in their own way were trying to do what was best for their daughters?
Oprah: And there's a whole culture of women who have done that.
Lori: Absolutely. They don't talk about it.
Oprah: They want you to behave a certain way and look a certain way.
Toni: Yes, the best they knew how to be.
Oprah: They did the best they could with what they knew how to do.
Toni: And that's what we all do, and we hope that the next generation figures out something else. Or more. Or certainly respects the limitations and the power of the one that preceded them. All that's hidden in this book.
L'Tanya: I teach Sula. I've read it 16 times, and picking it up every year, at different times in my life, there are certain parts of it that appeal to me. The relationship, the 'woman love,' is so powerful. I have sisters. I was blessed with an amazing mother, and so that woman love is there for me all throughout. The friendship. The power of that friendship is extraordinary. And even now, this idea of passion and living life passionately the way [Sula] does is hitting home for me...
Oprah: Like a redwood and not like a stump.
L'Tanya: Exactly. That largeness. Oh, she inspires me. Every time.
Toni: I am delighted to hear that. No one knows the risk of writing such a book. You know, people are not going to like this because the wonderful person doesn't end beautifully. I'm saying, 'Look, friendship is important. It's important if you have a friend that no matter what, you should hang on to them because [they are rare].'
Gerri: And that's what was so disappointing, because they're so far and few between. The way they could finish each other's sentences and talk for each other...
Toni: They were that close. And of course, only sexual treachery could break them up, which is what in fact will break them up. But I was trying to suggest, 'Okay, your friend may not always be nice. May not always agree. May even drive you mad. May offend you. But if that other quality is there, that is so valuable. That kind of love, you have to hang onto it.'
Who does Toni Morrison write for?
Toni: I feel it, and I feel the connection with other people, and I know that I can't sell you short. I cannot sell my readers short. They know better than that. I don't care what kind of cute little stories they hear. I know they know that when you are writing level one and there's an under-story, I know they hear it. They may even refuse to hear it the first time.
Evelyn: You're the most courageous writer I know. You take risks. You don't care what anybody thinks about the conclusions. The beginning. They're your words. And I just love you for that. I love you for allowing me to be able to read something that helps me identify who I am. And identify relationships. Don't ever stop writing! Don't ever stop writing what you feel, what you love. ... I just thank you for always writing things that you feel and that I feel and that other women feel. ... Somewhere deep down, you know we feel it.
Gerri: I read [Sula] and I thought, 'Okay, that's a nice book. I'm glad I read it.' And I put it down. Then I thought, 'This can't be one of [Oprah's] top choices of books [if it left me] feeling that way!'
Oprah: You didn't get it the first time.
Gerri: I thought there must be something else. ... When I read it again, I was almost a little angry because I was so sad. I wanted something else to happen to [Sula and Nel]. I knew that you were trying to teach us about women and friendship and motherhood, and I wanted them to find that.
Oprah: Don't read Toni if you just want a happy ending! Don't read Toni! People say, 'Oh, you don't have a happy ending.' Well, when do you? This is reality.
Toni: It's about thinking. It's about living your life. Happy endings are insulting in a way when there's something much more interesting [in] how you negotiate your life with other people.
Lori: Real life.
Toni: Real life. That's the interesting stuff. It's like if you have a choice between the flat line and the one that goes like this [indicating up and down], I hope you choose the one that's up and down. You've got this life. You have to respect the work you do and get in it.
Lori: I absolutely agree with the line image. I tell my students, 'Make sure you play in the deep end of the pool. It's much more interesting!'
What does Toni love about reading?
Toni: Stories don't close for me. I just get rid of the cast of characters. ... I hope [books] are like music in the sense that you hear something in Beloved when you're 17 for certain reasons, and then you don't you hear it for a while. Then when you're 27, you hear it again, but it's an entirely different piece of music. What's happening is that the musician has arranged it so that you could grow on it. The musician has made it so that when you read it 20 years later, it isn't that the music's changed...it's that you did. That's always been what I love about reading certain books. Later on, here I am, a new reader with different experiences, a different ear. Now I know what that relationship, whatever it is, is really like. You see?
Oprah That is so much the truth, I cannot tell you! That is how I feel every time I pick up one of your books. I could cry right now. Even last night, when I was rereading Sula again, knowing that you were going to be here, I thought, 'I just read it a month ago and I've come back, and there's a whole other layer!' That's the best explanation I've ever heard.