Toni Morrison Talking Books

Toni Morrison

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symptoms take a month to develop. Now on BBC News it's time for


Talking Books. I am an Razia Iqbal. My guest is Toni Morrison. And I


caught up with her at American Academy in Rome. She won the Nobel


Prize for literature in 1993. Her novels chronicle African-American


history. Her first book, The Bluest Eye to her achievement -- crowning


achievement, the lover. For her, all good art is political. -- be


love it. She is vocal about Toni Morrison, will come to Talking


Books. Thank you. You are widely acknowledged as one of America's


greatest writers but you constantly define yourself as a black American


writer. It is less important now but it was very important when I


started because African-American writers were not riding -- hiding


from the fact but they had a different kind of aggression about


the white gays. James Baldwin, rough Addison, those men were


confronting the white world and they took a different stance. When


I began to write, there was a complaint - are you saying that you


are an African American black writer? And I said, yes. I was very


aggressive about it because I did not want them to disregard not only


the subject-matter but my own ethnicity and race. Is there a


problem in one of the criticism made very early on that even before


you work gets out of the gate, it is already taken as representative


of gender or race. The novels can be perceived as socio-political


statements rather than works of fiction? Always. There was a


controversy about placement of books in bookstores and some black


writers wanted their own section and others wanted to be out for the


tyres, distributed, and the women wanted it in the same way - they


wanted a woman section, a feminist section and others did not. And


that effort to be individual and part of is always going to be there.


I think. Particularly in of writing because I write out of the African-


American culture always. It is what I am interested in. So interested


in that I'm making a point not just for writing purposes but there are


no major white men in any of my books. When I first realised it, it


was because it gave me such freedom. I do not have to deal with that and


also, I do not function of all right or riven leave through the


lens of the master. I do not look not interest to me. They are


created by the master, the white male or female as the case might be.


A one to take you back in your childhood, you grew up in Ohio. Was


their social and racial division? Was the class? Poverty. No class


differences. I was in a very small working close down, and steel mills.


Many people, particularly from Eastern Europe, from Italy, from


Mexico and African-Americans came to this town. We had one thing in


common which we were up Paul. And the other thing, busily the racial


difference, we had one high school. I had neighbours who were from all


over the world where I lived. Now, the differences were created, as


they say, on Sunday because there were 2000 churches. There were nine


different Catholic churches, four different black churches, also,


that was the separation was religious but otherwise, no. I was


stunned when I left the town to see what the world was really like.


Stunned. What were your perceptions when you first left? My mother and


father were both born in the south and they had stories, although they


left as very young people. But in Washington, where a first move to


South, I saw the signs - coloured, white, all those things on the bus


and there were places where you could not go to, downtown, big


department stores - Ladies' Room, no. Institution like segregation.


You non-fiction essays, used right up of different approaches to


dealing with being black in a white world. Your grandparents and your


parents, in what ways do their thinking inform you? I was very


impressed... I was impressed with all of their reactions. The strong


as was my father, who would not let white people in the house. White


people being neighbours, unless they were children. And he thought


they would never change, nothing would ever change. And I realised


very much later, there when he was 13 years old in in Georgia, he had


seen at two men, businessmen, shop owners, and lynched on his street,


so that is when he left and it made an enormous impression. My mother,


on the other hand, judge people one by one. She had no ideological or


racial or anything. My grandparents were, of course, different. They


left under duress. When homes are being taken and evacuated and they


came north. There is one interesting story, they went to


industrial places where there was work and they sent my mother and


her sister to school and the teacher did not know a long


division so my grandmother said, we have to move. You know, that had


little teenage teachers back in the day. Soap we moved to Bahrain and


that is where they lived. How would you describe your formation of your


nation of identity of being a black American woman based on what your


parents have taught shoot - the different approaches they had


taken? I dissociated myself for a long time. It was only very much


later, when I was in my 30s and 40s that I began to shake it. For me in


the beginning, as a child, and as a teenager even, that was all


theatrical to me. I thought it was... They could not mean that.


