Toni Morrison Talks with Hilton Als
In the following episode new yorker writer hilton all's quotes a line from toni morrison's book jazz that contains the n. word. We've left the line uncensored from one trade center in manhattan. This is the new yorker radio hour a co production of the new yorker and w._n._y._c. studios <music> welcome to the new yorker radio hour. I'm david ramnik. The sad news came early this week. The tony morrison one of the greatest american writers of this or any other age had died at the age of eighty eight. Morrison was the first african american to win nobel prize in literature and it can surely be said in her long career. I is an editor then as an author and as a teacher she helped transform the shape of our culture her novels including song of solomon and beloved or at the core of the american language and our sense of collective memory in two thousand fifteen morrison published. I would be her last novel called. God help the child about a girl rejected and abused for the darkness of her skin that was also the year that the country entry was still reeling from the deaths of michael brown and eric garner at the hands of police officers the previous summer and that fall morrison came to the new yorker festival to speak with the magazines hilton all's tony. I've i've written this little ditty. <hes> if you can bear with me okay okay in recent months and years the black american male has been central central to a number of debates books panels and editorials that ended up being for me at least a weird or stilted business generally the language around that familiar and unfamiliar form has little to do with his humanity and more to do with the pressure points guilt remorse remorse and so on his dead or living self aggravates and because he's less interesting in the context of joy we know less about about his achievements than not the news is generally not so new the continued violence to his body this violence extensive of course to his community which includes mothers and brothers and all the people who never considered him invisible trivial or tragic or extinguish english to begin with in those family members is the eyes of love of complicated fraternity devastation is not not an abstraction relegated to a town or village with names such as ferguson staten island with cincinnati ohio but a very real thing attached to names given to the loss by parents or mothers grandparents people who attached great importance to michael's name and eric's name and samuel's name every name comes with the story dear to those who bestowed it in her extraordinary career the novelist toni morrison author eleven novels several several works of nonfiction and one thousand nine hundred three winner of the nobel prize for literature has given names to any number of her black male characters. There's names that a story in themselves. Chilly breed love shadrack jude green making dead milkman dead dead guitar son paul de joe trace golden grey deacon derek morgan is twin stewart tool gauzy the blacksmith in mercy frank money and booker in her last novel two thousand fifteen god bless the child god individual stories that not only push put those black male bodies together again but took them apart the better for us to see plainly and complicated -ly himself and the country and history that made him every great novelist reflects his or her times times zoeller told us something about the dreyfuss case at mataafa stalin's rule baldwin the civil rights movement and morrison the total effect the war of has history has embodies and how behavior absence shapes those bodies to she wants to raise that absence and fill in figures with her strong. I sure hand years ago when asked her opinion opinion of ralph ellison's invisible man she was unqualified in her praise of ellison's artistry and yet the question remained hung fire. Who was that black man invisible to not to her. He was her brother her father her friend just as tony morrison the virtue of her work has become the unqualified authoritative voice when it comes to describing a world and that makes an makes all those brothers fathers and friends ladies and gentlemen our voice and our sister toni morrison morrison yes no there was this very intense moment in my young life as a reader where i read part of a speech that even given a talk and you said that one of the things that was interesting to you about america was that despite bestial fuel behavior we had failed to produce a nation of bee's may we're going to get to that and then when i thought of that quote again i thought of what i call elegance of survival. That's in your books. <hes> son in torah baby for instance is regarded as a sort of feral character and yet he dreams of those women of color who restored order in the black church to them the world. Would you like to elaborate a bit on your original statement and do still feel. It's a little true or listen. I was thinking when i made that statement of the really vile and violent and and best you'll treatment on slaves and their descendants but they did not succeed in making those ios descendants reproduce that violence and that corruption best geology their their response was i. It's a little contemporary but i was really surprised when the survivors survivors and family members of those people who had been killed in that church was not i want him. Did it was something else. That was grander. It was humane and it was eloquent and l. again. You know we sponsor forgiveness which we always assume for some reason is of kind of weakness and that we always but sometimes we understand that kind of generosity and i'm not gonna let you tear meet up as a kind of weakness whereas i always taught at that was extreme strike extreme. Do you think that's a way of preserving the community <hes> that if you do do the sort of <hes> for an eye thing you're stepping outside of the community and then you're really endanger indeed <hes> it's just about vengeance engi- and what you think is justifiable punishment for someone who has done something violent or wrong then you then. You've made that connection. You're like that person and the community. I mean i'm not so sure that it's true now but