Mario Kaiser & Sarah Ladipo Manyika in conversation with Toni Morrison

 

*

 

Toni Morrison had set only one condition for the interview in her home in upstate New York: She did not want to be photographed. But any question was allowed, and she had no interest in polishing her answers afterwards. There was no need: Morrison spoke with the same clarity and musicality that distinguish her writing. She talked about racism and ‘whiteness’, the tension between memory and forgetting, and the art of writing about sex. She laughed a lot, sang stories from her childhood, and refused to say the name of the current US president. An hour was agreed, but the conversation lasted almost two.

Over the sink in Morrison’s guest bathroom, instead of a mirror, hung the framed letter from the Swedish Academy telling her that she had won the Nobel Prize in Literature. On the opposite wall, like another award, was a ‘Publication Denial Notification’ from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. It informed Morrison’s publisher that her novel Paradise had been banned in Texas prisons because it might lead to rioting.

 

*

 

Sarah Ladipo Manyika:

Do you prefer being called Professor, Doctor, Mrs or Ms?

 

Toni Morrison:

I like Toni.

 

Sarah:

Toni?

 

Toni:

Yes, I answer to that.

 

Sarah:

Toni, thank you for giving us this opportunity to talk to you.

 

Toni:

I’m glad.

 

Sarah:

I come from Nigeria, so a minute ago, I was convening with Wole Soyinka in your bathroom. (Among the photographs on the walls of Morrison’s guest bathroom is one that shows her with the Nigerian Nobel Laureate.)

 

Toni:

Ah! Yeah, we used to go to Paris and have meetings and talk – elegant talk – and solve world problems. And Soyinka always knew how to solve everything.

 

Sarah:

He still does.

 

Toni:

Yes, yes. In that voice he has! (Imitates Soyinka in a sonorous voice.)

 

Mario Kaiser:

Sarah and I became friends because of a book of yours. We were at a writers’ residency, and when I told Sarah that I was working on a story about my grandfathers, who were soldiers and didn’t come back from the Second World War, she gave me Home – the book and the audio book.

 

Toni:

Oh, that’s right, because I read them. I like the act of reading my works because I measure their value in terms of how they sound. That’s not the only thing, but it’s an important thing to me. I remember when I first started publishing, the publisher would give a book of mine to somebody to read – to sell in disc form. And they were excellent actresses, but I never listened to them. But one day I turned on one, and I said, ‘That’s not right!’ It was Beloved, I think. I said it goes, ‘Dat-da-da-da-dat-dat-boom-dat-dat-dat-dat-dat. “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.”’ And she was reading it straight. So I started reading them all. Now I have learned – to my great horror – that I have to read them all again, because they said that the ones I did were abridged. I want you to know: That’s one of the worst experiences of my life – sitting in that little room, with the people outside doing the recording. You have no idea how many mistakes you make when you read into a microphone.

 

Mario:

Your latest book, God Help the Child, begins with a striking sentence: ‘It’s not my fault.’

 

Toni:

That’s right.

 

Mario:

A mother looks at her newborn daughter.

 

Toni:

And was scared.

 

Mario:

She realizes that the child’s skin is much darker than her own, and she fears for the child’s future.

 

Toni:

And her own.

 

Mario:

Unlike your previous books, this story is set in the present. Why can skin color still make or break people in this country?

 

Toni:

We got started that way. The country got started with a labor of Africans – to do work for free and reproduce themselves as more workers. When I did A Mercy, that book was supposed to be just before racism became the letter and the characteristic of the land. It’s just before the Salem witch trials, when they were running around killing people for religious reasons. Religious people got upset about all that, but not about color. But following that, it became this. The ‘healing’ – it was the way in which people got together: white become white. Think about it: If you come to this country from Germany, or Russia, or anywhere, you get off the boat, get on the land. But in order to become an American, you have to be white. That’s the quality that brings the country, its people together: having a non-white population. Some things along those lines may be happening in Europe now. My concept is that if you were from Sweden, you were Swedish. You didn’t have to say, ‘I’m a white Swede.’ You know what I’m saying?

 

Mario:

I do. I am German, and until I came to live in the US, I never felt white.

