GERARD ACHING: Rapport, the word we know comes from the French rapport, which signifies at its most rudimentary, relationship, relation, link, connection. To say that a rapport exists between two people indicates that a particular understanding or empathy characterizes their relationship. This is precisely how I would describe the more than 20 years of dialogue and collaborations that Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison and her colleague and friend, Professor Claudia Brodsky have shared.
The very fact that they enjoy this rapport merits our appreciation. Personal empathies are rare, valuable, and worthy of celebration. And celebrate we will. We are thrilled and honored to welcome professors Toni Morrison and Claudia Brodsky to Cornell and to Ithaca. I am Gerard Aching, director of the Africana Studies and Research Center. On behalf of Africana and the Institute for German Cultural Studies, it is my pleasure to welcome you to Reading the Writing: A Conversation between Toni Morrison and Claudia Brodsky.
Early last fall, the idea for inviting professors Morrison and Brodsky to our campus and to Ithaca occurred separately to Professor Leslie Adelson, the director of the Institute for German Cultural Studies, and to me. When we discovered that we had secretly been entertaining the same aspiration, we joined forces, drawn perhaps to the unusual promise of the event.
For this occasion, it was not our intention to propose a literary reading, request an academic paper, or facilitate some combination of both. We suspected that something else would emerge out of the rapport that we knew was already there. We are delighted to welcome you to this public conversation. And to do so this year in particular, which marks the 20th year of Professor Morrison's acceptance of the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Since last fall, leading up to today's event has been nothing less than a sequence of wonderful collaborations. We are grateful to the offices of the president and to the provost. The departments, institutes, and programs that have contributed to the public conversation include the creative writing program in the Department of English, the Society for the Humanities, the Institute for Comparative Modernities, Comparative Literature, American Studies, Latino Studies, and Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies.
I would like to recognize the support of the graduate school and several university offices, including the Office of Academic Diversity Initiatives, the Office of Inclusion and Professional Development, and the Office of Faculty Development and Diversity. On behalf of the Africana Studies and Research Center and the Institute for German Cultural Studies, we would like to thank you all.
Last but not least, I would especially like to express gratitude to our diligent staff at Africana, Renee Milligan and in particular [? Trevor ?] [? Levine ?], for their organization, foresight, and enthusiasm in bringing together various aspects of this event. I'd like to say thanks, as well, to our excellent group of student ushers.
Professors Morrison and Brodsky have decided to engage you, their audience, directly. Several of you received slips of paper upon entering the auditorium and were asked to submit a question to Professor Morrison regarding her writing. As I speak, Professor Brodsky is backstage examining your questions, a few which she will pose to Professor Morrison on your behalf. This basically is the format for this public conversation.
However, before professors Morrison and Brodsky make their way onto the stage, I would like to ask my collaborator, Professor Leslie Adelson, to introduce Professor Brodsky. Following her introduction, it will be our honor to welcome President David Skorton, who will mark the occasion with some thoughts of his own.
Please enjoy this public conversation between professors Toni Morrison and Claudia Brodsky, and between them and you. Thank you.
LESLIE ADELSON: Good afternoon, and welcome. Thank you all so much for coming. As director of the Institute for German Cultural Studies, I'm greatly pleased and deeply honored to co-host with Gerard Aching and the Africana Studies and Research Center this afternoon's exciting event featuring Toni Morrison and Claudia Brodsky, in conversation with each other and with us on Reading the Writing.
It is now my very great privilege to introduce Professor Claudia Brodsky from the Department of Comparative Literature at Princeton University. Doing so is also a joy because Claudia Brodsky is a scholar, teacher, and colleague of rare distinction, inspired accomplishment, and uncommon generosity of mind and spirit. Author of learned and path-breaking books such as The Imposition of Form, Studies, and Narrative Representation and Knowledge, 1987; Lines of Thought, Discourse, Architectonics, and the Origin of Modern Philosophy, 1996; and In the Place of Language: Literature and the Architecture of the Referent, 2009, all of which are situated at the crossroads of literary analysis and philosophical inquiry.
She is an expert on comparative European and American studies, of literary history and narrative form, continental philosophy and critical theory, and the aesthetic value of modern letters in dialogue with science, history, society, and law from the 17th century to the present. Authors of focal interest to her include the entire canon of European modernity, but also major American writers such as Herman Melville and Toni Morrison.
