A photo of Toni Morrison from earlier this year.
A photo of Toni Morrison from earlier this year.

15 Minutes with Toni Morrison

​Toni Morrison, author of 11 novels and recipient of a Pulitzer Prize, the American Book Award, the Nobel Prize for Literature, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, delivered a series of lectures on race and identity as the Norton Professor this past year. She spoke to The Harvard Crimson during her stay in Cambridge.​
By Charlotte L.R. Anrig

Toni Morrison, author of 11 novels and recipient of a Pulitzer Prize, the American Book Award, the Nobel Prize for Literature, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, delivered a series of lectures on race and identity as the Norton Professor this past year. She spoke to The Harvard Crimson during her stay in Cambridge.

Fifteen Minutes: What are the central concepts that you see running through all your work?

Toni Morrison: Well, [the books are] so very different. It was only very recently that I began to think of them as connected in any way. I don’t read them after I write them. I sometimes read sections if I’m with an audience, but to read a book over and over—I don’t do that. Because the next book is so—for me in my mind—so different. The reasons for its existence are so varied. Some books I start and then I can’t go forward for some reason; I abandon them and write another book. The last book, I think, that was published, “God Help the Child,” I started that a long time ago. Before I wrote “Home.” But I couldn’t get the language that was contemporary, you know? It’s so different; so full of weak words…. It got hard to write in the contemporary world the way I write, which is more lyrical, I think, than some others.

FM: Like most of your books, “God Help the Child” has a focus on shifting narration and the same events viewed from different perspectives. What interests you about that pattern?

TM: Well, I started earlier, I think, with—not just different characters, but with different voices. And some of the books, like “Jazz” and some of the others, have no person connected to the overwhelming voice. Someone just starts talking and knowing things, whether they’re right or wrong. And no one realizes that they don’t know anything or that they’ve learned something else. But that’s kind of a speakerly voice, not overpowering and not authentic because they’re also vulnerable and also make powerful mistakes. And then, from that, there was an evolution—I guess, evolution, but certainly a difference—in having multiple characters comment on the other characters and the situation. And they may be entirely different. It’s a little more dramatic for me, like a play, where you have different characters circling each other or impressing one another. And then the book, hopefully, pulls the central idea together.

FM: How do you decide what the central theme of your books are, if that makes sense?

TM: It does make sense. But it doesn’t make sense for me, because I never write—well, I do write towards something. My happy endings. All my books have them. Happiness, to me, is knowledge. Knowing something that nobody in the book, including the voice, knew before. So the book is a process towards some big resolution: you now know something that, other than this book, you wouldn’t have known. So it’s not just closure, nothing like that. It’s just… wisdom. Some of them arrive at wisdom, some just get the knowledge. But the possibility of moving from data to information to knowledge to wisdom is the track of everything I have ever written.

FM: You’ve said that you don’t want your books to be read as “mere protest or advocacy.” How do you want your readers to be reading and approaching your books?

TM: Open. I want them to dwell in the language, the sound of it. I hear it myself when I write. And then I don’t want to tell them anything. I want them to realize their connection with the ideas and the themes, perhaps, of the characters. So that you and I—you, the writer; me, the reader—are doing something together. It’s like a chorus. Some of these singing places where you have a lead singer and then you have the chorus and then you have—maybe somebody, say in churches, they step out, take over. Or you have a very formalized musical rendition, you know? And that stays with me, I think because my mother sang all the time. She was a really good singer. I was just used to constant music in our house.

FM: With respect to social issues of identity and race, you’ve said that literature can do things that politics and science can’t do. What can literature accomplish that nothing else can?

TM: Well, the first thing was point of view. The point of view of an African American person or persons. Not as told to, but from the inside out. And I eventually sort of took that for granted. As I wrote, I didn’t have to stress it the way I did in “The Bluest Eye,” which was about race and the horror of believing that your self is ugly and totally disastrous. And it’s all in the realization at the end that the reader gets a sense of what the author feels. But subsequent to that, when I was writing “Sula” [and] “Song of Solomon,” I just gave it up. They were not black books, to me. They were books with black people in them, told from a black person’s point of view. And now I was having a little argument, I think, here with somebody, about not identifying race at all… “They shot the white girl first, and took their time with the rest,” which is the opening of “Paradise.” But I never say who the white girl is, ever… that was very deliberate, because I flagged race and didn’t make it disappear. The all-black community’s all about that purity… [but now] I don’t want to signal it.

FM: You’ve said that when you were teaching, you told your students to stop writing about their ‘little lives.’ Why is it important that things be invented?

TM: It’s a very self-regarding period of life.... When I taught creative writing the last few years that I was at Princeton, I told them, I don’t want you to write [about yourself]. So I would give them these wild scenarios—this woman in Paris, she used to be famous, and she’s older now and her lovers have all died. Write about her. Or, my favorite was, this is about a girl who’s in Texas and she’s an immigrant and she doesn’t speak English, but she works at a restaurant. What about her? I have to tell you, those Princeton students blew it out of the water. Once they were free to not say, “Oh, my girlfriend,” or whatever—get over it. Let’s go to where the imagination is rife!

FM: What was it like when the country desegregated?

TM: When the civil rights thing came, and after, I was very much involved in the Martin Luther King thing, and… that to me was powerful, and extremely important. Although it didn’t seep yet, down into the culture.... And also, the other thing—my last year as a student at Howard University, the faculty organized a troupe, a traveling troupe. Nine of us, they selected, and I was one. And we traveled the South and played our plays at the black colleges that had a budget for summer performance…. It was fascinating. Because the South, for me—like Ellison said, the South is black people. The South is lovely…. So I’m going down there, and we have some difficulties. They have arranged for us to stay at a certain place, a motel. And when we arrive there, we find out that it’s really a whorehouse.... So [a professor] goes into a phonebook, the yellow pages, opens it up [to] where it says churches, black churches or African-American churches, and he goes down the line and he calls up these black preachers… and [one] preacher says, "Come on over here." He has found six or seven people who’re willing to take us in. Just folks. And the girl that was playing this other part, she and I had gone to this one house—and this woman, she welcomed us—this was in the middle of the night. Welcomed us. And her sheets—I can never forget those sheets, because she had dried them on juniper bushes outside. And the odor! No spray could…. This was it. White, white sheets. Clean, clean, clean. And ironed. But they still had flowers in them. We offered her money; she wouldn’t take it. Please? No. So we put the money in the pillow slip so she could find it. The point being, I had such a good time, and it really was being in that neighborhood in the South where there was that honesty and comfort and shared…. I don’t know, it was like being at home. Only better, because it wasn’t your home where your mother was fussing. Anyway, that was—now as you look at it, or as I see it, on television, it’s like all those women are gone. All those women who took care of us, strangers, took care of us as children. Stars and things, but anyway, it’s difficult for me. I’m 85. I’m just picky. Seriously picky.