Guilt is what you feel when you can’t feel the real emotion
Interviewing Toni Morrison in 1976
Interviewing Toni Morrison in 1976
By Richard Asinof, ConvergenceRI
Photo courtesy of the Toni Morrison Society website
Four decades after conducting the interview with Morrison, her words still capture the truth about race, violence, community, sexuality and the voice of women writers.
Author Toni Morrison seated on the bench dedicated in 2009 on the Oberlin, Ohio, town green in memory of all those former slaves who traveled through Oberlin on the Underground Railroad.
In 2009, Nobel Prize-winning author Toni
Morrison received a “Lifetime Achievement” award from the Norman Mailer
Foundation. The ironic, if not iconic, image of Toni Morrison sharing the stage
with those who sought to honor Mailer’s legacy as a writer sent me scurrying to
see if I could uncover my typewritten notes from an interview I conducted with
Morrison back in November of 1976.
Morrison, at that time, was a fiction editor at Random House in New York City. She had come to Mt. Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., to give a talk and a reading from her latest novel, as yet unpublished, The Song of Solomon. I was a reporter – soon to be managing editor – of The Valley Advocate in Amherst, Mass., a weekly alternative newspaper in Western Massachusetts.
Having attended the reading the previous evening, I joined Morrison – and her young son, Slade – for a breakfast interview at Mt. Holyoke. Morrison was well known in literary circles, on the cusp of fame, but not yet famous. To wit, I had a big argument to convince The Valley Advocate’s arts editor to run the interview, because he had never heard of her – or her books. And, Morrison, in turn, requested that a copy of the interview be sent to her mother in Lorain, Ohio, and provided the address.
It’s been a long journey since that encounter – for Morrison, and for myself. But it’s worth recapturing the interview here, three decades later.
[Editor’s Note: The first published version of this story originally appeared in 2009, 10 years ago, in somewhat different fashion, in a blog post.]
When she spoke, according to my notes, it was “in exacting speech, clear, precise, powerful.”
Morrison explained that she taught creative writing at Yale University by letting her students edit manuscripts that had been sent to the publisher.
At her talk the night before, she had told her audience: “When I wrote The Bluest Eye, I felt there was an idea abroad in the land that was extremely tragic and destructive of women. When we talked about beautiful women, we talked about virtue, as if they had done something extraordinary to achieve their beauty. Beauty was seldom warmth and goodness; it consisted of superficial qualities.”
“[In the book], the pursuit of beauty,” she continued, “was an all-engrossing obsession. The girl who accepted this standard of beauty that was given her, and she never accepted anything else, so she wanted those blue eyes. It was a symbol that everything would be all right, if only… fill in the blank. And, even if she got them, it wouldn’t be enough, because it was never enough.”
In the interview, I also asked her about her second book, Sula:
“My second book, Sula, was about a woman alone – not a woman without a man, but a woman alone, without women friends. Men deride the information that women have to give other women as old wives’ tales, or gossip, or girl talk, which suggests that this information doesn’t have any value. That kind of isolation [being a woman alone] may be devastating….”
Morrison continued: “The friendship in Sula was not homosexual, it was interesting in its own accord, and the women were not using each other in the pursuit of anything. [The book explores] what happens if the friendship should fall and break apart, with the other version of oneself, the other – the one person to whom you don’t have to explain anything, with whom no posturing is necessary, with whom you can be whomever you really are.”
She continued: “The women found themselves separating over the intimacy of one’s man. Sula would not honor the ancient laws [of community]… The book was also dealing with a structure, a cosmology. Death is not an accident; it happens because you fail to notice signs pointing to it. If you are attuned, you will pick up signs of disaster. If you ignore warnings, things will happen inevitably. The signs that should have meant something in the past had been ignored. Hannah asks the universal question for that person in authority: ‘Tell me, did you ever really love me?’”
The character of Sula, Morrison said, “depended on her own instincts, which for her was her impetus, experimentation. The most terrible thing that could happen was to become bored, ennui. It is boredom that created the atmosphere for her own death.”
Slade, her son, interjected here: “You’re books are so sad, Momma.” Morrison replied: “I’m going to write a funny one.”
I had run into Slade the night before, looking for the reading. I asked him: “Is she as good a mother as she is a writer?”
“Better,” he replied.
The difference between men’s and women’s writing
Morrison drew a distinction between women’s writing and men’s writing, and talking about the problems of writing from a man’s perspective. [Are you listening, Norman?]
“I don’t want to win anything. I don’t play games. I don’t care enough about it.”
She said: “If you are writing about somebody who is concerned about winning, then you’ve got to feel that drive, the feeling of lust, of gambling – what it must feel like to get something by chance, and you know you deserve it, it’s easy, something for nothing, without effort.”
Morrison continued: “I used to have a brother-in-law who hunted. He had marvelous dogs; he also had a family. I used to go hunting with him, and we would go out and get a raccoon. I would carry a lamp; there was me and the guns and the dogs. I knew that whatever noise [that] the dogs were making, he understood, and would respond. What was really going on was that they were talking to one another. The calls were very specific. It was a language. And I presume a time when men did really talk to the animals, a time before language, when you could talk to a tiger.”
She continued: “It’s not important whether I’m wrong, or right, but it is important that this is the way I could go into a scene that’s a man’s scene. The kinship between the hunter and the hunted, the respect the man had for the animal. I had to feel authority in describing such a scene, to feel that drive, that pursuit.”
