From our archives: A 1981 interview with Toni Morrison

The award-winning author Toni Morrison died Aug. 5, 2019. We're reposting this 1981 interview conducted shortly after her fourth novel, "Tar Baby," was published. 

AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File
In this Feb. 27, 2013 file photo, author Toni Morrison signs copies of her book "Home," in New York. The Nobel Prize-winning author died Monday, Aug. 5, 2019 in New York.

The following is a reprint of a 1981 article "Toni Morrison; writing from the inside out."

"Stuff." That's what Toni Morrison's newest novel, "Tar Baby," is full of -- in the best sense. In the rich sense you get from the way she says "stuff." She's talking about how in "Tar Baby" the trees and river of the jungle have opinions about everything. Even the butterflies hang on the curtains and gossip.

This is not just to be cute, says this winner of a 1977 National Book Award for her novel "Song of Solomon." "Tar Baby" is the fourth in a string of novels drawn from black life. It is the most ambitious, but it has the personality and lyricism of her first, "The Bluest Eye."

"Stories are told for reasons other than information," Morrison continues. "That's the way people learn things. That's the way the Bible is; the story is trying to explain the universe."

"Since I had important information, I just tried to put it together in a way that could be absorbed. . . . Even the most innocent story is full of stuff that is really important information, the way dreams are." When she says it, the word is not a catchall. She leaves some air around it in a sentence, comes down on it, and it's specific, representing a wealth of things close to one's heart -- in her work, close to the hearts of black people -- that musn't get lost.

In "Tar Baby," it starts with the champion daisy trees, who are muttering because their companions have been chopped down to make way for houses on Isle des Chevaliers in the Caribbean. It continues with the "poor, insulted, brokenhearted river . . . poor demented stream," which, because its course was changed by excavations, has sulkily turned into a tar pit. All of this Morrison tells with grace, economy, and many voices. Voices of trees, voices of the river.

When the champion daisy trees were gone "and houses instead grew in the hills, those trees that had been spared dreamed of their comrades for years afterward and their nightmare mutterings annoyed the diamondbacks who left them for the new growth that came to life in spaces the sun saw for the first time."

Smarting trees and a sulking river could be terribly cute, if it weren't for the way Morrison gets away with it.

"It is a getting away," she says. "I love it. I like the risk. I like walking the edge. You could fall off into maudlin sentimentality at any moment, and sometimes one trips and falls, but I don't care. That's where I want to be when I write."

Talking about walking the edge, she has traced the edge of her desk blotter in the corner office at Alfred A. Knopf, her publisher, where she is doing the afternoon's interviews, and now she presses an imaginary spot on the blotter, pointing to where she wants to be. She is gazing down over beautifully rounded cheekbones. She looks me in the eye, still pointing. Do I know what she means?

She looks immensely powerful sitting behind that huge desk, but I find I am totally off-guard. In fact, I am leaning toward her, as if for warmth, as if she's loaning some of this sense and strength to me. A very womanly woman, she looks large, vivid, and dark against the pale Manhattan skyscrapers that seem to flank her behind the office's wraparound windows. Her photographs show a stonily strong face. But in person, it keeps moving -- from glee, to a frown, to laughs, keeping up with her singing voice, which can suddenly dwindle to a fluffy little whisper. In person she looks beautiful but not so awesome. It's just a different kind of strength.

For someone with such unique -- and, she feels, urgent -- stories to tell, she spends a lot of time helping others find their voices. Her first book was not a novel, but "College Reading Skills," published in 1965. She teaches at Bard College in New York and also works as a senior editor at Random House. It's not uncommon for her to edit other writer's manuscripts and work on one of her own books all in the same day.

"I think of it sort of like the difference between the skill you need to catch a fish as opposed to the skill you need to cook a fish," she says. "People who are great cooks don't necessarily know how to get it out of the water. People who can get it out of the water don't necessarily know how to cook it. And some people can do both. They can catch it, and they can cook it, and it's almost like that. . . ."

"I'm not a frenzied worker. I get it done, but I don't sweat over it. I can wait. There's a certain kind of repose that operates."

It operates on her listeners, too. And on her readers.

The thoughts of trees and butterflies in "Tar Baby," far from sounding whimsical, have power. They function as a chorus, warning, bemoaning, commenting. "I loved the classics when I was in school. There was this incredible thing the Greeks did, not only in Homer and the Iliad, but also in the plays, because they could use the chorus. And they said . . . " -- she makes a desperate, quick gasp, and her voice comes out high, like a little girl -- "'Don't do it! Oh, stop! That's your Ma!' And you feel this complexity. That's what makes human beings more interesting than cabbages. Because they have the capacity to infuriate and to delight in one stroke, and there is no one thing going."

