Tony Morrison on literary reality | Daily News


Tony Morrison on literary reality

In an exclusive interview with Natur & Kulturs Litterära Revy, Ms. Morrison talks with Nadifa Mohamed about literature, police brutality and Kanye West’s birthday presents. This is an excerpt from the first issue of Natur & Kultur’s literary magazine, published in November 2016. Among the other contributors are Ta-Nehisi Coates, Robin Coste Lewis, Valeria Luiselli and Bandi. John Freeman will be in conversation with Nadifa Mohamed in Stockholm, October 28th, as a part of the launch of Freeman’s Journal.

A light spray on the floor-to-ceiling windows masked the downpour that was crashing down on the busy Manhattan boulevard below. The tin sky filled the room with a shy light that made the green velvet of the sofa glow. Ms. Morrison held a hand to her left hip and walked slowly to her armchair, she’d had a late night in Brooklyn, discussing her new novel God Help the Child at an art deco Jewish temple in Park Slope and, apart from my visit, would have a quiet day checking emails, watching the news and smoking occasional cigarettes.

Her poise revealed a trace of her time as a dancer in college, her eyes when they locked on me were an indeterminate color, as lucent and flecked as amber, and when she finally leaned back in her armchair, her body language fell open as if to say So, what you got?

Apart from the stiff joints, everything about Ms. Morrison belied those eight-plus decades of glorious life. The mischief, the humor, the candor and curiosity of her novels are all there in her flesh. Re-reading her work on the flight from London made me see her genius anew and I remembered the fear and despair I felt when I first her discovered her books. That disturbing alchemy of beauty and brutal veracity that take you into the cobwebbed corners of the human psyche; love that might lead a mother into setting her junkie son alight, unspoken guilt that becomes as dense as a bit in the mouth, madness as a comfort and refuge.

Nadifa Mohamed: In your essay The Ancestor as Foundation, you wrote that: “Parents don’t sit around and tell their children those classical, mythological, archetypal stories that we heard years ago.” In my case, I actually did. When I heard my father’s mythological story about his childhood and early youth in East Africa, it really did something to me. It made a writer out of me. My first novel is about him in the ages between 11 and 21, all of the things he did. He walked across the Red Sea, he was a child soldier, was put in jail with a tortoise. He did all of these incredible, ridiculous things, and something inside me shifted. I became obsessed with it, and I wrote this novel, Black Mamba Boy, about his early life. So I think for me, those mythological stories are a foundation of my writing. What do you think is the source of the power of these stories? Why are they so important?

Toni Morrison: They last in memory; they affect you in profound ways that you may not recognize for some time. There was a tradition in our house, telling stories, the same story, over and over again. Pretty much awful stories about death and destruction. They would say to us children: “Tell that story about…” and we would have to perform because sometimes the stories were old. You could edit them a little bit, emphasize things a little bit, but it was kind of a group thing, in addition to the substance of the story.

NM: Are the details changed each time, or do they stick to the same details?

TM: They embellished them a little bit. There were always the high notes. A man cuts his wife’s head off and says: “Cut my wife’s head off!” and then she says, the dead wife… “It’s cold out here, let me in”… And he says: “Go somewhere and warm yourself up!” When I think about it now, it’s hysterical… and they also told stories as your father did, about their own lives. What happened to them and how they felt about it but they shaped it in a way that was as interesting as the content.

NM: Absolutely, and I felt with my father that he was boasting, he was boasting about what he had survived.

TM: Yes, yes indeed.

NM: Researching his story, I found some things hard to believe. I didn’t believe that he had walked across the Red Sea; I thought that was a step too far. Then I found out that there is an area where they have saltpans, and the water is just shallow enough for you to walk across. So, he was telling the truth. He always told the truth, but the experiences were so extreme that you couldn’t believe them.

TM: Sort of like Jesus.

NM: Exactly. In that story you just described I can see the humor but also the kind of gothic-ness of the stories you write. How did you respond to them as a teenager? Did you see them as a potential source for your own writing? Were you interested in writing from an early age?

TM: No, I didn’t think about writing until I was 39. I read all the time. I could read when I was three years old and that’s what I did. At some point, I realized that there was a book I wanted to read, that nobody had written. I really wanted to read it, and the only way I could was to write it.

NM: Same with me.

TM: It was an area that nobody was talking about and that was the first book, The Bluest Eye, and then of course, that was a way of being in the world for me. This is how the world and I are. This is ours. This is mine. This is what I do, this is where I have control and nobody tells me what to do and I can invent forever and I can have real people that I can talk to, or fuss with…

NM: Do you feel maybe that, out of your siblings, you were the one struggling more with making sense of the world around you? The life you were living?

TM: Well, they had other things. My mother, by the way, was an extraordinary singer. She went to church constantly, well, regularly, but she was in the choir. People came from all over the state to hear her and she had the most beautiful voice. I have never heard anyone sing like that. She could sing anything. Opera, blues, everything.

- Lit Hub

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