A conversation with Toni Morrison

The Nobel prize meant a lot to me. It was a huge surprise. Very pleasant. I never thought of it as … although I think I said things that were expected of me about how I felt about its being awarded to my work, which I thought was obviously deserving, and it represented America, it represented women, it represented black women, it represented … you know. But at heart, I thought it was mine.

Professor Toni Morrison, who, in 1993, was the first black American woman to win the Nobel prize for literature for her body of work, has died in New York at the age of 88. More than any other black writer in contemporary African-American literature, Toni Morrison captured the battles of class and the struggles to define status that are part of the Black American experience. And she did so with a combination of deep erudition, wisdom and an ear for the music of dialogue.

Born in Lorraine, Ohio, a small town near the shores of Lake Erie, her grandparents had been sharecroppers and miners. They were poor, but in a very tightly knitted together community, and a love of music and tales of the supernatural world woven throughout her childhood. Her mother cleaned houses to help her get through college. In her job as an editor in the late 1960s and 1970s, Toni Morrison published the Black Panthers and Angela Davis. She also helped to edit The Black Book in 1974, an informative and visually fascinating scrapbook of photographs, old newspaper columns, letters, advertisements, posters, handbills, and documents-all having to do with the achievements of blacks in America-going back some 300 years. In her later work, Beloved, published in 1987, she wrote a story about a slave woman, which gained her the Pulitzer prize and an international reputation. In 1993 she won the Nobel prize for literature.

When I spoke with her at the 2004 Edinburgh International Book Festival, she first read first from her novel Love which had just been published. Set in Cosey’s Hotel and Resort, it is the story of its founder Bill Cosey (now dead) and the women that had been part of his life. The resort flourished as a place for rich Black Americans to holiday in a non-discriminatory setting, set up in the Depression-era. But in the 1990s when the novel is set, it has long been in decline.

Toni Morrison: Thank you very much for your warm welcome. I am going to read the opening to Love for a number of reasons, one of which you should know about, which is that I was able to find a narrator for this story that could function technically well for me and also who had a voice that I thought was necessary to explain a good deal of what happens. She is part of the action. She opens the book, she closes the book; she intervenes a couple of times throughout the story (in order to reveal secrets that the other characters don’t know) and to give a general feeling and a kind of overview of this length of time that passes. And her name is L, the letter L. I have to warn you, she’s very judgmental. She uses the first person because she’s narrating the story. And her views are not necessarily those of the author.

[reads from: ‘The women’s legs are spread wide open … to … I know I need something else. Something better-like a story that shows how brazen women can take a good man down. I can hum to that.]

Ramona Koval: Do you have reading aloud in mind when you write?

Toni Morrison: No, no, no. I hear it a very specific way. Very specific emphasis, very specific rhythm. It has a very clear and obvious sound. But I want it to read well quietly, on the page. And I don’t even remember the sound until I read it myself, aloud. Because I notice I always read it the same way with the same emphasis, et cetera. And when I’ve heard other people read my work on audiotape-really first-rate actresses-I don’t know what they’re talking about. I say, no, that’s not it, that’s not the way it goes …

Ramona Koval: But that idea of the holiday place that’s kind of gone to seed – it’s a wonderful setting. Many places like that, all over the world, they have the same draw for people. People still like to go there and kind of get ghostly emanations from what it used to be like.

Toni Morrison: It’s true. And in the States, particularly among African-Americans, there were lots of those places that thrived before the successes and the progress of the civil rights movement. And some of them are sort of coming back, but they were very, very important. And to see them dilapidated and useless now is a cause for some nostalgia on the one hand-and perhaps not, on the other. Because one of the points of the story was the kind of life that was available under the duress of complete segregation in the south. And how some people were not all that happy for integration or being able to go to other places, other neighbourhoods, other schools and other resorts-because of the consequences on their business, you see.

Ramona Koval: Now Bill Cosey, he knew that if you had good music the money would follow. And he designed this place. It was his thing.

Toni Morrison: It’s very much a good time spot for him. Trying to be as unlike his father, who was a stingy man, and a kind of informer. He wanted to do just the opposite and to be very, very generous, to have good music-you know, to have the life of fun, is what he really wanted. But he had, like I suppose most people who have some power and some licence, he could act out his whim as well as his good intentions.