At the heart of the investigations, be probing questions about the indispensable roles that creative writing and literary imagination can and should play in the public articulation of meaning, knowledge, justice, and shared life, especially when that life is also shaped by histories of violence as in slavery and genocide, conflict, inequality, indifference.
For example, In the Place of Language is a brilliantly exacting book that offers new insights into the aesthetic properties and stakes of loss and presence, life and death, building and language in major literary works and critical theories of modern history into the 21st century. This entails the literary capacities of writing and reading to engage the complexities of such lived histories and to build different futures with them.
In this spirit, Claudia Brodsky has also been in active dialogue with Toni Morrison for many years. In 1997, they co-edited the critical anthology Birth of a Nation'hood: Gaze, Script and Spectacle in the OJ Simpson Case. And the introduction to which Toni Morrison underscored the capacity of literature, quote, to insinuate into the reader's mind a far more complex narrative than official stories by national governments and public media can afford, end quote.
For her contribution to that volume, Claudia Brodsky focused on the contemporary relevance of Immanuel Kant's philosophical distinctions between interested and disinterested judgment, and public debates about race, gender, and violence in the United States. For the volume Race-ing Justice, En-Gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality, which Toni Morrison edited in 1992, Claudia Brodsky brought her insights into theories of language to bear on doing things with words-- racism as speech act and the undoing of justice.
Since the early 1990s, she has conducted public, published, and also private interviews with Toni Morrison on a range of topics, most recently on the Nobel laureates work such as Home, published as a novel in 2012, and Desdemona, which had its theatrical premiere in 2011. These extended recent conversations between Toni Morrison and Claudia Brodsky are intended for a joint book publication to be titled Aesthetic Activity.
Three new books by Claudia Brodsky are also forthcoming, one on the origins of language in the age of critique and two on the relationship between writing and building in the literary arts of modern history. Today we are especially fortunate to have her take part in this public conversation on reading the writing and the public significance of aesthetics, imagination, and judgment in the lived complexities we share. Please join me in extending a very warm welcome to Claudia Brodsky.
DAVID SKORTON: This is very complicated. Thank you, professor Adelson, and welcome everyone and thank you for joining us in a most exciting evening. What a pleasure it is again to welcome Toni Morrison back to Cornell University. This public conversation is an unusual opportunity to add to our understanding of Toni Morrison and her work through the lens of a creative, intellectual collaboration. And as Professor Aching has said, you will take part in that collaboration.
We're all grateful to Professor Adelson and to the Institute for German Cultural Studies, and to the Africana Center and its director for facilitating a very, very special occasion. And I'm very grateful that all of you who have joined us. As many of you know, Toni Morrison is an alumna of Cornell University, having earned her master's degree in English here. She has returned to campus generously several times for public lectures and interaction with our students, especially during her tenure as an A. D. white Professor-at-Large from 1997 to 2003.
On behalf of the whole Cornell community, I want to thank Professor Morrison for her ongoing connection with us, which is so rewarding for our community, and for joining us tonight. Toni Morrison grew up in Ohio and earned her bachelor's degree in English at Howard University in 1953. She spent the next two years at Cornell, receiving her master's in 1955.
She has taught at several universities and worked for 20 years as an editor at Random House. There she helped bring to prominence such African American writers as Toni Cade Bambara and Angela Davis. Today she is the Robert F. Goheen Professor of the Humanities, Emerita, at Princeton University.
She was living in Syracuse when she wrote her first novel, The Bluest Eye, rising at 4:00 AM to write before work while raising two children alone after her marriage had ended. The idea for The Bluest Eye came from a childhood memory of an African American classmate who longed for blue eyes. Even at the age of 12, Toni Morrison understood something of the pernicious cultural influences that had made her classmate despise her own natural coloring.
The Bluest Eye was published in 1970 and was followed by Sula and then by Song of Solomon. The first of her novels to gain nationwide attention, it received the 1977 National Book Critics Circle Award. Professor Morrison went on to publish seven more novels, as well as criticism, essays, and children's books.
