Toni Morrison’s Ideas for Writers and Readers

August 6, 2019  • Institute Staff

How should we remember Toni Morrison? The world learned today of the novelist’s passing. A celebrated writer and recipient of the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature, Morrison was a uniquely American creative thinker. On an Aspen Institute stage, Morrison was asked to address her own legacy. Was there any single piece of work or public bond that she hoped would be most memorable? Morrison, pondering the future, preferred that we held the author in our memory as a companion, “I felt so good in her company,” she suggested – as she closed the conversation that appears below.

During the first Aspen Ideas Festival in the summer of 2005, editor, author, and cultural critic Kurt Andersen hosted a candid talk with Morrison. Over the course of almost two hours, Andersen, who hosts the public radio show Studio 360, spoke with Morrison about her novels, her craft, her background, the ghosts that aren’t under her bed – and much more. Morrison later took questions from the audience and went on to deliver the festival’s keynote address.

Excerpts from this conversation between Toni Morrison and Kurt Anderson were printed in the winter 2005/2006 issue of the Aspen Idea Magazine and appear below.

Kurt Andersen: Since this is the Aspen Ideas Festival, I thought I would start with the question, do your novels tend to start with an image, a fragment of dialogue, a scene, or an idea?

Toni Morrison: Maybe “fragment” is the best word, because it is not a full-fledged idea. It is not a character, it is not a period. It is always a question that I have about something: “What if?” “What does it mean to…?” “Who survives under these circumstances, and who collapses?”And then I move from there.

“I want to be known as this very trustworthy, smart person in whose company other people felt good.”
— Toni Morrison

KA: The magic and the supernatural are elements in most of your books – are those ideas that are just in your fiction, or do you believe in and experience the supernatural?

TM: Whoo…

KA: Exactly.

TM: The supernatural elements in my books are all technical solutions to very difficult problems. There is nobody who I can think of who has the right to tell Sethe in Beloved that she is wrong [to kill her baby]. I don’t know what to say to her; who can tell her? No one has the right to do that but the dead daughter. So there is a little magical thing, but it solves a lot of problems in terms of structure. It makes history sit across the table from you.

KA: You are talked about in this connection as owing something to [Gabriel García] Márquez and [Carlos] Fuentes and the rest. Do you feel that? Does their so-called magical realism and their use of folk stores connect you to them?

TM: I happen to admire those writers enormously, but I didn’t feel a kinship with magical realism in that sense at all. What I felt was an enormous kinship and relationship to the community in which we live, in which very shrewd, very competent people also have this incredible lore and superstition and magic. They talked about their dreams as though they lived them, and they had language to say that the world was really enchanted – and I never understood it as not being enchanted.

There is something in this house that loves my socks. Otherwise, I could find them, right? Instead of saying, “I lost my socks”: There is something in this house that loves my socks. Hearing all of that, and about visions they had had – my mother, my father, my uncles – there was knowledge in the mythology and the lore, so I used it frequently and heavily and whenever I thought it was appropriate in my work.

KA: Beloved, obviously, is directly about slavery, and I would hazard to say that all your books are, in some measure, indirectly about slavery. Did you set out at a certain point with that book to say, “OK slavery – I am really going to attack this”?

TM: If it could have been some other period or some other place, I would have chosen it, but it was enslavement that produced the conditions that produced the problem. I really didn’t want to go back in there and go through all that, think about all that; nobody wants to think about that. The slaves didn’t even want to think about that, and the black people who were descendants of the slaves didn’t want to think about that. They were very busy not thinking about it, so they could go forward. And white people don’t want to remember it, and the people in Beloved didn’t want to remember it either. All of us are in this paralysis of amnesia. So I thought, “Oh, good, I will make that the driving force of the book: Everybody is trying to forget.”

KA: One reason that book is so beloved is because there is so much amnesia in this country, isn’t there?

TM: Oh, there still Is, yes. On the one hand, you take a culture – any culture that has had its own history of pain – and you can do a couple of things. You could say “I don’t want to hear it.” The first generation usually does. Second generation, same thing. Third generation, who has not literally experienced it, gets very upset about it. They want to go to war, because they haven’t been there. And I think that is true universally for people who have had these enormous traumas; you have to go two or three generations down to find the breath to say it, to translate it.

KA: You seem to do an astonishingly good job at walking this very difficult line – your books explode with emotion and trauma, but you resist stepping over the line of sentimentality.

TM: Oh, yeah, to make it syrupy, sappy, which is the easiest route, even as a writer. That doesn’t mean I never went there. I have gone there and then read it again and taken it out, revised it. Why don’t you trust your reader to know what you mean instead of ladling it all in honey? I don’t want the easy laughs, or the easy tears.

KA: You said, “trust your reader,” which is interesting to me, because your work is challenging sometimes. Why do readers who aren’t in the academy and who aren’t forced to read your books read with them such pleasures?

TM: I think they find it worth it. There are some difficult books that are just not worth it. I mean, they are smart, clever, contorted even – but they are really not worth it to me. The “difficulty” of my books has nothing to do with big words; I never use any. Maybe structure—the structure is difficult. I think it is more like life.

I also really think I know a lot about the reader, because I am the reader; I read all the time. And I know that the reader knows that, say, his or her sex is sexier than mine because it is his or hers. So when I write a scene, I am not clinical; I just turn it over to the reader, who brings to it a sensuality I could never rival. Or if I say there are ghosts, and everybody says, “Ghosts, ha, ha, ha, there are no ghosts.” Are there? Of course not. I know there are no ghosts. However, do you let your hand hang over the bed when you go to sleep? These things are just in us, and I know that. So when a ghost is there for some really good reasons, I know I can trust the reader to come on in with me and help me imagine it.

KA: In your Nobel Prize speech … you talk about “rousing language to keep citizens armed and arming’ stirring, memorializing language to mask the pity and waste of needless death’ diplomatic language to countenance rape, torture, assassination; the faux language of mindless media’ the proud but calcified language of the Academy.” You say these false languages, these languages, meant to have some utilitarian function, actually prevent the free exchange of ideas and the development of communication itself.

TM: We have bankrupted the language, in many instances, and it not only doesn’t say what we mean, we have to use devious means in order to communicate. There was a time when war was the only source of noble language, in addition to religious language, and war language borrowed from religious language. But after World War II, another thing happened: the very powerful, beautiful language of Gandhi, of Martin Luther King, of Nelson Mandela. You had a kind of powerful, dare I say exciting language of peace and reason and reconciliation that was competing with the language of war – and won. And won.

Now, that language has been denigrated. The war language is now puny. The war language doesn’t say anything, and everybody knows it. It is hollow. It is horrible.

KA: Even attempts at stirring don’t work.

TM: You want to cringe – and not just because after 9/11, the mayor says go to the store or get on a plane or go to the movies. We were waiting for sacrificial language, and we didn’t get any of it. But in addition to that, it is not playground talk: “He hit me.” “I did not.” “I hit him back.”

But the point is that there is a vacuum. We do not have the current Gandhi, the current Mandela, the one who will say it, and say it magnificently and stirringly and beautifully, on a large, political level.

KA: If you could be remembered for having done one thing – a word, a concept, a book, a piece of work, something you represented – what would it be?

TM: Oh, I don’t have those desires. I want to be known as this very trustworthy, smart person in whose company other people felt good. That is what I would really like – “I felt so good in her company” – because the rest of it is representational stuff. Who needs it?