Interview with Toni MorrisonPosted by Goodreads on May 5, 2015
God Help the Child, Morrison's taut new work, peers into the ugly well of childhood trauma, exploring how "what you do to children matters. And they might never forget." Race is also central, this time in a contemporary setting, as we follow Bride, the "Sudanese-black" daughter of Sweetness, a "high yellow" woman revolted by her dark-skinned child. Though glamorous and successful, Bride is haunted by the lie she told as a child to win her mother's affection and undone by her relationship with Booker, a young man similarly in thrall to childhood demons. As ever, Morrison moves musically among her collection of damaged souls. The celebrated editor, professor, and writer talks about saying more with less, the business of color in modern America, and why she has to write.
Toni Morrison: I think I was concerned more than I had been in the past about occasional awful childhood experience, about the nature of childhood trauma and [how] our efforts to survive it, get beyond it, even become very successful, don't always work because it's like a little thread of poison that does determine a great deal of what we do, what we think, and how we behave.
GR: Was there anything in particular, an incident or something you read, that made you want to tackle this?
TM: No, I don't get ideas like that. I began to write what I thought was a contemporary story about the reliance on beauty and on higher education as the be-all for a good and complete and loving life. That was probably always true but seems very pronounced in the contemporary world, which for me in the book is 2007 or 2008. And that's sort of all we are taught to want. But the interior life is often obscured when we achieve the successes of glamour, work, intelligence via higher education, and depending on the trauma, whether we want to or not, we deliberately hang on to it.
GR: Were you looking at questions of victim and perpetrator, culpability and guilt?
TM: We talk about guilt, but it's really shame, and that is a hard one. There are all sorts of strategies for overcoming it, some medical, some I suppose religious, and some just ignorance. But I wanted to go a little bit deeper into its consequences for adults and how, at least these people, because they're not happy endings—well, they're sort of—but they are movements toward freedom and the self-respect that comes from something other than what they thought was their most important feature.
GR: Yes, because the book is so heavily freighted with these awful experiences, at the end I was so surprised and delighted by the glimmer of hope.
TM: Well, the journey was long and complicated and fraught, but they [the main characters] had an opportunity to step outside the traumas and the business that they had made their own. It was a pleasure to write, because I was trying to say more by writing less and to let the reader kind of recognize, sympathize, or be offended.
GR: I love the names of the characters: Bride, having connotations of white dresses and happiness. How do you go about choosing your characters' names?
TM: They sort of announce themselves most times. I don't usually have to search. But she was Lula Ann Bridewell, so she would narrow that down, and Booker's family, they just named their kids alphabetically.
GR: Sweetness's realization that "what you do to children matters. And they might never forget" seems very obvious, but even in our child-centric times we can forget.
TM: Yeah, there's this funny thing going on in America about whether or not to vaccinate against measles. The anti-Vaxxers. I heard one man say, "I don't care if my unvaccinated child kills other children." Meanwhile they arrested a woman in New York because she allowed her two children, I think one was ten and one was eight, to walk across Central Park alone, which they decided was child abuse. I mean, I don't know, I don't know, we're doing something very strange with children. Everybody's frightened. Really frightened.
GR: This is the first time you've set a book in California. I get the impression you don't like it very much.
TM: I've been to California a lot, and when I get there, I'm so happy. And then I get a little sad because there are no seasons. I'm from Ohio, where there are distinct seasons. But in California it's like perennial summer, and it's an energy thing, I don't feel what I am accustomed to. But nobody who lives in California knows what I'm talking about or cares. They love it out there.
GR: And you wanted Bride to be in this place?
TM: Yes, the nice California thing where you're safe, it's pretty, you don't have to be really rich, you can have just a first-rate occupation, and you can live well and go to parties and have fun. Forever.
GR: Race is also central. Sweetness says of Bride, "Her color is a cross she will always carry." But Bride's design consultant tells her, "Black sells. It's the hottest commodity in the civilized world. White girls, even brown girls, have to strip naked to get that kind of attention."