No-one is born that way. What are they talking about. How expensive


it is to have to found turns instead of one. It was almost like


it was a joke. I'm sorry to say. But that was my attitude about it


until later. When I actually toured the South and East BSO distinctive


differences. I was never in a threatening situation like my


parents. I could play it off. Once I was in college and graduate


school, other things and, I grew up - that's all I wanted to say.


wrote your first novel what he were an editor in at Random House, The


Bluest Eye. What prompted you to write the book? The prompt was the


screaming of how beautiful black people were. Black is beautiful. My


black queen. And I thought, by Amina, before we will get


beautiful,, so we are beautiful, he said we were not? It was not ours.


But then I remembered the incident with a childhood friend of mine, we


were about 10 or 11, and we were fussing about the existence of God.


And I said he'd certainly did exist and she said he did not and she had


proved and the proof was that she had prayed for blue eyes for two


years and he had not delivered. When you 19, that is very important.


A black girl? Very black, very black skin. I looked at her and for


the first time I saw two things - one, it would be grotesque if she


got them. If the Lord had answered her prayers. And the other thing


was, she is beautiful. You know, and nine he did not think of beauty.


You think he was cute. But real beauty. And that shocked me a


little bit. When I started to write, when I was still actually teaching


at Haward, then I put it down for ever, this tiny story and picked up


again when I went to Random House. By that time, it symbolised the me


what I wanted to say about self- loathing and about how it hurts and


can destroy people. You know, it comes freely from within the group


as well as the pervasive racism from outside. -- it comes up


frequently. When you take any anything you have to constantly


defend everything - he looks, your head, you're being. That is


crushing. What else can you do. That is where all your energy is.


Your first three novels, they do not have anything to do with the


white world. It is there, it is a condition, it is an oppression, but


the characters have to work out for themselves in that way they are and


who they are, you have felt -- forcing the reader to do the same


thing. I wake of saying, I'm black, so I have to behave in a certain


way. It is simple. You humanise the population in the text, in the book.


So there is a connection. I didn't want that, I'm reading about a


black person therefore I have to have either sympathy or understand.


I could write about terrible black people. My job is simply to


represent them are well. I do not judge them. The reader can. I am


not there to say this is a good person and this is a bad one.


that context of judgement, let's talk about the Lovat which ground


to reputation. It won the Pulitzer Prize and it takes place mainly


after the emancipation of slaves and it is the story of a woman who


chooses to slash the throat of her child rather than see the child and


slaved and the ghost of the child then haunts her. What is


extraordinary to me in reading the book is that you do not seem to


make a judgement about that Act. No. I wonder whether you can say


something about that because the consequences of what she does do


condemn her. Why do you choose not to make a judgement? It is based on


a real story. They had a child, and abolitionists wanted had tried for


murder. But that would mean that she was responsible for her


children. The slave owners wanted her tried for theft. Which meant


she had nothing to do with them. At the time, I remember somebody


saying, it was the right thing to do, killing her children but she


had no right to do it. And I could not make up my mind about that.


Until, the ghost appeared. I said, the only person who could make that


judgement about whether there was a good or bad thing was the girl she


killed. She would decide whether it was good or bad. So that lifted the


whole thing up for me. Once I was able to incorporate theoretically


her daughter, whether she is a ghost or a real person was murky.


This is clearly an allegory to do with America's shame of its history.


This book is now led by high-school students. Has this history now been


confronted by a larger society? it has been apologised for her and


disappear. Not among scholars or intelligence people. It is required


reading in almost every college course. There is time of literary


criticism on it for all sorts of reasons. I think it is spreading


but it may be unwise for me to remark on mates impact during the


political season, during the campaigns. Because that cancer


which is latent in America, which is racism, can recur at any moment.


There is no cure except time and generations. Time and generations.