Just so, there are many things going in "Tar Baby." And the crimes and betrayals are on a classical scale. A mother has abused her child. A young black woman has denied her history. A young black man has killed his wife because she was unfaithful and has been traveling ever since. The earth, trees, and butterflies comment, and you settle down and listen. Powers are being spoken of, secrets told. You lean toward the source.

"If you cut the avocado tree or the champion daisy tree or whatever, they're wounded," she says, "so that there is this intimacy between what everybody's doing and the earth, so that the whole implication of the ancient qualities of tar can be understood in that context as a real thing."

Tar is one of the strongest voices in the chorus. Among other things, Morrison is retelling the Tar Baby story from black folklore, in which a rabbit stops to talk to a baby made of tar. It doesn't answer him, so he socks it and gets stuck to it. He is almost caught by hunters but escapes into a briar patch. It was told as a Br'er Rabbit story, but it is older than that. Older, Morrison says, than Beowulf.

Connecting the story to our times, she came up with Jadine, a pretty, Sorbonne-educated black fashion model. She is visiting her aunt and uncle, a cook and a butler in the Caribbean home of Valerian Street, a retired candy manufacturer, and his wife, Margaret, a former beauty queen. Jadine is employed as Margaret Street's companion; Valerian has paid the bill for Jadine's education. She is also the tar baby on whom Son, a black seaman who has jumped ship, gets stuck when they fall in love. There is also real, natural tar in this story. Jadine falls into a tarpit made because the river sulked. The tar may just be saying to her "Oh stop! And at the end of the book, we see Son running, "Lickety-lickety-lickety split."

This old story, like the ancient chronicle of humans tampering with paradise, is where Toni Morrison likes to be, too. "I know how to concoct a nice little avant-garde story, but I'm not interested in that at the moment. . . . I want to dust off what was already there, turn it up, and shine it up. And let's take a look at that and see if it has anything to do with the way we live.

"There's a quality of not having any past -- not just for blacks, just people in the country. Nobody is from anywhere. This is a country of orphans and immigrants and people who just refuse to think about the Old World. . . . The insistence on no past, the cult of the new and the young, and the insistence on 'innocence' that means 'eternally stupid' is . . . one of the characteristics of this country."

She points out that most immigrants to America fled the blights and pogroms and poverty of their old countries, cutting themselves off. Blacks were forcibly cut off, prevented from keeping most of their culture, even though they hung on to vestiges. Now she sees those fragments being destroyed by the same forces that brought her up to the 21st floor of Alfred A. Knopf for this interview, and into her own office at Random House, downstairs, when she's not busy being lionized. Forces called "success."

"There's a strong tendency on the part of black people, particularly us who are upwardly mobile," she says, "to do the same thing that upwardly mobile national people in this country do, which is: Get rid of it. You don't want to hang on to the Italian language, you know. You speak it at home, but, you get out in the corporation, you drop that." So do blacks as they rise in class, she says. "They lose a lot of good stuff," she concludes, coming back to that word that sounds rich, attractive, meaningful.

Which is why Morrison has those trees cry out -- to insist on a connection between man and the earth. Her book also insists on a connection between a people and their history. In it, the central conflict is between Jadine, who has lost the stuff of black culture, and Son, who has kept it but has become an outlaw.

Son has natural, simple reactions to events, and is almost magically in touch with his past and his people. He keeps prescribing old-fashioned remedies for problems: banana leaves for bunions, mirrors to keep out soldier ants.

Jadine is out of touch with her past, as a description of her in a French edition of Vogue makes almost tauntingly clear. You realize when they travel to Son's poverty-stricken hometown in Florida how alien it is to her. Son, painfully in love with her, denounces her for it.

But Morrison withholds judgment.

"That's classic," she says of that episode. "I wanted to present it in such a way that you could see why [Jadine] didn't like [Son's home]. You didn't like it, either. I don't like it very much. . . . For [Son] it was overly romantic. It's sort of a cul-de-sac, a prison rather than a lodestone or an anchor. But she can't live there. That's problematic for 20th-century black people."

The ideal, she says, would be for Jadine to be able to go there, accept the poverty, and live in her world. For Morrison, herself, "I have to be able to live in my mother's house and work at Random House." And say "stuff" 21 floors above Manhattan and have it understood.

"Everything in the past wasn't wonderful," she continues, speaking of black history. "Some of it was awful. But the points is to know what it was. You can use it. You don't have to repeat it. . . .

"I know there are certain kinds of characters in my work that are socially unacceptable people." She laughs, no doubt thinking of any number of lunatics and misfits who wander, crying and acting up, through her crowded novels. "That's all in the same groove. You can't drop these people because they had bad manners. They are us, and the feeling of the ancestor is there. You have to bring them back to life, if you've killed them. We may have done that, and they must be OUT-Raged." The word is sharp but not loud. It gives a listener pause.