 

Toni:

That’s such an important part. When somebody like Frederick Douglass wrote a book, he was writing to white people – legitimately – because he wanted them to behave, set him free. That was the audience. Not for me. Tolstoy was not writing for little girls from Ohio. He was writing for Russians, right? I’m writing to, about, and for other black people. And if it’s good enough, it will be read by and appreciated by people who are not African-Americans. That’s the simple way to put it. But the point is, I just thought we were interesting.

 

Sarah: 

Yes!

 

Toni:

See, the funny thing is: What people outside this country, particularly in Europe, think about this country, what they like about it is generally something that comes out of black culture. It’s jazz. It’s even language. Think about what this country would be like without us. I wouldn’t even visit! I came with my first book trying to say, ‘Look, racism really and truly hurts. If you really want to be white and you’re not, and you’re young and vulnerable, it can kill you.’ That was when I first began to write, and finally, after all these years of reading books, editing books, working in libraries, I thought, ‘Wait a minute, there’s no book in there about me!’ So if I wanted to read it, I would probably have to write it.

 

Mario:

In God Help the Child, like in other books of yours, children suffer. You brought two children of your own into this world, in the 1960s, during the struggle for civil rights. Did that give you hope that America would hold a brighter future for your children?

 

Toni:

No. No. No, I’ve been here a long time. Look, they’ve only just started putting lynched people, murdered black boys in the newspaper. Nobody talked about that. That wasn’t newsworthy. Now someone like Trayvon Martin or that other little boy they shot, they get a lot of press. I was telling my son, ‘Do you realize that I was in the world fifty, sixty years before anybody ever thought that was worthy of an article? Or that you should feel bad about it?’ It just wasn’t there. There have been some changes, although now I think we may be taking a step back with this so-called ‘president’. That’s so dangerous and so awful that I don’t even want to think about it. I try not to. That man can make me really sick.

 

Sarah:

‘Make America Great Again.’

 

Toni:

‘Make America Great Again’ means ‘Make America White Again.’ So now you have this other explosion of people who want to feel above something, better than something. And who is that? That’s me.

 

Sarah:

Listening to you reading your stories underscores the orality and musicality of your storytelling. Do you intend your writing to be read out loud?

 

Toni:

I intend the reader to hear it. I come from a house in which they did that all the time. I remember the story about my grandfather, about whom it was always said – with pride – that he had read the Bible from cover to cover. Five times. I knew at some point that it was illegal for black people to read. And it was illegal for white people to teach them to read. You could go to jail or be fined.

My grandfather didn’t go to school. He went one day, and that was to tell the teacher he wouldn’t be back. He would rely on his sister to teach him to read. They called him Big Papa. And I was thinking, much later: What else could he read? There were no books, no libraries. There was just the Bible. But at the same time, it was an act of taking power back.

In my house, there were books everywhere. My mother joined the Book of the Month Club. That was like resistance. Along with that thing about reading was telling stories, which they did all the time. Sang stories. There were about ten, and they were all insane.

 

Sarah:

Were the stories changed along the way?

 

Toni:

You could change them, because they made us tell them. They would say, ‘Tell that story about such-and-such!’ And they would get up, little kids, and you could edit them a little bit. But they were just mad. I liked them because they were like . . . (She pauses, then starts to sing – first in a low voice, then louder.) . . . ‘Gonna whop, gonna chop my wife’s head off!’ It was a loud song. ‘Tam-tam, tam-tam, tam-tam. Gonna cut my wife’s – HEAD OFF!’ And then the wife comes back with her head in her arm and says, ‘It’s cooold out here. It’s cooold out here.’ That was our entertainment. That and singing.

My mother sang all the time – day, night, whatever. She had the most beautiful voice I have ever heard. She’s hanging up clothes, she sings. She’s washing dishes, she sings. That sound for me was part of the effort, even though I didn’t write until I was thirty-nine or something. But when I did, it was very important that the language had that sound. A lot depended on the sound of a tale – the meaning often would lie in the sound of it. They were all dumb, scary stories. Do you remember reading stories when you were kids? Hänsel and Gretel? That’s horrible! All those stories of people dying, throwing their kids out. And then a witch throws you in the oven. Oh, God!

 

Sarah:

One of the refrains in your books is the tension between memory and forgetting – forgetting as a way of overcoming. It’s in Beloved, with this repeated line: ‘It was not a story to pass on.’ It’s in God Help the Child, where you write that ‘memory is the worst thing about healing.’ How do you deal with this tension?

