Nobel laureate and iconic African American writer, Toni Morrison added another impressive award to her already impressive list of awards and accomplishments recently when she was honored with the 2016 PEN/Saul Bellow Award for achievement in American fiction. The award, presented in March of this year, is given to a living American “whose scale of achievement in fiction, over a sustained career, places him or her in the highest rank of American literature.” Toni Morrison will also receive $25,000 that comes with the award.
As we celebrate Women’s History Month in March 2016 – a time when North Americans highlight the contributions of women to events in history and contemporary society, it is fitting to celebrate Toni Morrison as a literary icon. So from the WORD Vaults, here is an interview conducted by Evan Solomon which was printed in WORD Magazine when she visited Toronto in 2003 to promote her then new book, Love.
Some authors transcend the boundaries of literature, and become icons in their own right, symbols of a cause or an experience like Alexander Solzhenitsyn or Primo Levi. And it’s fair to put Toni Morrison in this category — a woman whose work has come to stand for the experience of black women and men in America.
The novel that first vaulted her into this company was Beloved — for which she won the Pulitzer prize in 1988. But it wasn’t until 1993, when she became the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize that Morrison went beyond celebrity status — a status solidified by her constant presence on the Oprah Winfrey Show — Morrison became something else — something she would be loathe to hear applied to her — she became a kind of conscience.
Morrison didn’t publish her first book The Bluest Eye until she was nearly 40. And now, 32 years later, she’s just finished her 8th novel.
It’s titled simply Love — and it’s the story of Bill Cosey, a wealthy black owner of a sea-side American resort during segregation. Around Cosey’s resort swirl his all black clientele, the jazz musicians he supports and adores, and the women in his life who adore him, all of whom he influences, changes and sometimes, traumatizes. The book is a powerful exploration of the many facets of love.
I spoke with Toni Morrison at Hart House at the University of Toronto.
EVAN SOLOMON: I was wondering what answer are you seeking in this book, Love?
TONI MORRISON: This word “LOVE” – discredited, “clicheed” – can be restored and love, the instinct, the impulse to care for somebody in the
hope that somebody will care for you – plus our language, the language, a language – is about all we have. With everything else going on, this
is what makes us, what keeps us human.
EVAN: One of your characters says, well it’s like we started out being sold, we got free of it, then we sold ourselves to the highest bidder. What do you mean, tell me about that because this is a very different version of the emancipation myth where you get free and then you’re free.
TONI: Yea, now what? All the battles feminists won about not being a sex object, not being evaluated based on these things, that now other generations are
wallowing in, the extremes they go to, to look sexually attractive? It’s stunning how things that one fought desperately for are just being tossed aside with aplomb.
EVAN: When I watch a lot of rap videos, and we ‘re talking about language and there’s 50-Cent, and his song was: “I’m a mother f-ing
pimp.” And the stars come out dressed like pimps and the girls …And I thought to myself, if you speak about language and language defining us, the language in that video and hundreds of others is often very, very sexist and demeaning.
TONI: It’s violent, it’s really hurtful that language that they are using.
EVAN: But what is it doing to us? What is it doing to the culture that this language has penetrated so far into the mainstream and rather than flattening it…
TONI: It’s popping up?
EVAN: Yes, it’s popping up!
TONI: Well, you know it’s all sexual hook.
EVAN: Where are the black women who said, “I refuse to be called bitch and bootie.” And where are the white women?
TONI: Yea, where are they?
EVAN: Yea, where are they? Why has this language become so acceptable?
TONI: My theory is that the world is a difficult place to live in and distraction is the name of the game.
EVAN: We haven’t come that far?
TONI: It sells dear, that’s all.
EVAN: Are you saying that the victories that your generation may have won are being squandered or unappreciated by the next one?
TONI: That’s what I’m saying. When you think of sexual liberation, which women wanted to have or not have children, which is the choice, not a command, and other kinds of things they wanted in their relationships with their husbands, or partners or what have you, became for subsequent generations some license that they themselves feel, that is absolutely demeaning and mean younger and younger and younger. I’ll tell you something. I wanted this hero or protagonist — Mister Cosey and…
EVAN: Yeah and we’ll talk about whether he’s a hero or not –
TONI: Yeah. That’s a question. To marry this girl very early, a very very young girl.
TONI: Totally appalling.
Toni: And the reader is appalled and I am appalled, except I want this to be thought about. How appalling is it when we have sexualized children so completely in this country? Not only on the covers of magazines, not only is this explosion with child pornography but the good, sweet, doting parents are permitting them to dress like hookers. So we are busy doing that, making children into sexual objects…So okay, so be appalled at Bill Cosey.
EVAN: You’re a moralist. That’s my theory and yet you refuse to moralize.
TONI: That’s exactly, that’s good. I am a moralist. I worry.
“Books ARE a form of political action. Books are knowledge. Books are reflection. Books change your mind.”