The fact of the leisurely existence of Valerian and Margaret Street in "Tar Baby," supported by black servants they take advantage of, is like the unthinking attack on the river. There is a sense of outrage, but it is the reader's, never the author's.

Is she herself outraged?

"Anger and hatred are such a tiny thing to bring to your writing," she says to the cautious question. "Passion, yes. I can feel something very deeply. In order to make the reader feel something very profound, I have to provide you with just enough of it. If I hide it under a layer of anger, you will see anger , but you won't see the thing.

"If I want to tell you that it hurts, I have to make you feel that. I can't just say: "It hurts, it hurts, it hurts.' It has to hurt you. That's the only way you can feel what I feel. . . ."

In her first novel, "The Bluest Eye," published in 1970, she described some children visiting the mother of one of them, who is a live-in maid for a white family. Her little girl knocks a blueberry cobbler off the table. The mother, furious, tells them to get out. Just then, the young daughter of her boss comes in. The cook makes a fuss over the white child, ignoring her own children.

"'Who were they, Polly?'" the white girl asks, referring to the black children.

"'Don't worry none, baby'" these children hear her saying, as they step out the door.

"The scene is from the point of view of the children, so that you feel their pain, not just as little girls, but in a racial sense," Morrison says. "Another way to do that is to talk that out, and say, 'Now, you know . . .'" -- she puts on a low, solemn "explaining" voice. "I make more comment by [showing] how awful it is for the children. It's more effective that way. Suddenly, you're in somebody else's shoes."

What makes "Tar Baby" such a wonderful book is the way that Morrison, like Homer, gets into everybody's shoes. She remarks on how one even feels sorry for Cyclops, and how important that is. And so what hurts the blacks and what hurts the Streets are both moving to the reader.

"I want to see them from the inside," Morrison adds. "This business of developing character, for me, is a long process . . . sort of like what an actor or actress does when they have a part to learn. . . . So I do that first and begin to imagine all sorts of things that I don't put in the book -- their shoe size and what kind of underwear they probably wear, what kind of deodorant they would use, and how they would do this or that. . . . Then I have them. Then they become alive, and the language becomes their language, their perceptions of what they see. . . . So I have to do that for each one."

She sometimes goes through this process and writes a conversation twice, once from each side.

Isn't that a lot of work?

"That's lunacy, actually," she responds. It was hard doing this for the Streets in "Tar Baby," she says, but in each character she found something she felt for. She talks about the characters as if they already existed, and she just met them somewhere. She thought Margaret Street was quite boring, until she saw her as the only beautiful red-headed child in a large family of plain brunettes. Then she felt how strangely people would look at her. And she describes the "afterboom" Margaret feels, alone in the large, vacant rooms she inhabits as Valerian's wife, sort of an oppressive silence. She can actually make you understand the fear and weakness that led Margaret Street to commit her own particular heinous crime.

Morrison talks about villains: "The pure saint or the pure villain is not interesting. But they are interesting when you see the other side. Something interesting happens with Svidrigailov in 'Crime and Punishment.' He's really the arch villain; I mean, Mephistopheles isn't as awful as that. But then when he starts thinking about suicide and his life is awful and he's ashamed, your little heart goes out." She pats her heart.

"So that's what I want you to do.I think it enhances one's compassion but also your perception of life. What racism or hatred is not doing that. It's looking at a person and saying, 'That person is worthless. . . .' That's what all the hatreds are based on, the inability to project."

So there is Margaret Street, languishing in her husband's huge house in the Caribbean, applying salves and doing exercises, an idle white woman with a hideous past. But she's fascinating to us, even before we know her crime. And the reason is that Toni Morrison has projected.

How does she manage it?

"Isn't that what Christianity is?" she responds," -- that there's something in everybody that's redeemable? You don't just have the evil-ies and the good guys."

She talks of the leveling effect of a Christian communion ceremony, of everyone's partaking. "The butcher, the baker, the rich man, the poor man, the drunk, the prostitute. . . . You are all on your knees at the same time, and you're all trying to get the same blessing." A lot of people can quickly abandon this moment of equality as soon as it's over, she observes, and start looking down again on their neighbors.

But, "one way to do it is to become a grown-up, wide-spirited person . . ." she continues. "In the event that one doesn't, there are other ways to do it. . . . You can read."

You have a sense in her writing that she sees everyone in need of a blessing. Not that she lets Margaret off, or excuses Son's crime, or gives Jadine a break.

"I write a book in which all of the assumptions about what's good are there, but only by showing you, taking it apart, and putting it inside out so you can see what it is made of. Then if you still think this person's bad, this one's good, it's based on real information, rather than assumptions about who those people are."

"And I'm always very touched by them. I don't always approve of them, but I always enjoy their company, and miss them when I'm finished."

Read "Tar Baby," written by one grown-up, wide-spirited black woman.

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