Toni Morrison In Conversation

What do you want to know? It’s jazz. He was writing for Russians, right? It’s even language. That’s not the only thing, but it’s an important thing to me.  
Mario:
When Donald Trump asked African-Americans to vote for him, he said, ‘What do you have to lose?’ What is your response?  
Toni:
Oh, yes! 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:
They name themselves.  
Sarah:  
Yes! 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 Freedom, they say Frida.  
Mario:
He was known for his forceful preaching, and he’s the patron saint of lost things. I’m unimpressed. Every now and then, she would visit. (Among the photographs on the walls of Morrison’s guest bathroom is one that shows her with the Nigerian Nobel Laureate.)
 
Toni:
Ah! 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. Why were they paying for two fountains? I think I write sex better than most people.  
Toni:
And was scared.  
Mario:
You have said that you don’t want to be remembered as an African-American writer, but as an American writer. Whatever your weakness is, that’s what they call you. I stole one and sent one to my mother. It informed Morrison’s publisher that her novel Paradise had been banned in Texas prisons because it might lead to rioting. But following that, it became this. That was a learning thing because of the other side of town, where blackness was purity – and legitimacy.  
Sarah:
The tension between memory and forgetting.  
Sarah:
Do you name your characters, or do they name themselves? The naming is vital because we didn’t have any names. I’m interested in how to make it really beautiful, really intimate, and distributed. You could go to jail or be fined. He was introducing me, and he said, ‘I don’t think of Toni as a black writer.  
Sarah:
I come from Nigeria, so a minute ago, I was convening with Wole Soyinka in your bathroom. 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. And if I can hit that chord, then everything else was worth it. I have to ask them, ‘What’s your name?’ You just wait and something clicks – or not. Knowing something you didn’t know before. Could Barack Obama have become president if his skin were darker?  
Toni:
No. The goody part about sex and writing about it and having it is not that. I said, ‘What are you gonna do, Stokely, when you graduate?’ He said, ‘I’ve been accepted at Union Theological Seminary. 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.  
Sarah:
Toni, thank you for giving us this opportunity to talk to you. Tolstoy was not writing for little girls from Ohio.  
Mario:
I do. They wouldn’t let you go to the bathroom in any other place. Ethiopia black. I mean, who cares? Full of a baby’s venom.”’ And she was reading it straight.  
Toni:
Were you there? Along with that thing about reading was telling stories, which they did all the time. I don’t think of her as a female writer. A lot of books are about winning something.  
Toni:
I think that’s it. But when I did, it was very important that the language had that sound.  
Mario:
You were baptized a Catholic when you were twelve years old, and you took the name Anthony, which later became Toni. I mean, what’s the connection between the thing you’re doing and your mind?  
Sarah:
Isn’t that one of the privileges of winning the Nobel Prize – that you can tell people what to do? It was the first time I’d been in the South – the real South, not the Washington, DC, type. It really is a vision above, or beyond. The guys are looking. I have sometimes written characters with names that were wrong, and they never came alive. My mother sang all the time – day, night, whatever. That’s me. It’s like saying, ‘How would you think about Europe?’ I mean, what?  
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. They had nicknames. I thought that was interesting, because I had been ‘othered’ since I was a kid – but from the other side.  
Sarah:
Toni?  
Sarah:
Let’s stick to love and talk about your friend James Baldwin.  
Mario:
You seemed very pleased. They worked in the census bureau, and there were organizations, sororities that were one color and another color. But one day I turned on one, and I said, ‘That’s not right!’ It was Beloved, I think. I don’t know why he was so hostile to it.  
Toni:
I think I gave it one. And I’ll tell you, this is important: I didn’t know what he said.  
Mario:
A mother looks at her newborn daughter. Nobody talked about that. What are the lost things you would like to bring back? Hecht’s it was called. Sometimes it’s just the opposite. I said, ‘He whispered in my ear, and I don’t know what it is. Oh, it was heaven! He probably meant to say just a plain writer, you know, a writer writer. (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. Not for me. I can’t imagine how they do that. You can be a nobody, but seeing that way, it’s holy, it’s godlike.  
Toni:
I just thought it was a stupid question. That and singing. And Soyinka always knew how to solve everything. They called him Big Papa. 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. It’s not the battles.  