Ramona Koval: L talks about the Cosey women, and they’re very much a group of women who all translate everything through this man. He is the sun and they are the planets-around which they go.

Toni Morrison: Yes. They’re all very much interested in what he thinks and whom he loves. Everything bad that happened to them is his fault. They’re generally right. Everything bad that happened to them was definitely his fault. But they were very close as little girls, and then the intervention of this man, by marrying one of them before she’d reached puberty broke that up a little bit. And the consequences of that were the ashes of that relationship. And they are having trouble and have had trouble for years, decades, trying to exorcise him from their lives. Because my feeling was that as interesting a man as he is, the kind of power that he exerted isn’t possible unless the women are giving him that power; they’re complicit in it. Nobody just gets up and walks away. Or if they do, they keep coming back, or thinking about it. So they are attracted to his power, no matter what it is, whether it’s resentment or hatred-he still is in control with all of those women. And they seem not to have an interior life that doesn’t involve him.

Ramona Koval: And then Junior arrives. This is the one with the short, short skirt.

Toni Morrison: Yes. Very short.

Ramona Koval: Now she is a new woman, really, isn’t she, the new young woman. She’s suffered in her own way and she has had a lot of hard knocks. But she’s a different kind of woman, isn’t she?

Toni Morrison: Yes, I think new. The generation that populates most of the novel-Eve and Christine, the two girls who were friends, are in their late 60s now. L is even older. But there’s another generation, and this girl is 16 or 17 years old, with a different kind of history. Part of which was abandonment. But her taking control of her life – she’s a little feral, I admit – like a grown-up she-child. But she is tough and she sort of ‘owns’ herself. Manipulative, provocative, seductive. One of them says she looks like one of those faces on the ‘Save This Child’ poster. So she can look very big-eyed and wonderful and at the same time narcissistic. She is the only one she’d shock in her life. The only one she could shock. So when she comes into this milieu she could be anything you want, so long as it’s pushing her own interest. And she obviously wants to take over this house with these two old crazy ladies in it. And she has a little sex toy that she found in town, also. A young boy, Roman, who is 14 and-shall I go on? I’ll let you wend your way through that one.

Ramona Koval: Well, she also becomes, in a sense, under the spell of Mr Cosey, but a photograph of him …

Toni Morrison: She of course never knew him, he’s dead by that time. But in his bedroom is this huge portrait of him, painted from a snapshot. And when she sees it, she imagines and invents for her own purposes the ultimate Daddy; the one that protects you, looks out for you, but lets you do anything you want-and approves even of your naughtiness but at the same time is always on your side. Which is part of the void in her own life, you know, the absence of a father and a disinterested mother and being in child institutions, reform schools and so on. So she invents a Cosey that’s hers-as all the other women have invented the kind of man that they believed he was. But she performs, you’re quite right, as a kind of catalyst for almost all of the action that takes place in the book.

Ramona Koval: Now Bill Cosey is a complicated character, and we won’t give too much away about what happens. But as in most of your writing, you can live with complexity in your characters. And you don’t paint these pictures of all good or all evil. And people who do bad things-you have a great sense of forgiveness and humility about you as the writer of these people.

Toni Morrison: Yes, it’s very difficult for me to get interested in comic book characters who are all of anything. Or even 90 per cent of anything. It does reflect life; and as a novelist, I’m really interested in the deviation from the common, normal, quiet, successful life that most of us have, I’m sure. But mostly in the things that set you a little bit apart. And also I think my job as a writer is not-I don’t really want to make those judgments. I just want to make sure that if I imagine a character and fully realise that character, that I can look at the world the way that character does. And it’s not a question of justification; it’s a question of bearing witness to a certain kind of individual and getting it right. Whether they turn out to be mostly bad or mostly good, or usually somewhere in between-is because of the nature of their own experiences and their own background and what they thought about and what they’ve been able to imagine.

But for me, the happy, happy endings that exist in all my books-which some people doubt because people drop dead all the time, and they keep saying, why? What happened? But for me, it’s the epiphanies. It’s the fact that they know something at the end of the novel that they didn’t know at the beginning. And the possibility for fulfilment or imagination or some grand solution to a question that they have, exists. And that for me is what I call upbeat and optimistic; not whether they live forever-or even live.