i'm sure it's true in some places but my notion of community is the recollection of the one. I knew best growing up aw where i was saying to somebody recently. <hes> adults can no longer say go outside outside and play because it's scary out there for me. These say all of us as children children back in ohio go outside and play. It was almost like a command. Go play and you came in at lunchtime. Kc and there are a lot of people in my generation who know that even in places like new york city but now discipline of care that's right and but the point woz whatever you were doing there was somebody else in the community who knew where you were who you were and and whether or not you were in difficulty <hes> neighbors people who walked by and they all so they knew each other but you know those were that was a real community not one that's just fearful and full of locked doors and maybe somebody will help me today like online thought one of the things i'm skipping ahead. A little bit fascinating fascinated me about home. Home was the idea of sanctuary that one of the things that happens in the book that you establish early on that each person of color he meets on his journey because they're not asking questions about his legitimacy they know his legitimacy and and he gets home <hes> which doesn't exist anymore really in the way shape that he knew it but those people establish a fraternity sean hannity of you are us your our son. Oh yeah i remember traveling on chains in my children were small going from say washington back to while and in those in some of those places mrs when we were traveling in the south not with my children but before there were cars were colored people sat uh-huh and white people sat and other cars but the most important thing was the porters who gave you twice says much orange juice or four sandwiches and two pillows they were so excessively generous in kind so it was like a luxury luxury car what they thought and i was thinking not too long ago that if i walk down the street at night in new york when i was at cornell and if i saw black man i would run toward him then i thought these days he's with all of the discussion about black men as threats i would not do that. I may not do that but i certainly wouldn't run toward the white me. I might just have to flip a law. All come figured out <hes> yeah. I'm curious about the idea of <hes> exists so much and so beautifully in your books about fraternity you know we have guitar and milkman and on and on and on on one of the things that i've always loved you saying that you read the new york times pencil you copy while you go along yeah scratch. There's there's the split between the real. Life self reads the papers and knows this and not about the world and then there's the imagine negative self who doesn't really work with the facts so much right we imagining the story story. Do you feel as a reader of the new york times and as a writer that it's difficult or complicated sometimes to separate the stories that you were just telling that we read in the papers and the story that you mean to tell about a difference and it hasn't changed a great deal. It used to be here absence now. It's manipulative ability. I remember when the new york times started using the word. Try so and so tried to no one never does anything they just try. They don't say the treasury department they say obama. They don't say the this is the kind of coon yeah. The language is manipulated and strangled in such a way that you get the message although the veneer of accuracy and forthrightness is they're. They're not the only one in new york. Times is just a new york times but you know i. I know that there's a difference between the received story not just in the press but also on t._v. And and what is actually going on when i was writing hole i had the green book the one that tells people where they can spend the night in where they can eat and i got a copy of it as a matter of fact uh from the library at princeton so that i could have him go there in have porters or pre features or friends that he'd met in a restaurant. Tell him where he could sleep or take him in so that but i never identified him i am originally. I gave in finally but i never identified him. When i wrote home as a black black man you didn't know at all. I just wanted to just if he couldn't go to this fountain. I don't know if he couldn't go to the bathroom had to go in the bushes the resort now but i never use the word but my editor said well tony we have got so i put a little something in the beginning planning so here interested it wasn't quite like <hes> paradise so you can focus on race and then you can hunt for it or you can ignore it over whatever but this is not what it's generally about but on his way on his way back he is stopped or he has to go someplace else though it's early and he's a shell shock guy had us last his friends you know in the war and so on but i wanted home the actual we'll place that he'd want to leave because it was small and boring and whatever to be so welcomed by him yes and the reader so i with held all color trees flowers whatever until he got really close to home that's exactly right and then he says the trees always this grade in the flowers this without somewhere over the rainbow. That's right the would feel that he that he or she had returned to a place that was you know they may not like you but they're not gonna hurt you and it was it was fascinating to read a notice that that the atmosphere was drained of color that if you just simply did what what judy garland did an open the door new home right. We're not in kansas anymore. There's something something that has been on my mind a lot since i've read <hes> paradise and heard the horror about planned parenthood and then i immediately thought of mavis waivers and the ladies in paradise and how the man in our particular government not unlike the man who wanted to kill over these women because of the mystery of female loving fraternity and support of control yes can't control <music> so kill him well not quite that simple but they were not under the control of the authoritarian of the black towns that had grown almost like the enemies were