Toni:
I intend the reader to hear it. They’re all beginning to merge into one. 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. And then something happens and people learn. All kinds of names.  
Sarah:
Baldwin once said, ‘The role of the artist is exactly the same as the role of the lover. 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 have no idea how many mistakes you make when you read into a microphone. Although she’s influential, she doesn’t talk. But the point is, I just thought we were interesting. You don’t want to come to the place where you were at the beginning. And if not, the writing feels clunky, or they don’t talk. So instead of Courage, they write Carrie. They were all dumb, scary stories. I worked in that industry for a long time. That’s the simple way to put it.  
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. That was the audience. It’s something else. The color thing. It’s called Justice, although it’s not about justice. What was it like to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom from him? 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. There were some very good things with that place, and I learned a lot. Five times. I went with a girl, stayed in this woman’s house. And they had these little signs in the buses: ‘White Only’. You brought two children of your own into this world, in the 1960s, during the struggle for civil rights. Some are lovely, some are horrible. He was trying to move me out of the little sections. Water fountains. 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. I’m in a good position to talk about it, since it’s been like a thousand years. It’s above the normal life and perception of all of us, normally. I went to Paris, and the guy who was the ambassador to France, I told him that story.  
Mario:
Yes.  
Toni:
Oh, yeah. 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. God, she had dried her sheets on bushes that had that odor. Remember they used to have phone booths? And who is that? There’s a family in there, and their slave owner. She’s washing dishes, she sings.  
Mario:
Lorain, Ohio. 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. That’s a nice black. She was pure – pure black, pure African – and we were kind of messed up a little bit. Becoming something.  
Toni:
Oh, that’s right, because I read them. There are no ugly Ethiopians. So we put it in the pillowslip. Oh, God! That man can make me really sick. That sound for me was part of the effort, even though I didn’t write until I was thirty-nine or something. Her lover is a smartass. “124 was spiteful. His name was Goodmaster, and he made all the slaves call themselves Goodmaster.  
Toni:
And her own. So one of them went to the phone booth. We tried to give them money, but they wouldn’t take it. She laughed a lot, sang stories from her childhood, and refused to say the name of the current US president. Where is that book? 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. Philip Roth counted them.  
Mario:
Unlike your previous books, this story is set in the present. Now someone like Trayvon Martin or that other little boy they shot, they get a lot of press. Yeah, we used to go to Paris and have meetings and talk – elegant talk – and solve world problems. When I wrote Song of Solomon, there was this woman in there named Pilate.  
Toni:
Yes, I answer to that. I was so embarrassed! 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. 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. And I was thinking, much later: What else could he read? I always thought that they couldn’t be serious. When I went back there to teach, one of my students was Stokely Carmichael. What I’m losing now is you’re throwing bombs around.  
Toni:
Yes, yes. I think of her as.. On the opposite wall, like another award, was a ‘Publication Denial Notification’ from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. 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. Their names are Courage, Freedom and Justice, but that’s not good when they go to school. Religious people got upset about all that, but not about color. Jimmy. I wouldn’t even visit! It was a visually segregated town. He acted like that was bizarre. So, what were we talking about? And Washington at that time was full of middle-class black people. And that was very liberating for me because sometimes you can say ‘black’ and it don’t mean nothing. I said it goes, ‘Dat-da-da-da-dat-dat-boom-dat-dat-dat-dat-dat.  
Toni:
America? She’s hanging up clothes, she sings. But it was so nasty and so superior.  
Toni:
That’s the one!  
Mario:
She realizes that the child’s skin is much darker than her own, and she fears for the child’s future. But when I was a student there, it was very much that. This was a tall woman. What I would have to lose would be everything. An hour was agreed, but the conversation lasted almost two. 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. Because the language of the criticism can’t quite reach the plane where the artist is. I read other people’s sex scenes and I think, ‘Yeah, so?’
 
