Back Talk: Toni Morrison

Back Talk: Toni Morrison

The Nobel Prize-winning author talks about Barack Obama, the writer; language; and her new novel, A Mercy.


Toni Morrison is the Nobel Prize-winning author of Beloved, The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon and other works. Her new novel, A Mercy (Knopf; $23.95), tells the story of the makeshift family formed by a Dutch trader, his wife and their slaves in several North American colonies during the 1680s. —Christine Smallwood

Last year, in your letter endorsing Barack Obama, you specifically cited his "creative imagination." What do you think of him as a writer?

I think my introduction to him was the speech at the Democratic National Convention, you know, back in 2004. And then I read his book Dreams From My Father, and I was amazed because he writes so well. Really well, with really nice big, strong, artful sentences. But equally important was his reflection. You know, I’m not accustomed to that. I’ve read memoirs where people talk about their lives, and sometimes they’re modest. Sometimes they excuse themselves–you know, the big ones, like My Life by Bill Clinton. They’re very interesting books, but nobody was a writer, with reflection and change and meditation and strength. Dreams From My Father was very, very compelling. So I got interested in him.

What are your thoughts on the state of African-American literature today?

I’m not terribly up on it, but my impression is that it is thriving. Really thriving. You have everyone from Edwidge Danticat to Colson Whitehead. And of course, the literature of young Asian writers is also very interesting to me. The range is what is so fabulous. For me, the thing was to write a book, a work of fiction, that was as good in its field as, say, black music was in its own. Which is to say, to write to that high critical standard that African-Americans have about everything. In athletics, music, art, whatever they were doing, people have had to face a highly critical African-American audience. I wanted to write a book that would have the same high standards. And if that worked, then the rest of the world would be interested as well, because it wasn’t a protest novel! It would be about something else. And done in a manner that was worthy of the genre.

What kind of reading and research did you do for A Mercy? Was the process different from what it was for other books you’ve written?

A little bit more than usual because the novel is about such early stuff. I had a lot of help because historians and anthropologists and biologists have been writing about the era for years. The first thing I had to do was find out what was there–the plant life, the tree life, the weather. One book that was most helpful, which I read over and over, was Changes in the Land [by William Cronon]. I could find out if there really was lettuce or dandelions or how big the trees were. So that gave me a grounded sense of the places that I had chosen, which were upstate New York and down in Maryland and Virginia.

What about the colonists and the lives they left in Europe?

I consulted migration patterns to find out who these people were, the average person who came to the colonies. Then I had to know, what were they leaving behind? Most of them were told to leave or go to jail. I found this really extraordinary book called Hubbub: Filth, Noise and Stench in England, 1600-1770 [by Emily Cockayne]. She looked at the laws of the time–how you could not beat your wife after 9 o’clock–what rumors were like, how close people lived to one another. I got the feeling that when they came to this country, they were drunk because the air was clear–the umbrellas in England were black because the rain was full of soot! But all that’s just a matter of surrounding yourself with the atmosphere and having a persuasive familiarity with more than just the story–the context. What were they running from, what could have happened to them, what about children and how people dealt with them? You have Oliver Twist, but when you see those children shipped to Virginia by the boatload! I could have spent years doing this because I love research, but at some point you have to write the book.

You’ve said that you need to hear your characters’ voices before you start to write. In A Mercy there are several mesmerizing characters: the young slave, Florens; the Dutch farmer, Jacob Vaark; his wife, Rebekka, who has fled the poverty, filth, crime and sickness of London. Whose voice did you hear first?

I heard Florens’s first, the girl. And she approaches language in a slanted way. She can read and write; she learned from a Catholic priest under scary circumstances. And she’s taken someplace else; she doesn’t know what they’re talking about. When she was with her mother she spoke Portuguese. She knows Latin. So I just put all her language together and gave her an individual voice that was "I"–first person–and very visual. But also, once I realized that I could make her speak only in the present tense, it gave the narrative an immediacy, it made me disciplined in revealing what she thought, and it gave her a kind of innocence and, at the same time, a kind of sophistication.

You’ve talked about how official languages can stifle identity. Do you have any thoughts about the ways that technologies like e-mail and texting are changing how people speak and write?

Language changes–and should–because it is as alive as its speakers and writers. It is stifling or bad only when unclear, mediocre, false or wholly devoid of creative imagination. That may apply to some texting and e-mail, but not all.

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