 

Toni:

In order to get to a happy place – what I call happy, even though people are dropping dead all over my books – is the acquisition of knowledge. If you know something at the end that you didn’t know before, it’s almost wisdom. And if I can hit that chord, then everything else was worth it. Knowing something you didn’t know before. Becoming something. There are certain patterns in the books and in life that look like they’re going one way. And then something happens and people learn. God Help the Child, which I thought was a horrible title . . .

 

Mario:

What title would you have given the book?

 

Toni:

I think I gave it one. I don’t remember what it was. It was beautiful!

 

Sarah:

Why did you not get your own way?

 

Toni:

Because they beat you up.

 

Sarah:

Isn’t that one of the privileges of winning the Nobel Prize – that you can tell people what to do?

 

Toni:

No! (She imagines an argument with her publisher.) ‘Go fuck yourself, this is my title!’ – ‘No, you don’t get to get that!’ They think they’re doing you a favor by publishing it, even though they’re making tons of money – and will forever. After I die, after my children die, my grandchildren, they’ll still be making money. I worked in that industry for a long time. I’m unimpressed. So, what were we talking about?

 

Sarah:

The tension between memory and forgetting.

 

Toni:

Oh, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. It’s not the battles. A lot of books are about winning something. I’m not interested in that so much as the way the intellectual life and the emotional life should be. You move along a trail and you come to some place. You don’t want to come to the place where you were at the beginning. In the book where the girl . . . Where is that book? What’s that book?

 

Sarah:

God Help the Child.

 

Toni:

That’s the one! They’re all beginning to merge into one. This girl is very, very black and very, very beautiful. Her lover is a smartass. Both of them are very self-involved, and then they come to a place where they have to take care of somebody else, not themselves. And that experience takes them out of their little shell of ‘me, me, me’, so that they are able at the end to have some respect, and even affection, for each other.

 

Mario:

You write in the book about what you call ‘skin privileges’ – how the shade of your color affects your status, even within the black community. Could Barack Obama have become president if his skin were darker?

 

Toni:

He looks dark to me!

 

Mario:

But not what you call ‘Sudanese black’.

 

Toni:

No, not Sudanese black. That’s a nice black. Ethiopia black. All Ethiopians are beautiful! There are no ugly Ethiopians. The color thing. I come from a little steel town.

 

Mario:

Lorain, Ohio.

 

Toni:

Lots of immigrants, one high school. I go away to college – first one in my family – and then I discover, at Howard University, this thing you’re talking about: skin privileges. And Washington at that time was full of middle-class black people. They worked in the census bureau, and there were organizations, sororities that were one color and another color. I didn’t know what they were talking about. They just seemed sort of unintellectual to me – because I couldn’t make friends based on that.

When I went back there to teach, one of my students was Stokely Carmichael. I said, ‘What are you gonna do, Stokely, when you graduate?’ He said, ‘I’ve been accepted at Union Theological Seminary. But first I’m going down South.’ It had gotten very political, so that color was not the important thing. It was about civil rights.

But when I was a student there, it was very much that. In Washington, there was one department store where we – colored girls – could go to the bathroom. Hecht’s it was called. They wouldn’t let you go to the bathroom in any other place. And they had these little signs in the buses: ‘White Only’. I stole one and sent one to my mother. It was a visually segregated town. Water fountains. I always thought that they couldn’t be serious. Why were they paying for two fountains? It didn’t make sense that they would spend all this money so that they could feel better than somebody.

 

Mario:

When Donald Trump asked African-Americans to vote for him, he said, ‘What do you have to lose?’ What is your response?

 

Toni:

I just thought it was a stupid question. What I would have to lose would be everything. What I’m losing now is you’re throwing bombs around. But it was so nasty and so superior. This con man who has seventy-seven words in his vocabulary. We have counted them. Philip Roth counted them. Seventy . . . seven . . . words.

 

Sarah:

Let’s leave Trump for Obama. What was it like to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom from him? And what did he whisper in your ear?

 

Toni:

Were you there?

 

Sarah/Mario: No, we saw the video.

 

Toni:

He did whisper in my ear. And I’ll tell you, this is important: I didn’t know what he said.

