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Her novels cover the great themes of human existence – love, betrayal, race, slavery. Margaret Atwood calls her one of the pre-eminent American novelists of all time; Chinua Achebe praises her courage for asking the most haunting questions in black history. She is studied in schools and universities across the US and is that rare thing in the literary world: both critically acclaimed and read by millions.
Today, though, Toni Morrison wants to talk about her hip: “I’ve been walking like the hunchback of Notre Dame,” says the 77-year-old in her soft, deep voice. “Thing is, I’m a total shoe freak, I buy them everywhere.” For lunch she is wearing flats with black trousers and top – adding a dash of glitz with a string of giant pearls and a sparkly silver band that holds back her loose grey plait. But she’ll soon be out dancing in heels again: “My doctor said so,” she says, and her laughter rings out across the room.
Many writers of Morrison’s generation are tackling the subject of ageing – Philip Roth (75), Gabriel García Márquez (81) and David Lodge (73) are recent examples. Given her hip trouble, is she tempted? “I’m not. Even my editor said, ‘But Toni, we die.’ Not being around doesn’t bother me – except that I’d miss my grandsons.”
We are lunching in Princeton, where Morrison is Robert F Goheen professor in the humanities. Lahiere’s, with its quaint lace curtains and wooden ceiling fans, is the only place in town she eats. As we’re given menus, she confesses that her assistant has called ahead to find out if they can do breaded oysters, though they’re not on the menu. The chef has agreed: “Oh, that’s so nice,” says Morrison. She chooses “a little dollop” of seafood risotto to start, and I go for mushroom risotto. We both pick the breaded oysters as our main.
Even in casual conversation Morrison measures the weight of her words and images – her assistant’s car is “blood red”; winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993 introduced “that other gaze” to her writing; as she tells stories she recreates her interactions with people and repeatedly uses her own name. In her prose, she says she feels the music so strongly that when she heard actors emphasise the “wrong” words in audio versions of her books, she decided to record them herself. “You rely on a sentence to say more than the denotation and the connotation; you revel in the smoke that the words send up,” she explains.
We are here to discuss A Mercy, Morrison’s first book for five years, which introduces Florens, a young girl with “the hands of a slave and the feet of a Portuguese lady”, sold to a passing trader to pay off a debt. Set in 1680s America, in the early years of slavery, the novel follows a small community – black and white, indentured and free – driven apart by religion, prejudice and brutality, though not race.
The book goes back to a time before the US was divided on racial lines. “Enslavement was so common, so ordinary, then – there was no country that did not have slaves, whatever they called them.” Only later did race and slavery become entwined, she says.
Our risotto arrives and Morrison notes: “You’ve got cheese and I don’t.” Does she want cheese, I ask, as I wave at the waiter. “No,” she says, and picks up her fork.
The historical setting of A Mercy is new for her – previous books have ranged from the 1870s (Beloved) to 1970s Oklahoma (Paradise). But in writing about an America where race is not yet an “issue”, Morrison is revisiting her own roots in Lorain, Ohio, the Midwest steel town where she grew up.
In the 1930s and 1940s Lorain was a working-class, racially integrated town – the rich were “people who had lawns and then there were the rest of us”. Her mother was a housewife who worked in a factory during the war; her father “did everything” to earn cash, including welding in shipyards and pumping gas in a steel mill. At school the children sat in alphabetical order, black and white together: “I thought that was the way the rest of the world was until I left.”
She left to go to Howard University, known as the Black Harvard, and then to do a masters in English literature at Cornell. She worked as a lecturer and then an editor. Only in her 30s did she start writing. The Bluest Eye, the story of a black girl who yearns to look like Shirley Temple, was published in 1970.
Though Morrison’s novels all grapple with oppression, she says she never wanted to be the voice of the African-American community: “I thought I was writing about what I was interested in. No one comments when a white person writes about a white person.”
Attempts to marginalise her have failed; Morrison’s novels have a mass appeal that is perhaps surprising, given that her books are anything but easy reading. The narrative seeps through the prose and can be hard to follow; you often have to read pages, even whole sections, again; the writing has a beautiful, slow rhythm but this also makes it hard to break out of to read faster. Morrison smiles: “Readers say, ‘Your books are so hard’; I say, ‘I have no words in there you don’t understand.’”
Our main course arrives and Morrison starts on her oysters without letting the food interrupt her flow.