Mario:
What will your next book be about? Did that give you hope that America would hold a brighter future for your children?  
Toni:
Because they beat you up. There was just the Bible. And they fixed us fabulous food. This con man who has seventy-seven words in his vocabulary.  
Mario:
But not what you call ‘Sudanese black’. In my house, there were books everywhere. It didn’t make sense that they would spend all this money so that they could feel better than somebody. There’s something about the vision, the wisdom.  
Sarah:
One of the refrains in your books is the tension between memory and forgetting – forgetting as a way of overcoming.  
Toni:
Yeah! It was fabulous! That’s what I remember. But any question was allowed, and she had no interest in polishing her answers afterwards.  
Toni:
He looks dark to me! You step up. I tried to remember my father’s friends. I mean, unless you make it mean something. She really took that book over, and I just had to stop her. It was beautiful! But when I went to the party, my son was my date. seven… He went one day, and that was to tell the teacher he wouldn’t be back. They say ‘breasts’, or ‘penis’, or what.  
Toni:
No! After I die, after my children die, my grandchildren, they’ll still be making money.  
Toni:
The worst thing about sex scenes is that they’re all clinical. But that’s OK, Denzel!  
Toni:
Yeah, undergraduate school. (Imitates Soyinka in a sonorous voice.)
 
Mario Kaiser:
Sarah and I became friends because of a book of yours. My concept is that if you were from Sweden, you were Swedish.  
Mario:
The story is reminiscent of Frank Money, the protagonist of Home, when he’s looking for a place to stay. words. 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:
Oh, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.  
*
 
Sarah   Ladipo Manyika:
Do you prefer being called Professor, Doctor, Mrs or Ms? Think about what this country would be like without us.  
Sarah:
In Beloved, it’s the cornfield, but it’s also the eating of the corn, the suggestiveness. There have been some changes, although now I think we may be taking a step back with this so-called ‘president’. And then you read about Choate, this school where everybody was raping all the students from the sixties on. When I did A Mercy, that book was supposed to be just before racism became the letter and the characteristic of the land.  
Sarah:
Can we talk about sex? That’s horrible! 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. I come from a little steel town.  
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.  
Mario:
Is there one period in particular? Sang stories.  
Toni Morrison:
I like Toni. The ‘healing’ – it was the way in which people got together: white become white.  
Toni:
That’s such an important part. In Washington, there was one department store where we – colored girls – could go to the bathroom.  
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.  
Toni:
No, not Sudanese black. There was no need: Morrison spoke with the same clarity and musicality that distinguish her writing. And there are certain periods in my life I’d like to live over. Not pure. All those stories of people dying, throwing their kids out. 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. But in order to become an American, you have to be white. And they were excellent actresses, but I never listened to them.  
Sarah:
Why did you not get your own way? I knew at some point that it was illegal for black people to read. And it’s so impressive that you just blank. I remember when we got to a hotel and the faculty figured out that it was a whorehouse or something like that.  
Sarah:
Let’s leave Trump for Obama. In the book where the girl… Why can skin color still make or break people in this country? What’s that book? Not all of it, but much of it. There are certain patterns in the books and in life that look like they’re going one way. There were about ten, and they were all insane. I don’t remember what it was. And once I envisioned her, she never shut up. I was in this little theater group, and we used to travel in the summer. 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? No, I’ve been here a long time. I’m writing to, about, and for other 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.  
Sarah:
How do you do it? Saint Anthony was a towering figure in the Scripture. And the boy, whose name is Justice, they call Juice. Names matter. 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! Do you intend your writing to be read out loud? It’s cooold out here.’ That was our entertainment.  
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. You didn’t have to say, ‘I’m a white Swede.’ You know what I’m saying? ‘Tam-tam, tam-tam, tam-tam. He would rely on his sister to teach him to read.  
Toni:
He did whisper in my ear. It’s just before the Salem witch trials, when they were running around killing people for religious reasons. That wasn’t newsworthy. God Help the Child, which I thought was a horrible title… Look, they’ve only just started putting lynched people, murdered black boys in the newspaper. See, my great grandmother lived in Michigan, and she was like the wise woman of the family. When somebody like Frederick Douglass wrote a book, he was writing to white people – legitimately – because he wanted them to behave, set him free.  
Toni:
Lots of immigrants, one high school. .’ And I said, ‘White male writer.’ And everybody laughed. And if it’s good enough, it will be read by and appreciated by people who are not African-Americans. I liked them because they were like…  
Sarah:
Listening to you reading your stories underscores the orality and musicality of your storytelling.  
Mario:
Your latest book, God Help the Child, begins with a striking sentence: ‘It’s not my fault.’
 