One of her many critically acclaimed works is Beloved, which received the 1988 Pulitzer Prize. This powerful novel is based on the true story of a runaway slave named Margaret Garner. As she was about to be captured, she killed her infant daughter to spare her a life of slavery. The New York Times Book Review selected Beloved in 2006 as the best American work of fiction in the past quarter century. And Professor Morrison has also written a libretto for a 2005 opera, Margaret Garner, based on the same story.
In 1993, Toni Morrison was awarded the most prestigious international recognition that a writer can achieve, the Nobel Prize for Literature. She is the second American woman to receive the Nobel in literature, and the first, incidentally, was also a Cornellian, Pearl Buck. So you want to get a Nobel Prize, you go to Cornell.
Just last spring, Professor Morrison published her latest novel, Home, the story of a traumatized young veteran of the Korean War. Demonstrating, once again, her powers of compelling narrative and fresh, vivid language. I commend this book to you. The spring also brought another in her long list of honors. President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Toni Morrison's novels are steeped in a piercing understanding of how history shapes the present day. Many variations of the African American experience are illuminated in her fiction with power, and humanity, and humor, and poetry. Her vision brings those multifaceted experiences before us with stunning originality. In The New York Times, Leah Hager Cohen has observed, part of Morrison's longstanding greatness resides in her ability to animate specific stories about the black experience and simultaneously speak to all experience.
That remarkable ability, the universalizing gift of all great writers, is something for which we, as readers, are intensely grateful as it enlarges each of our individual worlds. I'm honored and thrilled to welcome and introduce as our guest this evening a renowned writer who has dramatically enriched the literature of the United States and the world. Please welcome in conversation with Professor Claudia Brodsky our own Toni Morrison.
CLAUDIA BRODKSY: Hi everyone.
TONI MORRISON: (WHISPERING) Hello, hello.
CLAUDIA BRODKSY: I would never presume to speak for my good friend Toni Morrison, but I think she would probably agree with me when I say thank you to you all for coming. And I really specifically want to thank everyone involved in organizing this, who have had the brilliant idea of organizing it, my really beloved colleagues, Gerard Aching and Leslie Adelson, who were, as always, far too generous in their introductions and their specific comments.
But also, in a strange way, as someone who's been working in the humanities for a long time on t he sort of critical and theoretical--
TONI MORRISON: Can you hear?
CLAUDIA BRODKSY: No? You can't?
TONI MORRISON: Is your thing on?
CLAUDIA BRODKSY: It's on. It's definitely on. No? You don't hear me?
TONI MORRISON: It's probably your hair.
CLAUDIA BRODKSY: Oh. OK. Can you hear me now? You really can?
TONI MORRISON: Yeah, I can.
CLAUDIA BRODKSY: Oh yeah, I can hear me now, too. What a shame. But what I wanted to say was it takes a great university-- I say this based on experience-- to understand that the literary imagination has to do with the lives that we lead. Not necessarily, or only, in an abstract sense, but really the ethical lives that we lead, and public lives that we lead, as well as the private lives we lead. And that kind of devotion to the humanities and to literature in particular has always been, for me, very distinctive about Cornell. And I think everybody who introduced us only made that clear. So I want to thank you all very much, and this is really, the fact that we're here in a strange way, and this event was so generously organized so that we could continue a conversation that began many, many years ago, literally based on language.
That is, when I had first arrived at Princeton, and Toni had first arrived at Princeton, I attended a lecture, a public lecture she gave, and it was just this one metaphor in the talk, and when we met at dinner afterwards, I asked her about that metaphor. And Toni just sort of looked at me and said, oh, you got that one. And that was that. And it is not an exaggeration to say that, with interruptions, we really haven't stopped talking since. So it was really on the basis of the language that she was using, in my immediate-- just my immediate attention to it, because it was so arresting, in a way, that we ever got to know each other.
So this is the conversation being continued, so to speak. But thanks to Cornell. And, as has already been said, you studied here at Cornell, Toni, and so would you want to amplify anything that was said about what you were studying and maybe some of the professors whom you had at the time.
TONI MORRISON: Yes, fading memory. I'm trying to recollect some of the more important things. The first thing, of course, was the faculty. I remember at least three of them, very well-- Robert Elias, Mr. [? Misener, ?] and I think the other one's name was Sayles-- S-A-Y-L-E-S. At any rate, they were extraordinary.