TM: I wanted to talk about not so much race as color, because the race thing is sort of a misnomer. I mean, it's just the human race, right? That's it. The rest of it, and racism, is socially constructed. Nobody is born racist, no one. What happens is other things that are usually based on power, money, feeling good about yourself, or bad about yourself, those things play into hating other people for whatever reason. Now black skin is the identifier, and the mother who was pleased because she was fair enough to pass and comes from a family in which "skin privileges," as they're called, are extremely important, has this strange-looking child whom she doesn't like. She's slightly repelled, but since she keeps her, she wants to protect her in the only way she knows how, which is to be extremely strict and not encourage her to be self-sufficient but to bend her back, so to speak, and keep it there. Also, she really doesn't like to touch her.
So anyway, that happens to that little girl, and then she gets a good job after—and this is important—she meets Jeri, the "'total person' designer," who says "you're a panther in snow" and just flips it, so that the blackness that was shameful for her mother becomes her salvation in the glamorous world, and she emphasizes it by wearing white. But it's still about color. He tells her, "You know, it's just color," and she says, "Yeah, yeah, that's nice," but still it sort of hurts.
GR: Sweetness thinks Bride has it much easier than she did, that the world's a different place now. Is that true?
TM: Oh yes, the situation is different. She [Bride] can hawk it, she can sell it. But there's always some residue, you can't get rid of that. If you've had 250 years of it, you can't [suddenly] have a decade where everybody says, "Oh yeah, I'm sorry, it's over, I love you." But in art, particularly, and now even in politics there's no question that at least the conversation is going on. Looking at the Oscars, everybody was saying, "Oh, they're so white, they're so white." I don't know what everyone is talking about. They're always white. But now it's like a bad thing, and it's articulated rather consistently.
How can I say this—there's something called the N word. Now, what is that? It's a way of saying it and not saying it. Instead of saying "nigger," people in discourse in the United States say the N word. And it's forbidden. OK, but it's still there. And now it's more descriptive because everybody's not saying it, you know what I'm saying? I guess it's nicer—but I get amused sometimes.
GR: Do you feel more amused than angry now?
TM: No, I'm angry all the time. Almost all the time, which is why I write books. That's where I control things, that's where I think freely about things, without regard to the fashion or whatever else is going on, or who's planning to kill whom and whether we should all have guns or nobody should have guns. All these things prey on you, and I got a little disturbed years ago with some business, political, cultural, I don't know what, but I was very depressed. It was awful, so right wing, the country. And I found myself not working, not writing, and my friend Peter Sellars [the opera director] calls me up usually every Christmas, and this time he called me and said, "Merry Christmas, how are you?" And I said, "I feel awful, I really can't write," and went on, complaining, and he started shouting, "No, no, no!" He said, "Toni, this is when artists go to work! Not when things are wonderful and calm. This is the time!" And I suddenly stopped whining, and I thought about writers in prison, in camps, in the gulag, a history of people who under the world's worst circumstances, write. This was about 20 years ago, but I now understand it better because it works for me. I can think through my novels, I can react, I can invent, I can create, I can be free. It's my space, and I am in control.
TM: I think I was writing Paradise. Or A Mercy? It must have been Paradise. But I am 84 years old, I don't remember stuff.
GR: The energy of this book is very youthful.
TM: This book had to be youngish. There are some older people in it like Sweetness and so on, but it's about young people who are subject to the theme I was describing to you: "Oh, she's so pretty, ooh, isn't she beautiful." That's it, that's enough. Just stay that way, and if you're not that way, get silicone or some surgery, and you will be that way. Or you can take off your clothes, too.
GR: I was very drawn to the character of Booker. Do you feel as comfortable writing from a man's perspective now as from a woman's?
Song of Solomon, where I really didn't know if I could enter into that space or not. But I managed because of my father, and so I feel as comfortable there now, after Song of Solomon, as I do anywhere.
GR: I was amazed people are still trying to have your books banned.
TM: Yes, all the time. My sister wouldn't even let her children read The Bluest Eye until they were 18 years old. Incest? Come on! All I can say is, I am in really, really good company. Can you imagine how I would feel if nobody thought enough of my books to ban them? Do you know I got a letter from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice saying Paradise was banned because it contained material designed to achieve a breakdown in prisons such as strikes or riots? Talk about power! I can start a riot with a book. It's amazing.
GR: Goodreads member Dominic Ng says, "Given recent events such as Ferguson, what do you make of the progress (or lack thereof) regarding race relations throughout your life? What are you hopeful for?"