Morrison said that her first fan letter was “from Erica Jong, who had read the manuscript of The Bluest Eye in galleys, when she was still considered a poet.”
Morrison said that she had little use for fame. “I want to write perfectly, to have large numbers of people say that I write perfectly. I also crave anonymity with a passion – and not because I’ve had a taste of something. I am a private person, and don’t like what I see of fame. You begin to talk about yourself, as “we,” and to think of yourself in capital letters.” [Once again, are you listening, Norman?]
The sound of the poet
Three years earlier, in 1973, I had interviewed the poet, Nikki Giovanni, in Philadelphia, who had created her own recording company for her poetry. I asked Morrison about that.
Morrison said: “If I were a poet, I wouldn’t go near a publisher. I would consider myself a lyricist. If I didn’t read my own works well, then I would find somebody who would read them well. Poets are losing a large market. I would buy a record of poetry faster than a book of poetry.”
Almost as an aside, she continued: “The first time I heard Faulkner he had a terrible voice, a Southern cracker voice. But reading is a special skill, like singing. A musician may not be able to sing.”
I asked Morrison about what I perceived as the “violence” in her books. My notes indicate that I cited a quote from The Bluest Eye.
She said: “I was trying to recollect what it was really like in one’s feelings as a child, a sense of being a child. It was not all innocent and delight. You discovered about yourself that you were capable of all sorts of emotion, including hate – pure and unprovoked malice, and it has no personal connection. It’s scary, because it could happen to anyone.”
She continued: “Those people who deny the naturalness of violence are impressed by it; they are very attracted by it. Violence is banal. Slavery is very attractive to some dramatists now. [The TV series, “Roots,” was soon to be aired.] It stimulates their interest in its character. And it holds tremendous possibilities for dramatic effect. Slavery, in reality, was tedious, boring, oppressing, and had little of what the dramatics would add.”
Morrison talked about the role of community in dealing with, and setting limits, with violent behavior. “There used to be a time when people could have fits, they were part of the normal range of human emotions. Short periods of outrage, and it was not considered unnatural. It was possible for village idiots to exist. And these people were not institutionalized. People dealt with them on a realistic, day-to-day basis. Madness was bumping up against one another.”
She continued: “The same thing is true with violent people, people who reach their limit rather quickly. But there were stop valves. Greater risks were involved. If you had the courage to commit murder, so you also had the courage to stop it.”
Guilt is what you feel when you can’t feel the real emotion
Further, Morrison said: “Black churches where you could run the gamut of emotions, scream and cry. When you take that away, you have an incredible amount of shame. You feel guilty [for such strong emotions]. Guilt is what you feel when you can’t feel the real thing – love, anger, hate – until it becomes a substitute for feeling.”
She added: “Before you knew the word, and what it meant, you could go ahead and feel it.”
Morrison talked about the importance of hearing as part of the writing process. “I hear everything before I write it. My goal is to make the reader understand the nature of the speaker. Dialect often functions as words only on a page, and the reader never hears a thing.”
She said that Alex Haley, who wrote Roots, didn’t realize this. “If I had been his editor, I would have kicked him in the butt.”
Morrison also addressed sexuality in her books. “Sula is in bed with Ajax. All the sexuality is in the reader’s imagination, the framework of a woman saddling a man. It becomes a very visceral response to the act of sex without mentioning the word. It is sexually implicit.”
I asked Morrison which authors she liked to read.
“I read for enjoyment,” she answered. “Gabriel Garcia Marquez is absolutely incredible. I also read a lot of African writers. The Radiance of the King [by Camara Laye, written in 1954], the writing is so narcotic. A white man who comes to Africa, shipwrecked, who becomes stripped down all the way [of all his belongings and clothes], the continent takes them away.”
The interview has gone on far longer than anticipated, and Slade is anxious to go.
Some thoughts, 43 years later
I have spent much of my career talking with people, interviewing them, engaging in conversations, and, on occasion, arguing with them. Few of those interviews have continued to resonate with me as much as the one with Toni Morrison has.
A decade ago, Morrison was honored by Oberlin College [Oberlin is a town just south of Lorain, Ohio, where Morrison had grown up] with a bench in the town square. Oberlin College had been the first American college to admit women and African Americans. It served as a key meeting point on the Underground Railroad.
The bench, part of a larger "Bench by the Road" project created by the Toni Morrison Society, was dedicated to the memory of the enslaved men, women and children who followed the Underground Railroad through Oberlin, inspired by the author's statement in 1989 that there was no suitable memorial or plaque, or wreath, or wall commemorating slaves and their history, not even a "small bench by the road."
The bench serves as a symbol of community, a
place where anyone is welcome to sit, and perhaps meet someone new, and share a
story – a place of convergence and conversation, of talking and listening.
A decade ago, uncovering these typed and handwritten notes from the interview was much like uncovering the never-released music of an early recording of a famous band.
Earlier this year, I published in ConvergenceRI a recollection about a quartet of unlikely conversations that had defined my college education – with John D. Rockefeller III, with Charles Mingus, with John Updike, and about Anais Nin. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Let us now praise the importance of asking questions.”]
Telling and sharing stories is a human endeavor, what we have to connect our lives to the past and the future, perhaps our most valuable possession. Sharing the story of my interview with Toni Morrison, hopefully, carries on that tradition of sitting on that park bench and becoming part of an engaged community, preserving the history of people that does not fit into the dominant narrative.