The world has changed since she started writing, she says. For the young today race is a battle already won: “Young people are not interested in that racism stuff. They fall asleep as soon as you start talking.”
So how does that make her feel? “Good, good,” she laughs and slaps the table. “That is what they are supposed to do. They don’t want to hear about that and they don’t care.” She enjoys the punchline so much she repeats it.
She accepts that some people can’t give up the battle, but criticises those African-Americans who say Barack Obama is somehow “not black enough” because his family weren’t slaves; or because his mother was white. Morrison stresses that she backed Obama not on race grounds but because, she says, “he is reflective, thoughtful, confident and steely”. Of course, she winks, you have to be ambitious too if you want to run the world.
As society has changed, so has her fiction. In A Mercy, for the first time she highlights religion as the cause of strife among peoples. In early America, she says, religion defined identity; religion “was power, it was money, it was land”. In the novel, Protestant trader Jacob despises the Catholic plantation owner he visits; his evangelical wife uses piety to hide her anger and cruelty; his servant sees the young slave Florens as a curse on the couple’s children. Most poignant, however, is a moment when Florens seeks shelter in a stranger’s home: “Christian or heathen?”, the stranger asks.
To me this last phrase echoed George W Bush’s infamous pronouncement after September 11: “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” Since 9/11 many novelists – Don DeLillo, John Updike, Claire Messud, Joseph O’Neill among others – have used the events of that day to focus their fiction. Morrison clearly hasn’t. But could her work of anger, shame and brutality in the 17th century be seen as an allegory for the “war on terror”; the idea that we excuse our actions based on defence of the righteous, and allow religion to define alliances?
“No,” she replies, “I was trying to imagine what it felt like to be an enslaved girl when race was not the point.”
Morrison concedes that some elements of the book do find resonance in the present – the belief in a single just path that excludes all others; the idea that fear manifests itself in belligerence. Though she herself is suspicious of institutional religion, she holds an “amazement” with the wonder of life: “It’s difficult not to worship the world, the unlikely possibility of this earth.”
The waiter asks if he can clear our plates. “Maybe I’ll have one more,” Morrison says, dipping a fifth oyster into tartar sauce.
People make alliances because they don’t like to feel alone, she continues. The great gift of mobile phones is that people always have someone to talk to.
The author has hit on a sensitive subject, for she herself is “alone”. In 1958 she married Harold Morrison, a Jamaican architect whose name adorns her books. They divorced six years later and she never remarried.
Previously unflappable, Morrison gesticulates as she talks. “People say, ‘Do you live alone?’ Or, ‘You raised your children alone.’ And I say, ‘I was never alone.’” Only recently has she become the sole occupant of her house: “I had a family, I’ve got sisters and brothers, my mother was alive and this, that and the other.”
Nevertheless, the theme of desertion and solitude is evident throughout her fiction. This is a reflection of American history as a whole, she says, which is defined by the immigrant experience, the lack of a motherland. “There is a sense of loneliness, deep loneliness in so much American fiction and life, like something has been taken away.”
The waiter asks if us “ladies” would like any coffee. “I want to see the menu, sir,” Morrison replies. When the dessert list is produced she considers it, then laughs: “I always look at this like I haven’t seen it before.” We order two bowls of chocolate and vanilla ice cream and two giant mugs of coffee.
Morrison has published nine novels, been awarded a Pulitzer Prize, and “got myself a nice little house and some decent shoes”. But the private person is elusive, even down to her name. Born Chloe Anthony Wofford, Toni was her college nickname, taken from her saint’s name, Anthony; the only people who use Chloe are “either somebody who knows me extremely well or telemarketers”. When her first novel was published she thought about changing her pen name but it was already too late. “I thought, ‘Oh well, nobody’s going to read it anyway.’”
Forty years on, the woman opposite me spooning ice cream into her mouth pauses at that thought. But suddenly she’s keen to move on. She’s ready to start her next novel “now, soon – as soon as I can sit down and not do interviews”. She smiles, and points at my dictaphone. “Off,” she instructs. Lunch is over.
5-11 Witherspoon Street
Princeton, New Jersey
1 x wild mushroom risotto $9.00
1 x seafood risotto $14.00
2 x breaded oysters $32.00
2 x ice cream $14.00
2 x cappuccino $11.00
Total (inc service) $85.60
Rosie Blau is the FT’s books editor
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