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Toni Morrison: The Salon Interview

Written by eastern writer on Friday, June 13, 2008

I met Toni Morrison at her apartment in SoHo. She hung up my coat and offered me a drink, and we settled in for a conversation. I was immediately aware of the gentleness in that room -- her listening presence. Morrison's seventh novel, "Paradise," had just been published by Knopf, and throughout our talk her phone rang continually with news -- from her son, her sister, a friend -- of the reviews the book was getting. An unhurried and thoughtful speaker, she took it all in stride. "Paradise" -- which opens with the startling sentence "They shoot the white girl first" -- involves the murder of several women in the 1970s by a group of black men, intent on preserving the honor of their small Oklahoma town; they see the women as bad, a wayward influence on their moral lives. It's an intense, deeply felt book that easily ranks with her best work.

Toni Morrison was born in Loraine, Ohio, in 1931. She attended Howard University, then received a master's degree in English at Cornell University, where she wrote a thesis on William Faulkner. Her first novel, "The Bluest Eye," was published in 1969, followed by "Sula" in 1973. Then came "Song of Solomon" (1977), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, "Tar Baby" (1981), the play "Dreaming Emmett" (1985) and "Beloved" (1987), which received the Pulitzer in 1988. Her novel "Jazz" appeared in 1992, and in 1993 Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. Last year she was the co-editor, along with Claudia Brodsky Lacour, of a volume called "Birth of a Nation'hood: Gaze, Script and Spectacle in the O.J. Simpson case." An editor at Random House for many years, Morrison now teaches fiction writing at Princeton University.

Do you read your reviews?

Oh, yes.

What did you think of Michiko Kakutani's strongly negative review of "Paradise" in the New York Times?

Well, I would imagine there would be some difference of opinion on what the book is like or what it meant. Some people are maybe more invested in reading it from a certain point of view. The daily review in The New York Times was extremely unflattering about this book. And I thought, more to the point, it was not well written. The unflattering reviews are painful for short periods of time; the badly written ones are deeply, deeply insulting. That reviewer took no time to really read the book.

You don't feel you need to protect yourself from listening to critics?

You can't.

You need to know what's being said?

I know there are authors who find it healthier for them, in their creative process, to just not look at any reviews, or bad reviews, or they have them filtered, because sometimes they are toxic for them. I don't agree with that kind of isolation. I'm very much interested in how African-American literature is perceived in this country, and written about, and viewed. It's been a long, hard struggle, and there's a lot of work yet to be done. I'm especially interested in how women's fiction is reviewed and understood. And the best way to do that is to read my own reviews, for reasons that are not about how I write. I mean, it doesn't have anything to do with the work. I'm not entangled at all in shaping my work according to other people's views of how I should have done it, how I succeeded at doing it. So it doesn't have that kind of effect on me at all. But I'm very interested in the responses in general. And there have been some very curious and interesting things in the reviews so far.

"Paradise" has been called a "feminist" novel. Would you agree with that?

Not at all. I would never write any "ist." I don't write "ist" novels.

Why distance oneself from feminism?

In order to be as free as I possibly can, in my own imagination, I can't take positions that are closed. Everything I've ever done, in the writing world, has been to expand articulation, rather than to close it, to open doors, sometimes, not even closing the book -- leaving the endings open for reinterpretation, revisitation, a little ambiguity. I detest and loathe [those categories]. I think it's off-putting to some readers, who may feel that I'm involved in writing some kind of feminist tract. I don't subscribe to patriarchy, and I don't think it should be substituted with matriarchy. I think it's a question of equitable access, and opening doors to all sorts of things.

Because the book has so many women characters, it's easy to label.

Yes. That doesn't happen with white male writers. No one says Solzhenitsyn is writing only about those Russians, I mean, what is the matter with him? Why doesn't he write about Vermont? If you have a book full of men, and minor female characters --

No one even notices. No one blinks that Hemingway has this massive problem with women.

No one blinks at all.

Many of the male characters in "Paradise" have severe problems. I was wondering if you yourself identified with any of them as morally strong characters?

I suppose the one that is closest to my own sensibility about moral problems would be the young minister, Rev. Maisner. He's struggling mightily with the tenets of his religion, the pressures of the civil rights, the dissolution of the civil rights.

And he's worried about the young.

And the young. He's very concerned that they're being cut off, at a time when, in fact, he probably was right, there was some high expectations laid out for them, and suddenly there was a silence, and they were cut off.

He's like Lev in "Anna Karenina."


Struggling with the moral --

He's not positive about all of it, but he wants to open up the discussion. He wants to do this terrible thing, which is listen to the children. Twice it's been mentioned or suggested that "Paradise" will not be well studied, because it's about this unimportant intellectual topic, which is religion.

"Paradise" has also been called a "difficult" book.

That always strikes me -- it makes me breathless -- to be told that this is "difficult" writing. That nobody in the schools is going to want to talk about all of these issues that are not going on now.

Do they say that about Don DeLillo's "Mao II," because it involves cults?

No, there's a different kind of slant, I think. Different expectations. Different yearnings, I think, for black literature.

You mean, they want you to step into what they've already heard?

And say, once again, "It's going to be all right, nobody was to blame." And I'm not casting blame. I'm just trying to look at something without blinking, to see what it was like, or it could have been like, and how that had something to do with the way we live now. Novels are always inquiries for me.

Did you have any relationship to the word "feminism" when you were growing up, or did you have a sense of yourself first as black and then as female?

I think I merged those two words, black and feminist, growing up, because I was surrounded by black women who were very tough and very aggressive and who always assumed they had to work and rear children and manage homes. They had enormously high expectations of their daughters, and cut no quarter with us; it never occurred to me that that was feminist activity. You know, my mother would walk down to a theater in that little town that had just opened, to make sure that they were not segregating the population -- black on this side, white on that. And as soon as it opened up, she would go in there first, and see where the usher put her, and look around and complain to someone. That was just daily activity for her, and the men as well. So it never occurred to me that she should withdraw from that kind of confrontation with the world at large. And the fact that she was a woman wouldn't deter her. She was interested in what was going to happen to the children who went to the movies -- the black children -- and her daughters, as well as her sons. So I was surrounded by people who took both of those roles seriously. Later, it was called "feminist" behavior. I had a lot of trouble with those definitions, early on. And I wrote some articles about that, and I wrote "Sula," really, based on this theoretically brand new idea, which was: Women should be friends with one another. And in the community in which I grew up, there were women who would choose the company of a female friend over a man, anytime. They were really "sisters," in that sense.

Do you keep the company of female writers? Do you find a need for that?

I really have very few friends who are writers. I have some close friends who are writers, but that's because they're such extraordinary people. The writing is almost incidental to the friendship, I think. It was interesting to me that when books by black women first began to be popular, there was a non-articulated, undiscussed, umbrella rule that seemed to operate, which was: Never go into print damning one another. We were obviously free to loathe each other's work. But no one played into the "who is best." There was this marvelous absence of competition among us. And every now and then I'd see a review -- a black woman reviewer take another black woman writer, a critic usually, on -- but usually it's in that field of cultural criticism. Because it was always understood that this was a plateau that had a lot of space on it. []

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