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Morrison discusses her novels and shares her ideas

Toni Morrison
A conversation with the author.
By Kathy Sun
Staff Reporter

During her visit to MIT, Toni Morrison spent two hours answering questions from more than 100 students and faculty. Morrison commented on why she writes, her writing style, her interests, and her background. She openly voiced her opinions on issues of race and social injustice, eagerly answering questions with a natural sense of charisma and presence. In discussions concerning her novels and the public's reaction to them, a small community here was given the rare chance to analyze an author's outlook on life.

Morrison's questioners covered a broad range, from faculty teaching courses on Morrison to students who were just fascinated by her writing, the role of which is, in Morrison's own words, "to articulate those technical things that one does ... put the words down, reshape, and recast them until they do what you want."

Q: Hazel Carly claimed there is "a new appetite for biographies of black men." That phenomenon appears to coincide with a time when black men are the most sociologically vulnerable group. Is this appetite a substitute for dealing with social problems? Is there a better substitute for more socially conscious people?

TM: I don't think so. I take the subliminal actions of society very seriously. There is an interest in flesh, particularly in that of black men. In scholarship, this is a discredit to what they have actually thought and done. The same impulse that puts black men at risk makes their bodies desirable.

Q: How do you feel about the new line of black directors and how they portray and deal with black culture? How did you feel about the Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas affair?

TM: I was fascinated, horrified, paralyzed by a lot of [the Hill/Thomas ordeal.] I found some release in asking some people of the Academy to write a book, titled Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power.

With the black film directors -- Spike Lee's latest film is pretty good, I think. But talking to Spike, he said, "What do you mean? I thought that was a great movie!"

Q: Is it the obligation of black writers to write about black people and black issues? Should they be spokesmen and artists for the blacks?

TM: An author should be free to create whatever they want, regardless of nationality. On the other hand, the writer has an obligation to write about issues concerning his people. I'm not sure those things have to be answered either/or.

I'm alarmed about the necessity for answering the question only for black writers. Artists have to make up their mind about that. I don't feel compelled to write about anything but black. At the moment, if people don't excite me in a creative way, I can't write about them. How could I feel confident -- morally, ethically, logically, confident -- about writing about other cultures?

Q: What source did you write from in The Bluest Eye?

TM: I knew people whose lives were probably like that. You just look at them and invent the rest. I never knew anyone who experienced what Picoth experienced, though. There are always concepts of ideals, of racial constraints, which hurts on a level that is just not real. There are some things that can really make you loathe yourself. The gaze of approval is somewhere else.

Q: Concerning Beloved and the issue of slavery, what are the barriers today that prevent black people from being valued as important to society as a whole?

TM: I am not writing to explain that. I want to talk to you. Just me and you. The only barrier that exists is my ability to say it well.

Q: In Beloved, there are many shifts in time and place. Do you write, overlay, and entwine, or write straight? What process do you go through? Also, it seems like in Beloved, men are portrayed as weak. When problems arise, they just leave.

TM: I disagree with you violently. There is a kind of cultural blindness. Heroes in fiction are frequently men that leave home -- just look at Ulysses and his abandonment of women. People think that when black men leave home, they are weak ... they are leaving their children. They are not supposed to leave. But the rest of the world leaves and they make an opera out of it.

The hard part is trying to make characters that aren't easily dismissed -- sometimes, even people you admire -- in other words, people that are just like us. My job is to make sure that my characters are people are just like us. I don't know people that are less complicated than that.

Q: The book form of Native Son varies greatly from the original manuscripts. Please comment.

TM: There are lots of pressures from editors to change. It's basically up to the author to do whatever he or she wants. The last word on a manuscript is the author's.

Q: You have written narratives that are pejorative. Why do you write? Why do you always have to tell about the bad things and the down side?

TM: I think questions come out of a different gaze. If there are five white guys judging us, then I have to think about the positive image. I want to please very discriminating black people that don't like anything. It's the hardest thing to get critical acceptance by these people -- I can manipulate the others, I really can. But there's one of them out there and he knows better. It's that one that I write for.

Q: How would you situate yourself in the Afro-American movement?

TM: I understand my life as a writer and editor to really have begun when I realized many young men had had their brains shot out in the streets of this country. I owed it to them to show them the way. I am free to accept responsibilities. Freedom to me means that I can choose, and I choose to be a free Black American writer.