 

Mario:

You seemed very pleased.

 

Toni:

I knew then! But soon as I left, I thought: What did he say? I was so embarrassed! I went to Paris, and the guy who was the ambassador to France, I told him that story. I said, ‘He whispered in my ear, and I don’t know what it is. Something’s wrong!’ And he said, ‘Listen, I had a forty-five-minute conversation with him, and I don’t remember a word.’

 

Sarah:

You were awestruck.

 

Toni:

I think that’s it. But when I went to the party, my son was my date. He said to Obama, ‘You said something to my mother, and she doesn’t remember. Do you remember what you said?’ And Obama said, ‘Yeah, sure I remember, I said, “I love you.” ’ (She covers her face with her hands and pretends to be sobbing.) I can see why I forgot that! I forgot it in the way that you can have a conversation with somebody that you really like or who is really impressive. And it’s so impressive that you just blank.

 

Sarah:

Let’s stick to love and talk about your friend James Baldwin.

 

Toni:

Oh, yes!

 

Sarah:

Baldwin once said, ‘The role of the artist is exactly the same as the role of the lover. If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see.’ How do you see the role of the artist?

 

Toni:

Oh, it’s funny that he says that. Jimmy. What I’m going to say is going to sound so pompous, but I think an artist, whether it’s a painter or a writer, it’s almost holy. There’s something about the vision, the wisdom. You can be a nobody, but seeing that way, it’s holy, it’s godlike. It’s above the normal life and perception of all of us, normally. You step up. And as long as you’re up there, even if you’re a terrible person – especially if you’re a terrible person – you see things that come together, and shake you, or move you, or clarify something for you that outside of your art you would not have known. It really is a vision above, or beyond.

It’s hard to think of paintings, particularly, any other way. I can’t imagine how they do that. I mean, what’s the connection between the thing you’re doing and your mind? That’s why criticism is so awful. Not all of it, but much of it. Because the language of the criticism can’t quite reach the plane where the artist is.

 

Sarah:

Do you name your characters, or do they name themselves?

 

Toni:

They name themselves. I have sometimes written characters with names that were wrong, and they never came alive. I have to ask them, ‘What’s your name?’ You just wait and something clicks – or not. And if not, the writing feels clunky, or they don’t talk. Sometimes it’s just the opposite. When I wrote Song of Solomon, there was this woman in there named Pilate. And once I envisioned her, she never shut up. She really took that book over, and I just had to stop her. So I said, ‘You have to shut up, this is not your book!’ She has one scene where she’s mourning her granddaughter and she says, ‘And she was loved.’ That’s all the space she got. Although she’s influential, she doesn’t talk.

 

Mario:

You were baptized a Catholic when you were twelve years old, and you took the name Anthony, which later became Toni. Saint Anthony was a towering figure in the Scripture.

 

Toni:

Saint Anthony of Padua!

 

Mario:

He was known for his forceful preaching, and he’s the patron saint of lost things. What are the lost things you would like to bring back?

 

Toni:

Two things. One is my son. And there are certain periods in my life I’d like to live over.

 

Mario:

Is there one period in particular?

 

Toni:

Yeah, undergraduate school. There were some very good things with that place, and I learned a lot. I was in this little theater group, and we used to travel in the summer. It was the first time I’d been in the South – the real South, not the Washington, DC, type. I remember when we got to a hotel and the faculty figured out that it was a whorehouse or something like that. So one of them went to the phone booth. Remember they used to have phone booths? He looked in the back of the phone book to find a black preacher, which you could because it would say AME, African-American Zion, or something. He found one and called them up and said that he was there with some students from Howard, and that they needed a place to stay, because there’s no places for black people. The preacher said, ‘Call me back in fifteen minutes.’ And he did, and he had gotten some of his parishioners to accept us. I went with a girl, stayed in this woman’s house. It was fabulous! God, she had dried her sheets on bushes that had that odor. Oh, it was heaven! And they fixed us fabulous food. We tried to give them money, but they wouldn’t take it. So we put it in the pillowslip.

 

Mario:

The story is reminiscent of Frank Money, the protagonist of Home, when he’s looking for a place to stay.