running from where they were excluded in themselves and so they translated slated that into the superiority of blackness and control and maleness and authoritarian so if they're going to live in an ex convent with these women who just drift in and out who have different kinds of morals or activities and so on that it threatens their whole concept of themselves they can only see it in terms of themselves not the women's i see few men in the town that do but the major ones either who run that town get together and slaughter them because they're you're dangerous. I mean they've lots of places in the world who this happens. I won't mention them but you know but there's still some women you know who get do something bad like have an affair and so that necessity for for control. That's male see my thing is this. I think in the beginning you know there were a lot the female gods goddesses in the early civilizations in because men thought that women just gave birth magically whenever they felt like it was too and then they began to farm and they had domesticated animals and domesticated animals could reproduce in three months or one month. Short term didn't take a year nine months and so the guy. I said hey wait a minute. She's not the one who gives live without ask nothing. All god's changed names. There was some little girlie god's that's my historical view of the change control was that the genesis of paradise ru was explore that issue of control or to explore the issue of female fraternity got came came a little bit later what i was most interested in i looked at these history of the black towns in oklahoma and out west in kansas and there there were pictures in newspapers of men who were mayors whatever the administration of these towns and ad was always come prepared or not at all come or not at all and they were all very fair these guys who were standing there with that it's and i thought well maybe if we if you don't have anything now. Can you get in what they didn't let these men in they were poor. They were very black with the call eight rock and so they were rejected by by a certain group of other colored men and so they went on and founded their own town unfortunately they became as discriminatory and authoritarian as the people who throw them out or wouldn't let them in and they were holding onto eight rock and who belonged in the clan and very retrograde so any modernity from these women. It would be threatening to them right because it's reordering the socio. I see i see i. It's a great book and one of the things that it makes me remember in terms of the early exploration action of men and women and male was that there was this very great. I think <hes> b._b._c. documentary very early. In your career i think around the time of songs solomon when i come out and <hes> you said that you really didn't have much to do with it that the characters told you when something was just right and <hes> in your first two books of bluest iron soula it's the women despite the hardship were just right. There's not one imperfect they're in perfect perfect to an import jude and the dewey's and so on a catalyst for now and yes and i was just wondering can you share with us what you might have learned from looking at your sons and your father in order to move into song of solomon particularly my father you know writing about primarily women as the most i am. The largest characters in lewis giant song into la when i began to write song of solomon which i thought was a horrible title by the way no more song of solomon. What does that the name salome above so what gets me and my title but i i i. I do remember thinking. I don't really know what the interior life of a man is <music> as a writer. Maybe is a human but certainly this arising and just before that my father died and i remember remember thinking i wonder what my father knew about his friends and so on and he didn't say anything because he was dead but but i had this incredible serene feeling that i would know that somehow how it would come to me that i could write about this young middle-class making dead in his friend guitar and his search you know and it was true true and i felt secure and i felt strong as a matter of fact it was so much of the maleness in that when pilot appeared she was just taken over the book. Yes and i kept saying wait a minute. This is my match chill. She's very you know sort of course worker vary now. So i shut her up. She said something at the funeral and interethnic milkman asir wizar- naval what's happened tornado. She says beats me. I've have always loved hearing you talk about your father because he seems like the most incredibly supportive man <hes> in the world and you've also said in in several interviews that he was racist. We know we know racism out of kind of hurt or in <hes> in his case. I didn't understand he wounded. We've lived the house insurance man sin and i ask him and my mother was just the opposite. She didn't care who you were. If you were a nice a nice to me and also we live in black neighborhoods. There were hungarians next door in polish people in jewish people anyway but at the start that was a quirk and then i learned i went down to the little town where my father was born with the name of that carter's ville georgia and a man there is name is waffen. There's a wall cherokee golly so we know who owned the joint. Think wofford is my maiden name but one of the men who was a child at the time and grew up open that little said that my father had seen two black men lynched on his street it didn't they were businessmen they had little stores and so on and so he was fourteen and he left and went to california and then he ended up in ohio but i think seeing that it fourteen not the murder of some some terrible person or the lynching of some bad person but the lynching of two neighbors and i think that's why he thought that white people were always incorrigible doomed in addition to this he went back to georgia every year to visit family and my mother who thinks of her days in alabama ma were heard the sweet lovely little kitty in though in the woods the flower on this awesome out there. She never went yeah but he was probably written