Ramona Koval: Because actually this is not the only world in your fiction. There are other worlds: there are ghost worlds, there are spirit worlds.

Toni Morrison: Yes, there’s a very close connection in many of my books, between the living and the dead. And I thought at the beginning it was just a kind of cultural thing, of acknowledging the presence of ghosts not as scary things but just really powerful memories of people. Summoning up grandparents or children or aunts … in order to have conversations with them. Or get advice, or what have you-was not that alien in the culture in which I grew up. But more importantly, it was a kind of way of seeing a level of existence underneath the mundane one. A magical life that many of us are sort of aware of and may convert into something else like religion or like art or like something else. But there’s this little echo of another kind of life that exists. But principally it worked for me technically. Like in this book. I didn’t want to be the omnipotent voice, and I needed someone else and so I chose this woman, L, who was the chef in this hotel. But you know she had to live the whole thing, and so she’s dead for some of the book. And I remember my editor saying-now what did he say? He said, ‘Are we supposed to know that she’s dead from the beginning?’ And I said, ‘I want the reader to know, at some point, early, that she’s not alive. But the problem is that she doesn’t know.’ And I can’t have her say things that it’s that obvious, the fact that she’s – in the part I read to you, she’s in a restaurant … the next time we see her I think sitting on somebody’s dresser … and the next time she’s at the hotel. You know, she moves around constantly. And then toward the end there’s an explicit conversation. But her ability-I mean, who knows? The transition from life into not-life for a powerfully imaginative person might be quite like that-but she’s never really buried in that sense. But it was certainly a solution to a lot of technical problems that I had with that particular voice.

Ramona Koval: She’s a great voice. She’s got some great opinions and she’s got some great ways of expressing herself. And I’m pleased you invented her. But why do you think you didn’t want to have a narrative voice of the author-omniscient?

Toni Morrison: I needed the space. I needed to stand back from that voice. I wanted an ‘I’ that was not the author. I didn’t want to confuse that voice with a character who actually functioned in that house and manipulated people and concludes certain activity. She’s very much part of the narrative of that story. And I was able in some books to have a tone that could work. Like Paradise I was able to do it. Even in Beloved I was able to have a kind of a distant, all-knowing but comfortable, I think, voice that the narrator trusted. But in some instances I don’t want the reader to trust the voice. In Jazz I wanted a narrator that was wrong most of the time, or could make a mistake. the same thing here. I didn’t want the reader to be that comfortable in that voice. I wanted the edge, so that the participation of the reader would be more edgy, more intact, in a sense.

Ramona Koval: I read where you once said that painting, visual art, was really important for your writing.

Toni Morrison: Yes, that has been true. Sometimes I have taken-I don’t know if it’s called plagiarism if you take it from a painting, is it?

Ramona Koval: Inspiration …

Toni Morrison: Inspiration. Good. There’s an Edvard Munch painting that I literally lifted and redescribed in a sequence in Song of Solomon of a crowd going that way and a face coming this way down at the bottom. Because the palette of the books are so important to me. Sometimes they’re obvious paintings. Now I’m a little bit better at it, I can think it up myself. Like the scene on the shore of this hotel, I just stayed with it until I imagined every detail of it. Or some books I will withdraw colour, like Beloveddoesn’t have any colour in it at all. And so that when colour is mentioned, it kind of leaps up. Orange patch on a quilt, or somebody suddenly sees green. For the rest of it, there are no adjectives for colour. Song of Solomon starts out with red, white and blue. None of this is interesting or important to the reader, but it’s the way in which I can get into it. Because it’s powerfully visual to me. First. It has to be somewhere and there is some collection of colours, there is some movement in order for me to put those people there.

I had a sort of a funny thing happen in a book I wrote in Sula, because-this is just an example of how critical it’s been to me. A woman is going to have a visit from her former husband, somebody who walked out on her. She hasn’t seen him in years and years. And so he comes in and she’s not sure what she’s going to feel. Is she going to be indifferent? Is she going to slap him? Is she going to let … she didn’t know. So he comes in and he’s as reckless and irresponsible as he ever was. And she finds out that she really couldn’t care less. And so when he leaves the house he walks out of the door and he walks down the porch steps and he jumps into this green car. An old-fashioned Ford, you know, in the early days when they first made them, with the big square tops. And he hits the horn. And the horn sounds like those old horns, It goes, ‘ooga, ooga’. And when she hears that sound, then she knows what she feels – which is, you know, she laughs. But she wasn’t sure what she was going to do. And I thought it was a pretty interesting scene. And then somebody said, but this is 1895. There were no Fords. So it was a big problem here. Really big. What is he going to go toward now?

