Babel’s Toni Morrison on “keeping the reader alive and worried”

Leave it to the Pulitzer Prize, Nobel Prize in Literature, and Presidential Medal of Freedom-winning Toni Morrison to get me back into Kleinhans Music Hall for Just Buffalo Literary Center’s Babel series after two years away with special thanks going to Artistic Director Barbara Cole for letting Cultivate Cinema Circle piggyback onto the occasion with a screening of Jonathan Demme‘s cinematic adaptation of Beloved. Our presentation of the movie last month was but one of many events put on as part of the center’s Civil Writes Project that culminated in Morrison’s appearance fifty years to the day since Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the same stage—a weighty connection the author joked was the sole detail about the night she didn’t like. “That’s a bit daunting, don’t you think?”

Perhaps it was, but Morrison proved more than capable nonetheless after a rousing rendition of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” by Drea d’Nur at the piano and an inspiring introduction by Cole that asked us to treat the evening as another demarcation along the path meant to usher in a brave new world. Because even with fifty years gone, the impassioned words King spoke haven’t yet come true. In another half century we can only hope more headway will have been made if not a solution found. And who knows? Perhaps someone in that sold out auditorium (the first capacity talk I’ve attended in the thirty-plus Babels I’ve been fortunate enough to experience) will be the one to carry the torch in 2067.

Once a lengthy standing ovation ceased, the wheelchair-bound Morrison cracked another joke: “Apparently I’ve been here before.” If she had, she forgot just how big the city was and the beauty of its architecture. These notions were the kind of flowery remarks that get a hometown clapping and invested, her segue towards another flawed memory bringing even more laughs. This one concerned her bibliography and the number of books she wrote over the past forty-seven years. The number she conjured upon deciding her talk would center on a topic she loves—her work—was eight (fictions), an answer soon discovered as false. Counting her 2015 entry God Help the Child, Morrison had actually written eleven. And she chose to talk briefly about every one.

It’s amazing to think that her auspicious career began at the age of thirty-nine. This fact amazes her too considering all the young students she’s taught over the decades, some who were published by their early twenties. As her story goes, however, writing was never an ambition: “I was only absolutely interested in reading.” With an early job as a library clerk shelving books (her penchant for reading rather than working ending that career almost as soon as it began) and her impressive ascent from editing textbooks for L.W. Singer to becoming the first black woman senior editor in the fiction department of their parent company Random House, writing still hadn’t crossed her mind. That changed with a realization: “There really aren’t any books written for me.”

The result was The Bluest Eye: a story stemming from an anecdote she shared about a friend at age ten or twelve who declared God wasn’t real because her prayers for blue eyes never came true. She remembered how she felt back then and how much racism could hurt at any age with its psychological demands on concepts like “normal” and “beauty.” “And if you’re a child it can destroy you,” she said, but her quest to portray that damage didn’t translate into sales. “Everybody seemed to hate that book.”

From there it was Sula (about “friendship between women”). Next was Song of Solomon, a story closely intertwined with how she felt upon the death of her father. It looked at friendship between men and as a result garnered more attention. Afterwards came the love story Tar Baby (“Talk about an unread book!”) and the non-fiction breakthrough The Black Book (a catalog of historical tales about black people that she assumed correctly would captivate their population like literature white customers bought never could). And it was through her research for the latter that she read the story of Margaret Garner, a slave who killed her child and thus became the center of an argument surrounding “conflict and compulsions; law versus the right thing to do.”

This woman had abolitionists on one side calling for her execution as a way to prove that Garner was a human being with responsibility who was beholden to consequences. Slavers fought to keep her alive and render her punishment as a return to the plantation to prove she was little more than an animal. To Morrison the only person whose opinion truly mattered on the issue was the dead girl. So she brought her back to life with Beloved, a novel she unabashedly spoke about with pride.

Then came Jazz (telling a story about the period without using the word); Paradise (a book she wrote as a way to get back at her Great Great Grandmother for once saying about her and her sister’s lighter complexion, “Those children have been tampered with”); Love (about children, the only stage of mankind able to “love flawlessly”); Mercy (set within an America before racial strife so she could write conflict without color playing a role); Home (wherein the journey of a war veteran is told without color descriptors until his return literally reopens his eyes to life); and God Help the Child (a contemporary story of selfish characters learning to become selfless, the title one she loathes—her editors titled all her books for her because “they knew better.”)

If all that sounds pretty straightforward, you’re right. Structure-wise, Morrison’s talk was nothing if not generic. And yet her charming wit, oft-inclusion of snark, and self-deprecating commentary rendered it an absolute joy. How could you not relate to her completely when she interrupts her own answer to an audience question with a mocking “More questions?” upon seeing a pile of index cards delivered onstage? It’s impossible to not also love her candor and sense of humor when she says, “Don’t tell anyone, but I think I write the best sex scenes.” It didn’t matter that she simply elaborated upon an easily accessible list of her fiction work (the genre being “the hardest” for her) because she led us on an unforgettable journey while doing so.

On “seeing” characters:
Beloved – From her window looking onto the river (itself a view she generally ignores while writing because its beauty proves distracting), “I saw a woman rise from the water and sit on a stump in hat and dress. When you read the book you’ll see that’s exactly how I wrote it.”
Song of Solomon – A pushy and loquacious character constantly fought to make the story hers to which Morrison needed to scream back, “This is my book. Not yours!” She remained a part of the story, but nowhere near as much as “she” wanted.

On writing:
• “I’m very particular about my language.”
• She hopes to finish her new novel for which she’s two years into a usual four-to-five year gestation. “As you see I’m sitting down and not feeling well. But it’s a compelling story and worth waiting for.”

On Beloved:
• When asked about non-linear structure: “I let the narrative pull you. To keep the reader alive and worried.”
• How did it feel to watch your book become a movie? “Awful.” As writers often do, she always questioned, “Why’s that not in there, Oprah?”
• When reminiscing with judgmental incredulity about the production growing an acre of corn: “My sister and I went out there and took some home.”
• She spoke about Thandie Newton‘s brilliance as an actor, but that she was too light-skinned to fit the book’s version of Beloved (as far as whether the viewer questions whether she was Sethe’s daughter or the child of a slave straight from Africa).
• She’s always had an emotional connection to Kimberly Elise‘s performance of Denver.

Other good quotes:
• “I’ll keep my answers short. I’m an ex-teacher so I tend to go on and on.”
• On changing her name from Chloe to Toni: “People would pronounce it ‘Chi-low’.” Cole asked if she realized Chloe was now one of the most popular names in America and Morrison flatly responded with shade, “I know that. They waited until it was no use to me.”
• On today’s youth: “I’m very proud of the youth today.” She likes their refusal to be lied to and knocked down. “Happiness is not good enough.” These kids understand that wisdom is power and paramount.

Babel 2016/2017 Season:
Viet Thanh Nguyen – Friday, March 23, 2018 – The Refugees
Junot Díaz – Friday, April 20, 2018 – The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Buy your tickets today by clicking here.

BABEL from Just Buffalo Literary Center on Vimeo.

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