about this several times. He did a couple of things i had title job cleaning a woman's house and i was about twelve thirteen years after school and the woman mm-hmm was caught mean to me meaning. I didn't know where she was talk. I'd never seen the washing machine or vetch etch gene or stove. That was anything other side didn't know quite episodes. I complained to my mother. Remember the quit. Quit getting two dollars. A week gave one to my mother and other dollar i kept for candy and i told my father and he said go to work. Get your money and come on home. You don't live there. Oh okay this is it. I mean it was a whole different. I haven't had an employment problem sense. Ah that's not where i live. I live with your family but my father after the during the war those of us black people poor. People got really good jobs when they were not drafted. My father became a welder and shipyard a highly skilled job and he came home one day and he said do you know today. I welded a perfect seeing on the ship and i said yeah but daddy. Nobody's gonna see you know. He said it was so perfect. I put by initials underneath g._w. And that's what i said. Nobody's going to see that he said i know but i know always really was not so much. Good work for show. It was good work that he approved of even if it was hidden in private and that sense of self approval yes right was important to me and so when you think your father was alive when he's i started to publish what was his response to my mother. My sister said he was is reading the laughing. I never asked he was chuckling. You know us us an acknowledgement of having having welded your perfect. <hes> one of the things things that <hes> we've talked about a little bit is working the theater and how that going inward to the character and having the character say i to that person i and so on has i think been underexplored in your work. Your love of theatre has continued eared from writing the book for new orleans in nineteen eighty-three writing <hes> dreaming emmett in nineteen hours good. That's a great play. <hes> that wouldn't let anybody see no and also the lyrics for of course you about margaret varner time hard honey and roo yeah songs yes and also your work with peter sellers does <hes> have the scripts working in that medium have informed the novels which have great moments of dramatic intensity all the way around the other way well. I think novels inform the ties very much because the the novels are very visual to me and staged in a way emily. I hope they don't feel staged but i do see scenes scenes and theatrical scenes and dialogue. The hardest thing for me was the last one does dimona because that was peter sellars did othello. He said he would never do a fellow and i said why he says too thin. There's nothing going on you talking about and he said well. There's just this acid look. It's not then i said. People just think is jack right guy who kills us late girl and something something something presented as think about her. Here's a woman who ran away eloped with a more yes and went to war with him. I mean this is not some nmls shrinking little girl this on so he did rattle in his interesting way and then he asked me what i wanna do desimone and i certa did thinking of her the way i just described and thought look i'm not competing with billions shakespeare here i. I couldn't think how i could do it. That was not sort of silly parody or sometimes until i got the first line which was my name is dennis domon does dimona means debt does devoted leads and then the rest. It was sort of her voice so she could. She could name herself. That's right yeah so i've been reading a lot and thinking about the ways in which the men have this relationship to their fathers others that is often uneasy here and <hes> fantastic in all senses of the word and in jazz. There's that extraordinary scene with golden grey <hes> and his father <hes> he tracks down his father whose lot plot and golden grades mixed race and he says <hes>. I don't wanna be a free nigger. I wanna be a free man and the father says henry louis destroys. The father is what you want wider blah choose but if you choose what you got to act it's black meaning. Draw your manhood up. Tell me what you will. He was trying to express because it's q. Different generations about modernism shoot but at the same time you've got to act black for him would mean grow grow up. Get tough. You know there's there's nothing to hold you this song. That's what acting black like a a black man meant to henry's joy as opposed to. I don't know whining and complaining. You did me wrong some yeah. I did we wrong that was powerful for him. A black man is a powerful a tough strong in the move into the well back to <hes> a little bit of <hes> henry with whom i loved in jazz <hes> as much as i loved his son and there's this extraordinary flannery o'connor quote. I wanted to share with you where she says blackman the blackmail southern puts. It's my split. Hairs is a man of very elaborate manners and great formality which he uses superbly for his own protection action to ensure his own privacy. That's true the men in jazz. Despite the severity of their actions are all private figures. It's paul de to me in his love is also a private figure. They move a journey but there's a great deal to risk. If you share don't love nothing too much you know which which is not what paul de says woman says that but you he has what tobacco ten his chest where he keeps everything livid all the profound emotions breakdown emotions and he doesn't want anybody to open up that loom tobacco tin which he is version of a heart and it is protection these been through some terrible travel times. It's like i can't remember her name. One of the women in the town don't love nothing eighty. She doesn't mean don't care for things. Don't get into involved. Don't live sweep you away. Don't let it <hes> curdle you in the sense and he tries that and does that it succeeds it. Until of course he meets zephyr in you know who who <hes> he does come back to touching through trauma right big time it is to me the greatest i human endeavor or action that we can do is to get past ourselves to touch somebody