The legendary novelist talks about her new book, what drives her to write and her relatively newfound love of rap music
Author Roxane Gay Illustration Andy MacGregor
Toni Morrison is an American icon. The author of 11 novels, beginning with The Bluest Eye, Morrison has won every award imaginable, including the Pulitzer Prize, the Nobel Prize in Literature, the National Humanities Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Beyond the accolades, Morrison is a writer of uncanny grace and wisdom. She writes, most often, about the lives of black women, and she does so with grand soul and imagination. Her writing is fearless as she tackles what it means to be a woman, what it means to be black, what it means to be human.
In her latest novel, God Help the Child, Morrison’s immense talent is once again on display. Bride is a stunningly attractive young woman with blue-black skin who, as an adult, moves through the world with confidence. She was not always so bold, however. Throughout her childhood, her mother, Sweetness, withholds affection because she believes that for Bride to survive this world with her dark skin, she must be hardened and humbled. Perhaps more consequential, when she is a young girl, Bride makes an irrevocable choice, telling an untruth that sends a woman to prison for a crime she did not commit. As an adult, Bride must come to terms with the lie she told and the why of it, and in doing so she reaches for redemption, love and a chance to become her own woman, free of her mother’s choices and her past.
God Help the Child is powerful, inventive and deftly structured, and each page resonates richly with Toni Morrison’s singular voice.
I had the opportunity to speak with Morrison, by telephone, about, among other things, how a writer as accomplished as she is maintains her ambition.
Hemispheres: God Help the Child is your 11th novel. After all those books, is it still a challenge?
Toni Morrison: It is challenging to do the work, yes, even difficult sometimes. But something jumps up in the mind. You have a question, and the book tries to answer it. In this novel, I was interested in how childhood trauma, of different kinds, works like poison. Even when we think we’ve gotten over it or managed it, and even when we’re very successful, the pain has a way of staying. We don’t really become as we ought to be when these things happen to us. They cling.
Hemispheres: Bride makes a terrible choice as a child for an incredibly understandable, heartbreaking reason. I was moved by the empathy of that choice. All your novels demonstrate an enormous capacity for empathy. Are there any points of view for which you cannot imagine empathy?
Morrison: In The Bluest Eye, there’s a child, the little rich girl, for whom I didn’t do justice. I have tried not to do that ever since. What’s the point of creating characters that are flat, loathed or loved? Character has to be based on more.
Hemispheres: Are you still driven by ambition after all you have accomplished?
Morrison: I don’t think I could do without it. Writing is a space where I am in control; it is the only place where I am in control. I can confront and deal with ideas that are important to me and not be overwhelmed by, say, the difficulties of the outside world, the political or personal. It’s control, and it’s almost addictive. It’s the way I think.
Hemispheres: What is something you would like to write but never have?
Morrison: I have something in my mind, but I can’t describe it to you because it’s too early. You remember those letters Booker [a character in God Help the Child] writes to himself, and he sends a few off to his aunt? I was interested in the act of writing them without punctuation. I have no idea what I am going to do with that. I just know it’s a kind of writing I’ve never done before, and I am excited by it.
Hemispheres: How, if at all, is writing political or oriented toward social justice for you? What do you see as the responsibility of the writer?
Morrison: Writing is how people acquire knowledge. There is something said or done in almost all my books that may be a cautionary tale. There’s some perception that the characters acquire that they didn’t have before. Even in God Help the Child, Sweetness ends the book and says, yeah, well, look, this is how the world is. She recognizes that.
Hemispheres: What are you currently reading?
Morrison: I haven’t read a lot of contemporary novels, but I have read Hilary Mantel—Wolf Hall and The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher and Bring Up the Bodies. I love the way she writes. It’s historical and inventive.
Hemispheres: How do you know you’ve written the first line of a book?
Morrison: The first line is usually clear. That’s the door that opens, and putting together the rest takes a couple of years. I go over and over the work to find the exact right words or avoid cliché, get a sound. I like the way the books sound when they’re read out loud, so that’s important.
Hemispheres: You recently reread Beloved and were pleased with what you read. Have you reread all of your books? How did you respond to them?
Morrison: No, I don’t reread them. I do in public, but to actually read the book, no, no.
Morrison: Well, I know everything. I’m not discovering anything if I reread those books. With Beloved it was sort of stunning. Someone sent me a copy to autograph, so I was thumbing through it and I turned to the first page and I got really interested. That’s the very first time I’ve done that.
Hemispheres: In your interview with The Paris Review, you said forbidden words are provocative.
Morrison: I’m interested in language, American English, let’s say, because I’m a writer. I notice changes, what becomes slang, what becomes standard, where new language comes from. These days, I am a little upset because the English language is shrinking. For example, we get rid of all the adverbs. You can skip whole phrases when you use “like.” I used to get really annoyed, and I started counting every time someone said “like.” My editor said, “Toni, forget about it. It’s endemic. It’s here.”
There’s another area I do like, which is rap. I usually don’t understand what they’re talking about, but when I hear the lyrics, it’s very interesting. I’ve been all over, but some of the best rap I’ve heard is in Poland and Japan. I did a guest curator stint at the Louvre, and I invited some slam poets. The way they are twisting and constructing and rhyming language is wholly surprising and creative and is really very interesting to me. It’s music, lyrics, but it is also speech and narrative. A story is being told.
Hemispheres: What did teaching do for your writing?
Morrison: Teaching is a big learning experience. You give out information, but if you have, as I’ve had, more years of teaching really good students than not, you get so much feedback, responses, questions—it shapes your thinking. None of that has had anything to do with my novels. That’s a separate thing. But Playing in the Dark is the result of two courses I taught at Princeton, where we were looking for areas in literature where the use of that trope was important.
Hemispheres: Are you concerned with how your work is interpreted?
Morrison: No. It’s like music. I remember music or songs I loved as a teenager which now are just so boring and I cannot believe I liked them. And the opposite is also true. Music I thought was terrible, as I have aged, I’ve grown to appreciate. It’s not that the song has changed—I have. I have different sensibilities, different interests, and so on.
Hemispheres: What do you like most about your writing?
Morrison: Recently I’ve begun to like two things. One is being able to say more and to write less. The other is my desire to give the reader space. I can usually do that in sexual encounters where it’s not clinical, it’s not off-putting, it’s metaphorical. I assume that the reader’s sexuality is better than mine, because it’s theirs. They contribute to whatever is going on. I’m just providing the plate with a few flowers.
Hemispheres contributor Roxane Gay is the author of the New York Times best-seller Bad Feminist and the forthcoming book Hunger.