So I thought and thought and thought. And I had him walk out of the door, down the steps, out the gate; and there was a woman waiting for him. And she laughed, this big city laugh. And then the woman knows what she thinks. But the important thing to me was the woman was in this apple-green dress. Because whatever he was walking toward, was this colour of this bright, apple green car. So I just took away the car and put in a woman and changed ‘ooga, ooga’ for her laughter. But she had to be in that dress. This of no importance to anyone except me.

Ramona Koval: You mentioned your editor before. And you worked as an editor for many years and edited other people’s work. What’s your relationship with your editor like? Is it like any other author with their editor, or is there a kind of wisdom that you bring to it, given that …

Toni Morrison: I think I bring a little wisdom. He’s a very good editor, and I work well with him. And our conversations are probably a little bit more efficient because he doesn’t have to go through the editor thing of persuasion … and I know all the true stuff. And he also knows what not to touch. And that’s important. He knows that. Our fights are violent about commas. He’s berserk on the subject. Every breath is a comma, not just the grammar, but also – is there a comma before ‘and’? I mean, please … And I’m thinking of sound and the music and how I want this sentence to run on. And he’s … In Jazz I did it my way and-which is probably why nobody can read it aloud well. But subsequently, I accommodated him with this book … let him win.

Ramona Koval: I’ve just noticed the time. We have to let the audience in on this. Can you perhaps-put the lights up. Yes, sir …

Audience question Hi. It’s just a quick question, why did you choose the title Love?

Toni Morrison: I didn’t, actually. I had another title that was much better for me. It was incomprehensible to anybody else. And it was too hard to explain, but it was a working title. And then when the publisher was silent when he heard what the title was, and I was talking about the book, trying to explain the book-well it’s about this … no, it means this. And he said, well why don’t you just call it ‘Love’.? And I said, that has got to be the worst title in the world. Talk about trite. And he said, well, there are very few books, if any, which have ‘love’ without an adjective-or a phrase-just the word alone. So I was a little fearful of it and I didn’t think it was going to work, and then I went back into the manuscript and removed that word, love, from everywhere it was ever mentioned, except from L, who has, I guess, earned the right to use it. And the women only speak it once, when they, too, have earned it. But there were twelve other instances in which it had been used in the connection that I could have used something else. So I wanted to pump it up and have that question in people’s minds: what does this book mean about love?

Ramona Koval: Another question, yes …

Audience question: After The Bluest Eye you said you regretted using the name Toni Morrison. Do you still?

Toni Morrison: Yes

Audience member: So why haven’t you reverted?

Toni Morrison: Well it became useful to me later. Toni was a nick-name. Morrison is the name of my children’s father, former husband. And I thought I would use Chloe Wofford, which is my given name and my family’s name. And I didn’t. I made a mistake and signed my name this way or signed the contract that way … it’s all very sloppy. So my first book was published as Toni Morrison and I regretted it. The usefulness now is, the people who call me Chloe are the people I’ve known all my life, so it makes a big distinction; and also, the Toni Morrison can be a figure, sort of a public person I don’t have to deal with at all, later. So I’ve made a kind of neurotic separation in my life and given her the Toni Morrison responsibilities, the good seats in the restaurant, the strangers who think they know you-you know, that. She takes care of that. And then I’m over here somewhere, behind.

Audience question: I wanted to ask you about the Nobel prize and what it meant to you and what difference it made to you.

Toni Morrison: The Nobel prize meant a lot to me. It was a huge surprise. Very pleasant. I never thought of it as … although I think I said things that were expected of me about how I felt about its being awarded to my work, which I thought was obviously deserving, and it represented America, it represented women, it represented black women, it represented … you know. But at heart, I thought it was mine.

Ramona Koval: The fabulous Professor Toni Morrison, speaking to me at the 2004 Edinburgh International Book Festival.

One comment

  1. Susy Hilton · · Reply

    wonderful, I look forwrad to readibg, was conking last night and saw that Oprah was composing something to writem so haven’t caught upw ith the news yet

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