Monday, May 7, 2012


Interview's Christopher Bollen sits with Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison. The pair discuss her upcoming novel Home and recent play Desdemona,” directed by Morrison's longtime friend and celebrated theater director Peter Sellars. The response to Shakespeare's "Othello" sprang from an affable debate between the two cultural arbiters. Our very own Francis Williams harbors quite the serendipitous tale involving the three of them and the play's French premiere at Théâtre Nanterre-Amandiers outside of Paris. Alas, it's his to tell.

In her conversation with Bollen, Morrison details the inspiration of Home, citing a rawer slant of the 1950s. The era of her youth was not all Mad Men, Pan Am, or Magic City depicts. There was hurt. And certainly not the perfectly nuanced variety nor the sort numbed by a martini twist.

Bollen + Morrison:
BOLLEN: At that time did they teach any African-American writers?

MORRISON: They didn’t teach African-American writers even at African-American schools! I went to Howard University. I remember asking if I could write a paper on black people in Shakespeare. [laughs] The teacher was so annoyed! He said, “What?!” He thought it was a low-class subject. He said, “No, no, we’re not doing that. That’s too minor—it’s nothing.”

BOLLEN: You recently wrote a play based on the character of Desdemona from Othello, and you made a point that I had never considered before: Desdemona was raised by her nurse Barbary, so, in a sense, Desdemona does have a background of blackness even before she marries Othello. That changes the story of Othello quite a bit in terms of what Desdemona was thinking and how she came to understand her place—

MORRISON: And who she would not be alarmed by. I was at a dinner in Venice some years ago with the sponsors of the Biennale, and one guy said to me, “You know, we don’t have that race problem in Europe.” I think I might have been tired. I shouldn’t have done this, but I said, “No, you threw all of your trash over to us.” Peter Sellars [theater director] was sitting across from me and his eyes went big. At the dinner, they had these fabulous tapestries on the walls, and there was one with a big, black king-like figure. Back then, the problems were with class—a Moor could come to Venice and it wasn’t a problem. But I was starting to think about that play then. When Peter was at Princeton, he said he would never do Othello. He said it was too thin. And I said, “No, you’re talking about the performances, not the play. The play is really interesting.”

BOLLEN: How did you pick 1950s America as the setting for your new novel?

MORRISON: I was generally interested in taking the fluff and the veil and the flowers away from the ’50s. Was that what it was really like? I thought. I mean, that was my time. I’m 81. So that was when I was a young, aggressive girl. And it tends to be seen in this Doris Day or Mad Men–type of haze.

BOLLEN: A decade done by Douglas Sirk.

MORRISON: Exactly. And I thought, That’s not the case. Then I thought about what was really going on. What was really going on was the Korean War. It was called a “police action” then—never a war—even though 53,000 soldiers died. And the other thing going on in the ’50s was [Joseph] McCarthy. And they were killing black people right and left. In 1955, Emmett Till was killed, and later there was also a lot coming to the surface about medical experimentation. Now, we know about the LSD experiments on soldiers, but there was experimentation with syphilis that was going on with black men at Tuskegee who thought they were receiving health care.

BOLLEN: They were used as guinea pigs.

MORRISON: And that still goes on in Third-World countries. But it was those four events that seemed to me to be among the seeds that produced the ’60s and ’70s. I wanted to look at that, so I chose a man who had been in Korea who was suffering from shell shock. He goes on this journey—reluctantly. He didn’t want to go back to Georgia, where he was from. Georgia was like another battlefield for him.
BOLLEN: The book starts out in Seattle. To be honest, I guess I always think of segregation and race problems as a North-versus-South divide. I never really thought of the discrimination in the Pacific Northwest.

