[160202] toni morrison @ brooklyn by the book!


toni morrison is incredible (there's your understatement of the year).  she's so gracious and wise and smart and funny, and her talk with claudia brodksy (professor of comparative literature at princeton) was so, so great.  i tried to catch as much of it as i could; there's no time i hate the iphone keyboard as much as i do when i'm at a great talk and trying to transcribe as much of it as i can.

(i did really horrible paraphrases of brodsky's questions; i'm sorry.)

Q:  about God help the child:  while no two of your stories resemble each other, whether in story or style, which is remarkable in itself, still, there are a number of really distinctive things in God help that many were struck by.  in God help, you intermingle a third-person omniscient with multiple individual narrative voices that are adversarial to each other.  why did you take this direction?

  • first of all, let me say that i don't really trust the characters.  i like them or i don't like them -- it doesn't really matter what i feel.  i want to be accurate.  i want to do them justice.  but i know they don't really know.
  • in home, that was a huge tension for me because i could allow the character to have his say but also have the third-person reader as part of the conversation.
  • they're like us -- they're human beings, and they know what they know, they know what they feel.
  • in God help, having multiple people comment on the same action seemed necessary to me.  it was important for me to say more by saying less.
  • i hate that title.  it's ... silly.  i have to tell you my original title was wonderful.  and everybody hated it in the publishing world.  my original title was ... the wrath of children.  because it was about that and i wanted that level.  it wasn't that the kids were angry; it was wrath.
  • i tend to go off on tangents because that's what i do.

Q:  i got the sense that something else was at stake in the style.  would you care to comment on your creation of this daughter whose mother rejects her and becomes a model and of the mother whose shown her daughter anything but sweetness?

  • the main problem i had with this was language.  contemporary language eluded me in a literary sense.  there were lots of shortcuts.  i didn't understand how i could elevate modern, convenient language so it would have more meaning than it normally does.  so i put it aside, and then i went back to it when i knew.
  • my world of language is usually academic.
  • [contemporary language] is hard and kind of stupid.
  • it was interesting to me that the male character is a problem and he's hostile but he wants to learn.  he's a lonesome guy; he's lonely; but he writes, and that's where he thinks, that's where he is.
  • i wanted very much to have every book i write to end with knowledge.  i always thought that if you begin in a certain place, at the very end, there has to be the acquisition of knowledge.  which is virtue, which is good, which is helpful.  i don't speculate about what they [the characters] do with it.

(there was a question here i didn't write down.)

  • when i was a little girl -- and my sister's a year-and-a-half older than i am -- and we were playing on the floor in our house during a time when -- i think i was three and she was four -- when my great-great-grandmother had moved from flint, MI, to our little town in ohio to visit several relatives.  she was understood to be a legend.  she was a very, very sought-after midwife, and the first time i ever saw this in my life was when she walked into a room and all the men stood up.  anyway, she came to our house at one point.  she came in and greeted my mother and said, "those children have been tampered with."  she -- my great-great-grandmother -- was pitch black, the blackest woman i'd ever seen -- and what she meant was we were not pure, we had been sullied.  now, it may occur to you that i've been writing about this forever.
  • the ramifications of colorism are overwhelming.  and i don't mean colorism in that it only affects colored people.  it affects all people.  they're constantly making judgments.
    • it's not just about color but how we decide who belongs and who doesn't.
    • we're human beings.  we're a special little species, no matter what some people try to say.
    • is there something lacking in you -- is that why you need an enemy?  you know and i know that that's not about the other one; it's all about you.
  • the concept of altruism, the concept of goodness is often seen as weak, as the lesser thing.
  • i just think goodness is more interesting.  it's varied; it's complex; it's layered.  evil is constant.  it can elevate itself, but it's all about pain and death.  you can think about different ways to murder people, but that's not interesting -- you can do that when you're five.  but, when you're an adult, you have to think about how to be good, and that's interesting.

Q:  are you working on a novel now?

  • i've set it aside a little bit because i'm working on those lecture series for harvard, but i have to tell you it's the best thing i've ever written.
  • so far -- and this may change -- the title is justice.  i don't care what you say, knopf, i'm not changing it.
  • the character in the novel is mute -- he has no voice box, so he can't talk -- but he hears everything.

then on to audience Qs!  the first:  which of your novels was most difficult to write and why?

  • i have to say the one i'm writing now is the most difficult one.  i don't think of them that way.  they're so different.  each one's a different enterprise for me.
  • (while talking about a mercy)  read that book.
  • the ending is the point.

Q:  what advice would you give young writers?

  • i would say wait 'til you're fifty.
  • when i was teaching at princeton, i would tell my students, don't tell me about yourselves.  write about what you don't know.  so my advice to young writers is forget yourselves, invent something, and move along.
  • (brodsky says, "so no autobiographies, no memoirs?")  yeah.  they won't let me lie.

Q:  what keeps you going?  what fuels you?

  • i don't know how to stop.
  • i can't imagine me in the world without writing or thinking of something to write.  so i don't need to be pushed.

Q:  what have you learned from the women you've created?

  • i've learned a lot from them.  a certain kind of strength.  not power, just strength.  a willingness to go places i may have never been willing to go, as well as a sovereignty, that it's okay to be me, not the publishing me but the me inside.