else in a real way and one of the things that happens to me when i'm reading your books is there's always a scene where the impossible happens happens the impossible meaning through the trauma of race or sex or history. There's a moment where they you want to touch another person. It's like milkman. Sister says i corinthians. She says you think that your life is that hog. Gut between your legs and you're you were saying i felt when i read the book it's not as limited as that that it is something about getting past that and be a person so it's humanity <hes> and the the pathos of getting past the trauma to even try everything. I have written including the first book. I wrote even there. Yes although i didn't know i was gonna forever do it. Every one of those is the movement toward knowledge and if somebody somebody doesn't know main character doesn't know something extremely important at the end of the book that he or she didn't know in the beginning or throughout then it doesn't work for me. It's not like a happy ending all. I don't mean that it's just it's not an aha moment is just that you you grow you learn something you know and whole he could never have buried that man and said he allies man yes which is all the away from the beginning of the book but he sees these horses and they look so mail and so powerful and masculine <music> violence escalating violence beauty horses fighting one so at the end that sentence they fought like men becomes here lies a man real man who provision major himself to be killed so that his son could currently does that transformation happen up in kennett happen without sacrifice or something. I don't think it can be a little sacrifice doesn't have to be severe via punishment but that's the press that's the urgency about life volition yeah <hes> that's where i push so that when when seth a saying oh she was my best thing in politics says you this day and she says me you know like who me three nasa. She never thought of herself as the valuable one. The god bless the child is a takes place in contemporary so called contemporary world of the uh. Yeah i started home. I started god bless. The child also horrible title also and i started home and finished because that was period that i could sort of understand. I couldn't right about now. I felt because it was so slippery. The there was no it wasn't definite enough until i thought i realize though what was very definitive about now is so powerfully flu powerfully self reverential southeast look at me. Now who's about me stories about me and i thought okay if she goes becomes this glamorous creature it will be in cosmetics cosmetics which is all about beauty and good and you know so on and for him it would be hanging onto the absence of his older brother. It doesn't have anything to do with what his sisters thing or what his father things. They lost that child also aw but he really lost him so he leaves. He goes away tive college number. Nothing is satisfactory. He's better than everything thing. He's going to write the great books he's going to do you know. He has all asia and do any of it. He can't even play a decent corn. I mean you know he plays a little bit but nobody takes it seriously so he's cutting himself off at the leg because he's hanging onto you know this what about me in how i feel so the coming together when somebody can listen to a conversation between these two people and they can listen to each other and know that this something valuable badly in the person good ending when you have but when you when you talk about the idea of me and self fees and all of that that noise let's say that doesn't exist in other centuries or other times was was. Were you discuss back to reading where you distracted by the reality of now before you could tell the story you know i always. We say you know remember when i was girl. A young girl we called citizens american citizens don't than american and citizens this american citizens that we were second class citizens boop that was the word and then after world war two in in the fifties and sixties. They started calling us consumers. The american consumer needs or should or man and so we did it come to now. They don't use those words anymore. Listen the american taxpayer and those are different attitudes citizen. You think your block or your neighbors or your town or something is part of you. If you're a consumer you just go to the store shot you know layaway unle- away and saw but if you are only a tax payer you're worried about who's got some money that you pay you pay you don't you don't want the government to distribute its own resources that are based on taxes to anybody. You're you're sort of angry. It's like like your money because they called you taxpayer not a citizen. All you do is pay taxes. That's a whole different thing so so that's part of what i was feeling generally speaking when i was writing god bless the child. That's what i thought was distinctive. You know about the period. I want to tell you what the title of that book was before. I was forced to change danger. I called it the wrath of children. That's a great title. Everybody as you know. I aged editor. The editor in chief died that that i said he just busted fuss and i know i don't always have good title but i thought the wrath yeah so. This was sounded like billie holiday. This is great. Thank you tony only going to be one of those boys in the ring getting up. Thank you the thanks in lovely off. Tony morrison died this last monday. She spoke with the new yorkers. Hilton all's in two thousand fifteen at the new yorker festival. You can read hilton's profile of morrison at new yorker dot com the new yorker radio hour is a co production of w._n._y._c. studios and the new yorker our theme music was composed and performed by merrill garbis of tune tune yards with additional music by alexis gaudreau. This episode was produced by alex barron. Emily boutin ave correo reincorporate. Jill dubov karen filmon mccollough leah david crafts now louis mitchell and stephen valentino with help from rhonda sherman david ohana bradley g mung fei chen and emily man the new yorker radio hour is supported in part by the tarini endowment fund <music>.