TONI: About good and evil. I think about it –
EVAN: That’s right.
TONI: I find that for me you know that evil is just sort of ultimately boring. The good thing is just complicated. It’s more provocative to me and more stimulating to me. But I’m not sermonizing…
EVAN: With that comes Bill Cosey, because how do you make a guy who marries an eleven year old and he cheats on women and who knows what else he does.
TONI: Yeah he does that –
EVAN: and he does a lot and –
TONI: But he saves people from jail…
TONI: He educates people. He pulled people out of the swamps, and gave them jobs. He gave black musicians respect …He gave them happiness.
EVAN: Yea, this is so wonderful. Yea, so this raises the ethical question: Are there some crimes like pedophilia that supercede giving black musicians respect and we can damn Bill Cosey and sleep well?
TONI: Pedophilia is soul murder. You kill a child in the soul when that happens. Just as that little girl was just deprived of her life. So that is unacceptable and totally damning. Uh saving other people is a good thing. I am in the position of judging people by the best they’ve ever done rather than the worst.
EVAN: Before the civil rights movement, Bill Cosey, Morrison’s main character, was able to give other blacks, including musicians, good jobs at his resort. Segregation, Morrison reminds us, actually created thriving all-black communities, schools and businesses. Some blacks actually marched against de-segregation to hold onto those things. But after blacks gained access to white culture, those all-black communities collapsed and businesses like Cosey’s Resort, became a thing of the past. What’s the dangers of joining a movement?
TONI: That it may not live up to your expectations of itself or yourself. Underneath this sort of myth-building in which everybody was wonderful and heroic and it all lasts, like a little fairy story with an arc of struggle, of oppression and struggle, redemption. I mean a lot of people were hurt, dead, killed, murdered in there. I will not make that into some silly little story of Martin Luther King jumped up and we all lived happily ever after. Real things happen. Real people were hurt. Some people didn’t survive that. Some people had to work out their lives under duress because of the impact of the civil rights movement, because of what went on before, what their position was in it and some of the people I suppose just triumphed but almost nobody now can remember how hard that was. So if you don’t remember, then you do miss and repeat the worst part.
EVAN: So it’s belief. When people believe in right or wrong, are they just categories that we have because we refuse to face these complications?
TONI: Yea, it’s too hard to say, to have the courage of the conviction without the rhetoric and without the rationalizations and what movements do which is why they’re movements is give you the language to rationalize the good stuff and the bad stuff.
EVAN: Right. Language only defines us in the most obvious way but shapes everything about us. What needs to be resurrected about that revelation about language? What are we missing?
TONI: Well, we’re all surrounded by what I call faux language, fake language of commerce, of news media. So I think it’s being sort of flattened out, so that we’re communicating less. And robust language is usually only the language of war and sex. So when you try to, you know, to reclaim what used to be possible in letters – who writes letters any more? – or loved the act of speaking? You know you could hear people who relish words. I don’t mean complicated esoteric academic words…
EVAN: But the juicy element of speaking –
TONI: Juicy, that’s right.
EVAN: You said once – “Sometimes what I write on the page frightens me, so I feel free when I write, but I don’t feel safe.” So, explain what you mean by that, because that’s what came to mind when I read that scene of abortion, oh it’s a, it’s a horrible description. That’s tough stuff. Yeah. It’s scary and you have to go there if you want to know and you have to make it real for the reader. And making it real for the reader is exactly what Toni Morrison does. In “Beloved,” her most famous novel, which was of course brought to life as a film starring Oprah Winfrey, the scary place Morrison takes us to is the world of an escaped slave, who when caught, makes the desperate decision to murder her daughter rather than see her returned to a life of slavery.
TONI: I don’t really want to think, how does it feel really to hold my own son in my arms and cut his head off because I love him. But I gotta think about that. I have to be willing to go there and suffer and then I draw back and say I don’t have to do it, I just have to imagine it. The same thing about abortion. It’s available, or should be to women, but it’s a thing, you know, it’s not simple. There’s no point in erasing it and saying it was a tooth extraction. It wasn’t. It was alive.
EVAN: In your book, there’s that scene where one of your characters says she sees the…
TONI: Eye –
EVAN: The Eye looking back at her –
TONI: …the disinterested eye.
EVAN: Oh Boy and If you believe in choice and the woman’s right to have an abortion, can you also believe that a disinterested eye can stare back at you which means that’s a real life?
EVAN: Which gives credence to the idea that it might be murder as well? How do you hold two contrary positions like that, really, on such a sensitive issue? Life is original, complicated, intricate, and our judgement has to be. I think it’s wrong to say all women must have children because they are pregnant. You know you shouldn’t be able to make those decisions for everybody. I also think it’s wrong for women who are pro-choice to make it easy to erase away the life that is in those cells in that embryo and pretend it’s a common cold. It’s not. You were in your thirties and raising kids, what if I talked to you then and I said, “So Toni, how do you write?”