This generation of young people are not interested. They are like I was


when I went to college. And they don't want to hear about it, they


don't understand what you're talking about. And there are more


mixed race... The culture they are exposed to Sikhs with African music


-- African-American music, song, dance, everything. They are not


uncomfortable, they are not afraid. It is not bother to them. I am


aware of the parts that this has not worked with. The older


generations were really terrified of a black man being in charge. A


smart black man being in charge. A dumb one they could handle, but


they've really smart one... There are so many vile, racist and truly


disgusting things that people say about President Barack Obama. I


always say, you wanna oh, I wonder what it would have been like if he


had won the presidency and his mother from cancers and his


grandmother from Kansas were two white people -- those two white


people, were alive and living in the White House. I wonder what the


language would be. Do you feel it is your duty to unearth things? So


much of what to write his about historical moments. What is the


impulse to do that as opposed to writing a novel set in contemporary


times? Because we have seen historic moments in the election of


President Obama. Is that something you have conceded all would like to


try? Yes. I am playing around with it on paper, as they say. It is


very, very hard. The story is difficult for a number of reasons,


one of which is that one of the main characters is an intellectual.


I have never written about an intellectual before. The other is


that I don't fully understand the contemporary world. I don't have


that hook. And we'll get it, though. But it is very hard, I have to tell


you. When you won the Nobel Prize in 1993, he said he felt pound to


be an American. I read your acceptance speech again. And I


wondered about that sentiment because it was echoed when a


Michelle Obama said, in 2008, when her husband received the nomination,


that for the first time she felt proud to be an American. Had you


been ashamed to be an American before that? (LAUGHS). It is


troubling. As soon as you leave America, you keep wondering, what


are they doing? No matter what happens in the rest of the world


which may be deplorable, it took 200 years for people in the US to


figure it out and they still haven't done it. They do really sad


things. The warmongers who never think twice. The predators.


Capitalism is all right but not predatory capitalism. Raul Crete


and that. I get disturbed. -- raw greed and theft. But in 1993, when


I won the Nobel Prize, I thought, "I am an American". It was the same


as when a farmer got elected. When -- a bar, got elected. -- President


Obama got elected. I always thought the American flag and those


marching parade square ugly. But when he got elected, I thought,


"that is a nice song. You get there is Marines..." but it was very


profound. I belonged in the country. I belonged. Nothing mattered, this


was my home. Now, I have been saying that all my life. In all of


my books. It is all about us and home. That was the first time I


felt that emotionally. I was totally unprepared for it. I was


happy Andy Kerr about the election and so on and about Michelle Obama


and about him. But I wasn't emotionally engaged. Intellectually,


I was, but this was something different. What does your gut tell


you about whether the fault lines decadesr


decades, whether they have changed since his presidency? Somehow. Some


have solidified. I wonder if you are referring to the kind of


undercurrent, the language of racism that you have talked about,


where people doubt that he is in fact an American. (LAUGHS). And it


is to do with the political rhetoric and the discourse that is


taking place. That he is a stranger, he is not us, he does not belong.


That is what they are saying. And that is about everything that the


opposition does. And what they're seeing is the thing that we used to


say in Vietnam. We burned the village in order to save it. They


are willing to crash the country in order to have him out. And why him?


It seems that on one level, you're saying that very little has changed.


And that this fault line of race in America is so deep that there is


not enough understanding to Bridget. Is that right? Not yet. I would


have said when the President was elected that these lines were


closing but now, it seems like they are deeper. People around it are


shooting... I heard, I don't know if it is true, he gets 200 death


threats per day. They all get them but these are not cashable. This is


terrible. He is the one who can endure it, survive it and triumph


over it. And that is the history of the race, the way he behaves in the


face of all of that racism. Black people's history is one of survival,


never of surrender. Never. But resistance, survival and triumph.


All of which we saw with Martin Luther King. His heroes were men


like him, Dundee... There were no bullets. They trained to those


young people in church is how to enjoy and name-calling, when people


poured things on them, through food at you... How to withstand -- how


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