 

Toni:

Oh, yeah. There’s that Green Book he uses, which I have a copy of, which was where black people could stay. You know, I didn’t identify him as a black man until my editor said, ‘Nobody knows if he’s black or white.’ And I said, ‘So?’ And he said, ‘Toni, I really think it’s important.’ So I gave in. But I was interested in writing the way I did in Paradise, in which I announce color: ‘They shot the white girl first.’ But you don’t know who that white girl is. And that was very liberating for me because sometimes you can say ‘black’ and it don’t mean nothing. I mean, unless you make it mean something. That was a learning thing because of the other side of town, where blackness was purity – and legitimacy. See, my great grandmother lived in Michigan, and she was like the wise woman of the family. She knew everything. She was a midwife. Every now and then, she would visit. This was a tall woman. I mean, she looked tall. She had a cane that she obviously didn’t need. And she came in the house and looked at me and my sister and said, ‘Those children have been tampered with.’ I thought that was a good thing. But she was pitch black, and she was looking at us as soiled, mixed. Not pure. She was pure – pure black, pure African – and we were kind of messed up a little bit. I thought that was interesting, because I had been ‘othered’ since I was a kid – but from the other side.

 

Sarah:

Can we talk about sex?

 

Toni:

Yeah! I’m in a good position to talk about it, since it’s been like a thousand years. What do you want to know?

 

Sarah:

You are known for writing great sex scenes.

 

Toni:

I do! I think I write sex better than most people.

 

Sarah:

How do you do it?

 

Toni:

The worst thing about sex scenes is that they’re all clinical. They say ‘breasts’, or ‘penis’, or what. I mean, who cares? The goody part about sex and writing about it and having it is not that. It’s something else. In The Bluest Eye, when she goes all the way, she claws away the skin to get to the ivory – you know, she’s going down. Deep! But if you can associate sex with some other behavior that is interesting, then the sex becomes interesting.

 

Sarah:

In Beloved, it’s the cornfield, but it’s also the eating of the corn, the suggestiveness.

 

Toni:

The corn tops are waving. The guys are looking.

 

Sarah:

‘It had been hard, hard, hard sitting there erect like dogs, watching corn stalks dance at noon.’

 

Toni:

Somebody told me that Denzel Washington was asked to be in the movie of Beloved. And he said, ‘I’m not gonna be in a movie where black men have oral sex with white jailors.’

There was a scene where these men are in jail digging, you know, but they’re all chained. He acted like that was bizarre. And then you read about Choate, this school where everybody was raping all the students from the sixties on. I don’t know why he was so hostile to it. But that’s OK, Denzel! I’m interested in how to make it really beautiful, really intimate, and distributed. It has to be something that everybody can relate to – not just the sex act, but what I’m saying about it. I read other people’s sex scenes and I think, ‘Yeah, so?’

 

Mario:

What will your next book be about?

 

Toni:

Oh, it’s so good! It’s called Justice, although it’s not about justice. There’s a family in there, and their slave owner. His name was Goodmaster, and he made all the slaves call themselves Goodmaster. They hated it because he was horrible, but they kept the name because they could keep in touch with each other generations later. There’s a guy in there who has three children, two girls and a boy. Their names are Courage, Freedom and Justice, but that’s not good when they go to school. So instead of Courage, they write Carrie. And Freedom, they say Frida. And the boy, whose name is Justice, they call Juice. Names matter. The naming is vital because we didn’t have any names. They just gave us stupid names. I tried to remember my father’s friends. They had nicknames. Cool Breeze, and one was called Jim the Devil. All kinds of names. Some are lovely, some are horrible. Whatever your weakness is, that’s what they call you. So you can get that out of the way.

 

Mario:

You have said that you don’t want to be remembered as an African-American writer, but as an American writer.

 

Toni:

Did I?

 

Mario:

Yes.

 

Toni:

America? I couldn’t relate to the country. It’s too big. It’s like saying, ‘How would you think about Europe?’ I mean, what? But I was somewhere with Doctorow, the writer, at an event. He was introducing me, and he said, ‘I don’t think of Toni as a black writer. I don’t think of her as a female writer. I think of her as . . .’ And I said, ‘White male writer.’ And everybody laughed. That’s what I remember. He was trying to move me out of the little sections. But what was there besides woman, black? There was only white men. He probably meant to say just a plain writer, you know, a writer writer.

 

 

Photograph © Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

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