Toni:
That’s right. They just gave us stupid names. One is my son. 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. I mean, she looked tall. I remember when I first started publishing, the publisher would give a book of mine to somebody to read – to sell in disc form.  
Toni:
I do! And what did he whisper in your ear?  
Sarah:
Were the stories changed along the way? 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. She was a midwife. My mother joined the Book of the Month Club. But at the same time, it was an act of taking power back. I couldn’t relate to the country. She talked about racism and ‘whiteness’, the tension between memory and forgetting, and the art of writing about sex. There’s a guy in there who has three children, two girls and a boy.  
Toni:
The corn tops are waving. So you can get that out of the way. I like the act of reading my works because I measure their value in terms of how they sound. I try not to.  
Toni:
Saint Anthony of Padua!  
Toni:
We got started that way. And it was illegal for white people to teach them to read. I didn’t know what they were talking about. This girl is very, very black and very, very beautiful. Cool Breeze, and one was called Jim the Devil. No. It has to be something that everybody can relate to – not just the sex act, but what I’m saying about it. They hated it because he was horrible, but they kept the name because they could keep in touch with each other generations later. It’s too big. ‘Gonna whop, gonna chop my wife’s head off!’ It was a loud song.  
Toni:
I’m glad.  
Toni:
Did I?  
Toni:
Two things. We have counted them. There were no books, no libraries.  
Toni:
I knew then!  
Mario:
What title would you have given the book? It was about civil rights. 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. They just seemed sort of unintellectual to me – because I couldn’t make friends based on that. But if you can associate sex with some other behavior that is interesting, then the sex becomes interesting. But they were just mad. I came with my first book trying to say, ‘Look, racism really and truly hurts. It’s hard to think of paintings, particularly, any other way.  
Toni:
Oh, it’s funny that he says that. In that voice he has! 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. Hänsel and Gretel?  
Sarah:
You are known for writing great sex scenes. 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. That’s so dangerous and so awful that I don’t even want to think about it. But first I’m going down South.’ It had gotten very political, so that color was not the important thing.  
Toni:
You could change them, because they made us tell them. She had the most beautiful voice I have ever heard. I come from a house in which they did that all the time. She knew everything. So I started reading them all. But she was pitch black, and she was looking at us as soiled, mixed.  
Sarah:
He still does.  
Toni:
Oh, it’s so good! All Ethiopians are beautiful! But I was somewhere with Doctorow, the writer, at an event. There’s that Green Book he uses, which I have a copy of, which was where black people could stay. That’s the quality that brings the country, its people together: having a non-white population.  
Mario:
In God Help the Child, like in other books of yours, children suffer.  
 
Photograph © Timothy Greenfield-Sanders 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? But what was there besides woman, black? Seventy… He said to Obama, ‘You said something to my mother, and she doesn’t remember. Do you remember reading stories when you were kids? Or that you should feel bad about it?’ It just wasn’t there.  
Sarah/Mario: No, we saw the video. I am German, and until I came to live in the US, I never felt white. I forgot it in the way that you can have a conversation with somebody that you really like or who is really impressive. (She pauses, then starts to sing – first in a low voice, then louder.)… There was only white men. Think about it: If you come to this country from Germany, or Russia, or anywhere, you get off the boat, get on the land. Some things along those lines may be happening in Europe now. A lot depended on the sound of a tale – the meaning often would lie in the sound of it. But soon as I left, I thought: What did he say? Deep! That was like resistance.  
Sarah:
God Help the Child. My grandfather didn’t go to school. If you know something at the end that you didn’t know before, it’s almost wisdom. She had a cane that she obviously didn’t need. The country got started with a labor of Africans – to do work for free and reproduce themselves as more workers. And then a witch throws you in the oven. That’s why criticism is so awful.