MORRISON: My editor questioned that, too. I did my research. Boeing owned all of that property that’s mentioned in the book. There were documents that said, “No Hebraic, Asiatic, Afric, whatever, can rent or buy. They can’t live here unless they work as domestics.” My editor said, “I didn’t know that. We Northerners think of that as always being in the South.” I said, “What do you mean, ‘We Northerners?’ I’m a Northerner.” He said, “Well, I guess I mean, ‘We white  Northerners.’ ”  Because there is    custom—not law, but custom. And then my editor said something about the main character being black, and I said, “How do you know he’s black?” He said, “I just know.” I said, “How? ’Cause I never said it. I never wrote it. I only describe what’s going on. You can’t go in this bathroom . . . ” Everything is viewed through a screen. The character just deals with the situation and takes it for granted. He’s not staging a march because he can’t go into a bathroom.

BOLLEN: We have a tendency to romanticize the stability of the ’50s in the same way that we romanticize the upheaval of the ’60s. You’ve spoken out about how a certain consumer-friendly, drug-induced version of the ’60s has obscured the real social changes that occurred during that decade. WasHome your attempt to rewrite the ’50s away from the favored version?

MORRISON: Somebody was hiding something—and by somebody, I mean the narrative of the country, which was so aggressively happy. Postwar, everybody was making money, and the comedies were wonderful . . . And I kept thinking, That kind of insistence, there’s something fake about it. So I began to think about what it was like for me, my perception at that time, and then I began to realize that I didn’t know as much as I thought. The more one looks, the more that is revealed that’s not so complimentary. I guess every nation does it, but there’s an effort to clean up everything. It’s like a human life— “I want to think well of myself!” But that’s only possible when you recognize failings and the injuries that you’ve either caused or that have been caused to you. Then you can think well of yourself because you survived them, confronted them, dealt with them, whatever. But you can’t just leap into self-esteem. Every nation teaches its children to love the nation. I understand that. But that doesn’t mean you can gloss over facts. I was an editor in the school department of [publisher] L.W. Singer Co. for a year before I came to Random House. I edited 10th- to 12th-grade literature books. For Texas books, we were forbidden to say “Civil War” in the text. We had to write “war between the States.” And of course we had to take out all sorts of words that Whitman wrote. There were caveats, constantly, when you sold text-books to Texas. And they’re still doing it, just with religion. I understand they’ve taken the word slavery out and replaced it with something to do with trade . . .

BOLLEN: Obviously, the interest is not to educate, it’s to reeducate.

MORRISON: Another reason for Home is that I got very interested in the idea of when a man’s relationship with a woman is pure—unsullied, not fraught. If it’s his relationship with his mother or his girlfriend or his wife or his daughter, there’s always another layer there. The only relationship I thought that would be minus that would be a brother and a sister. It could be masculine and protective without the baggage of sexuality. So the sort of Hansel and Gretel aspect really fascinated me. And his traveling back to save her would be transportation with violence all around him.

BOLLEN: Did you name it Home because of that journey back? At the start of the novel, there is a whole section about how the Money family originally lives in a small Texas town and is given 24 hours to pick up and leave their land or else they will be killed. What does home mean after that kind of exile?

MORRISON: It was a regular thing. I have an interesting book that looked at the counties that were “cleansed.” A lot were in Texas. It was like the Palestinians. They’d just say, “Go,” and if you didn’t, you’d get killed. There was a migration—a forced migration. But the naming of the book, well, I’m really awful with titles.

BOLLEN: Hold on. Your titles are great. They have a very pure, singular, uncongested sensibility. Although it’s a lot to promise when naming a novel Home.

MORRISON: When I was working on the book, I called it Frank Money. It was my editor who suggested the change. When I wrote Song of Solomon, I called it something else. John Gardner [novelist] made me take that title. Somebody said “Song of Solomon,” and I said, “That’s terrible!” I was up in Knopf’s offices. John Gardner was up there, and he said, “Song of Solomon, that’s a lovely title! Keep it!” I said, “You sure?” He said, “Yes!” And I said, “Okay.” Then he left, and I thought, “Why am I paying attention to him? He wrote a book called The Sunlight Dialogues. He hasn’t had a good title since the beginning of time!” [laughs] But by then, it was too late.
[Interview continues at Interview.] 
On May 18 Morrison visits the Central Library of Philadelphia for further construction on Home and the encapsulation of her oeuvre.

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