TM: I'm hoping that it makes a difference. It made some. There's a lot of interest now in correcting police procedure. I always say when the first white kid, unarmed, gets shot by the cops, then we'll know. That doesn't mean they haven't been shot, but they haven't been shot unarmed. A 12-year-old boy, you know? What's also interesting to me is how the prison system functions with this huge majority of black kids who are in there for [crimes like] marijuana and, because many prisons are for profit and run by private concerns, if they don't have a full prison, they lose money. So there's that, which is another kind of reference to black bodies as profit, or the master or the corporation or what have you. But at least it's in the forefront, and many people are talking about that now.
GR: Goodreads member Andrew asks, "What, in your opinion, is your greatest work?"
TM: The one I'm writing now is really great. I have ten gorgeous, wonderful pages.
GR: What's it about?
TM: No, I'm not going to tell you what it's about. But as authors always say, it's like choosing which of your children is your favorite, and you really can't say.
GR: Goodreads member Lauren Chater asks, "Can you explain how you explore themes which are sometimes so disturbing without being overwhelmed by sadness and disenchanted by the power of human beings to hurt each other?"
TM: Articulating it erases, or filters, some of the sadness. The language to say it, the words to say it, takes away the rampant feelings of sorrow.
GR: How do you write? With a pen and paper? Computer?
TM: Now I use both. I always write longhand on a yellow tablet with a pencil, and I scratch and change. Then I put it on the computer, and then I print that out and go over that, and back and forth and back and forth. But the initial thing is always with a pencil.
GR: Why is that? Just how you've always done it?
TM: It's called writing. Remember? You know these kids don't know how to do that anymore, a lot of them. They type or print. Or text. My grandchildren can do cursive, but they go to a French school.
GR: What's your average writing day like? When do you write?
TM: Very early in the morning, before the sun comes up. Because I'm very smart at that time of day. Now, at this time of day [4 p.m.], it's all drifting away. But tomorrow morning I will be sharp for about four hours, say from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. If I get up before the sun and greet it, that's when I start.
GR: How long does it usually take you to write a book?
TM: It depends on the other work I do; it's only recently that I've not had an outside job. Some books have taken three years, Beloved, for example. It was two-and-a-half years for Paradise. I think I wrote this one in two years. Because it takes some time for not just the right idea to come, but the right language.
GR: Goodreads member Sheree asks, "Do you find that with each book your writing becomes more succinct and even more lyrical?"
TM: I think that's right. When I said earlier that I was writing less in order to say more, that's what lyrics do. I'm not writing lyrics, although I have written lyrics, but I think that quality has something to do with the aspect of lyrical writing. It's not just beautiful, it says more.
GR: And that relates to what you said earlier about wanting the reader to perhaps do more, like you would if you were decoding a song?
TM: Yeah, come on in and be a friend. We can do this together.
GR: What novels have you read recently that you've enjoyed?
Antonio Molina, a Spanish writer somebody suggested to me. I'm reading his book In the Night of Time. And before that I was very preoccupied with Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall. I really admire her and that writing.
GR: Who were the writers you read early in your life who inspired a love of literature and writing in you?
TM: I read very early in life, and in those days the one library in our town had one shelf of children's books and then everything else was adult. There was no young adult category the way there is now. So after you read the fairy tales, on the next shelf was Herman Melville, and I loved it. I had no idea that I could do anything like that until I was 39, that's when I wrote my first book. So I can't say which book inspired me to write. I know some have had an enormous impact on me—some of the African writers, Chinua Achebe, and then [Gabriel García] Márquez, and [Carlos] Fuentes, and Ed Jones here [Edward P. Jones], things that stand out for me, for the writing, not just for the information.
GR: One final question: What would you hope to see in your lifetime in literature that does not exist at the moment?
TM: I would like to see another book by Toni Morrison. At the top of her game, let's hope. Something really compelling. I would like to see that. So I have to do it if I want to see it.
Interview by Catherine Elsworth for Goodreads. Catherine is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. She previously worked as a reporter and editor for the UK's Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph for 13 years and was the Daily Telegraph's Los Angeles correspondent from 2004 to 2009. She has also contributed to Tatler, Stella, and Condé Nast Traveller. In 2012, she was a semifinalist for the 21st annual James Kirkwood Literary Prize for fiction.
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