TONI: I always got up early, sometimes on Saturday nights, of course I didn’t have a social life. But was such glory. It was so exciting in that place. My life was, you know, zzz – but what was going on in my mind was just unbelievable and that’s where I live, that’s what I carried, that’s what I tried to husband.
EVAN: Let’s talk about “Love, for a minute. In the book it’s divided up into chapters. “Portrait.” And there’s “Father.” And the titles are the various aspects of love really…the various roles we play in love.
TONI: No. The aspects of “him.”
EVAN: Of him?
TONI: Bill Cosey. Of all the male stuff that women give men, the responsibilities, the expectations…
EVAN: “Father”… But it’s part of love. But don’t they mistake all these for love?
TONI: Of course they do. The last chapter is called “Phantom.” It’s not that he didn’t ruin their lives the way they believe he did. The point is get rid of it, so now stop saying well he…well he…well what about? Yea? So? Move on. It’s only after they relegate him to a phantom that they can finally begin to talk.
EVAN: This book is called “Love.” And here all we’re talking about is love, but you originally wanted to call your new book, “The Sporting Woman.”
TONI: Yeah I did.
EVAN: Your editor changed it.
TONI: Yeah he did, but he was right, I agreed you know…I have final cut, as we say.
EVAN: Yeah, yeah, but you took it, and that meant something was going on deeper than the sporting women.
TONI: You know when I began I was thinking of changing that language as a sporting woman from what it used to mean a prostitute which is – Cosey’s true love. And giving it to other women meaning women with a little bit of courage, a little bit of moxey, and changing it, but you know, everybody thought it was a horse woman or something.
EVAN: Well that expression is dead now.
TONI: And then my editor said well why don’t you just call it Love? And there was this very pregnant pause and I was thinking the obvious, “How could I possibly?” But the pause was so profound and I began to think me uncomfortable? And I began to pay attention to why I was uncomfortable, why it was so strange?
EVAN: Well that’s what I like, Toni Morrison –
TONI: And that’s what I liked –
EVAN: But I like the fact that you were backed into Love. That has so many meanings.
TONI: Hey writer! (laughter)
EVAN: That’s what I just kept thinking about.
TONI: I guess I recognized when my editor said to use the word, that at bottom, like the books I had done before, this new book was still about love.
EVAN: But now in a different sense.
TONI: Just knew I was going to write about a black entrepreneur before the civil rights. That’s all I knew and what that was. I started out with the scene of the gang rape and this kid. Who had the instinct that’s pure, to save somebody. And is humiliated by the feeling. And then surrounded that with these people.
EVAN: The book’s also about hate. When you think about slavery, when you think about terrorism. … Are there times when it’s okay to succumb to hatred? Never? You’re just nodding –
TONI: It’s death. It’s unreasonable. It’s inhumane. That’s what it wants you to do. That’s what I’m talking about when I say evil is so seductive. It needs to grind you up and make you its slave. I can’t write out of that place. I cannot think out of that place. And it will not win. But I know what it feels like. It feels delicious.
EVAN: Oh yeah?
TONI: In the beginning.
EVAN: What feels better, love or hate in the beginning?
TONI: Hate feels good. Feels good, too good. Love, on the other hand, you don’t get nothing for it. That’s the beauty. This is you being really you, being open and honest and caring, your ego’s gone, it’s just you being a human being in all your glory.
EVAN: What scares you now?
TONI: The Administration of the United States. It’s such dread I almost feel paralyzed.
EVAN: So what do you do?
TONI: Write books.
EVAN: Books are a form of political action?
TONI: Books ARE a form of political action. Books are knowledge. Books are reflection. Books change your mind.
EVAN: Is this an act of resistance?
TONI: It’s an act of participation and citizenship, for me a major act, art works.
EVAN: This whole question about art and politics is messy stuff because first of all, as soon as you decide that art ought to be moral or political, it’s…
TONI: I didn’t say that. I said it works.
EVAN: It works. But is there…
TONI: Political doesn’t necessarily mean you have an agenda. I mean this is something that’s just so brand new. I mean tell Chaucer that. Tell Sophocles. Tell Shakespeare. You cannot talk about kings, you cannot talk about current horrors in peoples’ lives. That’s irrelevant. It’s in the world. I’m a writer in the world. I translate the confusion that I might feel, the dread that I know I feel, moving towards some other place, moving away from puny language, from all that dread into some other kind of language. The important thing that happens in that book is reconciliation. No matter what. They fought through that. Okay they had to be pushed a little bit, but that’s what happens between human beings. Whatever the demons are – love can un-demonize them.
EVAN: Well it’s just such a pleasure for me to speak with you.
TONI: Thank you very much. I really enjoyed this. Toni Morrision has a humane way of connecting that is as compelling as
This interview was excerpted with the permission of CBC TV’s Hot Type.