'No one asked Tolstoy, 'Will you ever write about a 12-year-old girl in Lorain, Ohio?' " says Toni Morrison, laughing at the absurdity, as she reclines in her Tribeca loft in downtown New York. She is recounting an incident where a UK journalist once asked if she would ever write about white people.
“I said, ‘Do you have any idea how racist that is? Would you ask a white person that?’ That’s because of the label: since you’re a ‘black’ writer, will you venture into the real world?”
Morrison, who was born Chloe Wofford, in Loraine, hates labels. She has acquired a few: black, feminist, womanist, magic realist, modernist, epic. Amid them all, she has fiercely, unapologetically and beautifully written of African-American life – which is to say American life – since her first novel, The Bluest Eye, appeared in 1970. It's still a turbulent time in the US. When we meet, we discuss the recent Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of police brutality and shootings, but since then there have been the racially motivated murders in Charleston.
“It’s awful. The present is not good,” Morrison says, dropping her voice. “Politically it’s horrible. I was writing down all the countries where there were wars and I just gave up. All the hawks are screaming.”
It’s a phrase with the kind of mythological resonance we have come to expect from Morrison, whose novels create vivid, sensuous or poetic landscapes (although she resists “poetic” as a label too) while working politically.
“It’s a desperate need to form things via a certain type of language, and obviously to be talking about something that is important. But I can do that in so many ways. I can write an essay about it or . . . [she pauses and gestures to signify other possible forms of expression] bam, bam, bam.”
This rhythmic tick, a type of “bam bam bam”, punctuates her conversation throughout and seems revealing. “Dzhe dzhe dzhe,” she says, “something, something, something”, “yeah, yeah, yeah, but”. Often in threes, these irruptions express ideas in sound, cadence and rhythm, echoing Morrison’s writing, which reaches through language for a sense of feeling that is closer to music.
Beyond race relations
Although she has published seminal academic tracts about race and literature, such as Playing in the Dark, she is chasing something else in her fiction. "There's another thing that novels and language can do where the meaning is at a deeper level," she says.
If, as Fredric Jameson said, “history is what hurts”, Morrison takes what hurts and makes it sing. “Lyrics do that and poets do that, obviously, but I want prose to have that quality that is seductive, even when you’re reading something that may not be pleasant or gratifying,” she says.
“I think my sexual scenes are the best,” she adds, now assuming some of the theatrical flair of the grand dame. “They’re fabulous because I assume that the reader’s sex is sexier than mine. I’m not going to get clinical about it.”
Morrison is great company. She’s smoking and wearing slippers when I arrive. This is something of a surprise, because to my mind I am meeting the queen. Morrison has often been described as regal, with her long, silvery ropes of hair and a voice that moves dramatically between registers, from booming to barely audible.
She has a discerning and professorial physical presence; you want to earn her blessing. It’s an adjective that also reflects her formidable body of literature, a canon on which other people have built entire careers teaching courses and writing dissertations.
Before turning to writing, she had an already impressive career as an editor at Random House, shaping the likes of Henry Dumas, Angela Davis and Gayl Jones. You can get a Toni Morrison Encyclopaedia from the library; Barack Obama said her novel, Song of Solomon, "taught him how to be"; throw in her Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Nobel Prize for Literature, and there's no doubting she's an American national treasure.
She is also irreverent and a lot of fun. The discussion moves from the meaning of life to a chimpanzee that can cook, in the space of a stanza. At 84, the author of best-selling novels such as Beloved, Jazz, Home, A Mercy, Paradise, Love, Tar Baby and Sula can afford to be playful, even refreshingly un-PC. She doesn't watch her tongue. She gregariously tells stories and comments on pop-culture and politics with equal parts curiosity and verve.
"I would like to see a nice transgender person who wore jeans and a sweatshirt," she says of Caitlyn Jenner's Vanity Fair cover. Too much television was "dumbing her down"; she's not pious about some of the most celebrated works of literature, including Joyce's Finnegans Wake (although she adores his other work; in terms of his short stories, "he has no peer"). She thinks a lot of contemporary American fiction is too self-involved: "It's all about my little life." This is fairly light-hearted rather than severely critical, the kind of casual conversation one employs with a friend. She also listens with the attention of a natural-born teacher, a role she held at Princeton University for years.
A narcissistic core
Her newest book, God Bless the Child, is set in the present, and its core is unusual, if not surprising. "I didn't quite understand now: it was sort of fluid to me, so many different things going on, but the one thing that is always there is narcissism."
In the novel, her 11th, two central characters, Booker and Bride, are paralysed by memory and childhood trauma. It seems to be partly about moving on from a painful past.“You can remember, but use it for something else,” she says of the events that threaten to cripple her characters. “It doesn’t mean it didn’t happen and you should forget it. It just means it’s not the whole thing you are. And one of the best ways, I think, to become a 3D person is to use what you know, or even things you don’t know, to help somebody who you like and who’s worth your attention.”
One of the most poignant lines concerns having the bravery to move away from a “noble reason to fail”. Far from building monuments with her work, she metaphorically emphasises the process of forward movement. She’s also evolving stylistically, to what she describes as a more sparing, withholding, narrative texture.
I ask if she thinks writing traditions can be compared, noticing parallels with features of what might be classified "Irish writing": the concerns there are typically with place, home, language, history or myth. I've brought her two books, one of which is a set of Seamus Heaney lectures called Preoccupations, and flicking through the pages there seems more in common between the two writers than just the Nobel Prize. Is it problematic to empathise too broadly? Does it run the risk of making universal the suffering of a particular time and place?
Morrison is not wholly resistant to the idea. “That’s not strange to me, to see that bridge or connection,” she says, before telling a story. A friend attended an Irish writer’s party in the city that week and when she reported back of the sad songs sung, Morrison said: “Yeah, the blues?”
However, she freely modifies her opinion as it occurs to her: “The only thing is that they never whine in the African American tradition. They just say, ‘Oh she left me and it was horrible’.” She laughs.
We like to lament, I say. “But I do think there is that embrace of cultural and physical oppression and the ways in which people work their way out of it.”
I’ve gone over time, and a former student, now a successful author, arrives for a social call. Morrison eagerly, and with amusement, invites him to see how I write my name. When I explain the Gaelic origins, and the restrictions of the Irish language alphabet, Morrison expresses delight. “I’m glad you told me that. There is a logic.” She is satisfied, it seems, to find out there is a rhyme and a reason to the word, if not always the world.
Before I leave, I want to put to her the two questions Booker's family must answer at the dinner table in God Help the Child. These are: "What do you know that is true?" and "What is a problem you have?"
Her voice grows quiet and pensive. “I can only answer the second one. The problem I have is age and the first one . . . I don’t know. I don’t know what’s true [Morrison is almost at a whisper now], but I am determined to find out.”
- God Help the Child by Toni Morrison is published by Chatto & Windus