Also, I was under the impression that-- well, I'll tell you the truth, this is 1953 or 4. And there was this fear, overwhelming fear of communism. And so when I left Howard University, and thinking about graduate school, I had heard that there were some interesting religions-- a chapel with three religions here. And it had a reputation-- I don't know if this is good news or bad-- of being what we used to call pink, which is a way of saying liberal. And I thought, this might be a good idea.
I am born in Lorain, Ohio, very close to Oberlin, which has this history of being the first college to admit women and African Americans. So pink, for me, was kind of an echo of the kind of region, an intellectual region, that I had been brought up in. So those were two reasons. And the third is maybe a little trivial, but it was important to me, was it was its beauty. I don't know if you fully appreciate that. But being in this part of the country, with distinct seasons, was overwhelming. It was true in Ohio, I was in Washington, DC, zzzzzz, you know, it's like living in California. I keep waiting for something to happen.
That was part of it. That was part of it. And the last thing-- I'm remembering, Claudia-- was the ag school.
CLAUDIA BRODKSY: Oh, yes.
TONI MORRISON: Is that still here?
With the big agricultural. They had the Cornell bread, you may not remember. You could break an egg open, for $0.25, you could buy an egg and a piece of toast, and more often than not, when they open it, there'd be two yokes. So I remembered all the fresh and experimental food from the ag campus.
CLAUDIA BRODKSY: I heard a lot about that food.
TONI MORRISON: So those were reasons, some more serious than others, but those are my recollections.
CLAUDIA BRODKSY: And the hotel management school that we're going to--
TONI MORRISON: Oh yeah.
CLAUDIA BRODKSY: We're going to be talking about physical beauty a little bit later, but I'm going to ask you now. It's sort of an academic question, which is that you wrote here for your master's, on Wolfe and Faulkner.
TONI MORRISON: Yes.
CLAUDIA BRODKSY: Is there anything that you just want to talk about in that?
TONI MORRISON: Well, I skirted around, as most, I think, graduate students do with this topic versus that one, and Robert Elias didn't like any of them, so I thought, OK, what will we do-- well, we had read some English literature, you know, Virginia Woolf, and I just wrote this thing on suicide in both because they were so wildly different from one another. And so, it was all right.
It was all right, interesting topic, anyway.
CLAUDIA BRODKSY: Recently, you gave the Ingersoll Lecture at the Harvard Divinity School. This is on, now. I think I-- OK. And the theme of the lecture series that year, that you also addressed, was simply the word "goodness." But the title of your lecture, in specific, was goodness, altruism and the literary imagination. And when you announced this to me, it first suggested, at least to me, that that title would entail just the opposite argument from the one that indeed you in fact made.
Rather than indicating the many ways and the works in which the literary imagination has given voice to altruism, to selfless acts undertaken for others, you instead described goodness in literature as personified very often as-- and this was your word-- mute. You argued that while what you called the, quote unquote, theatricality of evil makes for compelling viewing, quote, goodness in contemporary literature, and the quote continues, seems to be equated with weakness. Evil, you said, has a blockbuster audience. Goodness lurks backstage, close quote.
And then leaving aside even these visual metaphors, you offered the following startling, indeed literally accurate-- that's what really gave me pause-- literally accurate observations about some of the most celebrated embodiments of goodness in modern English language fiction. And now I'm just going to, with your permission, I'm going to quote you from that lecture. Quote, evil has vivid speech. Goodness bites its tongue. It is Billy Budd who can only stutter. It is Coetzee's Michael K, with a hair lip, that so limits his speech that communication with him is virtually impossible. It is Melville's Bartleby, confining language to repetition. It is Faulkner's Benjy, an idiot.
And then you went on to say, contemporary literature is not interested in goodness on a large or even limited scale. When it appears, it is with a note of apology in its hand and has trouble speaking its name.
TONI MORRISON: True.
CLAUDIA BRODKSY: We need more than that, I would say. So I wanted to ask you if you wanted, I was extremely struck by these observations, to talk to you about them, talk to you about them. And I have a little bit more to say about that. But I want to hear if you want to comment on these observations yourself right now.
TONI MORRISON: Well, I've said before, I hadn't explored it as carefully as I did for the Ingersoll. But I was always a little bored by demonstrations of evil. They relied on the same things. I used to say it always has this top hat, and a cape, and a tuxedo, and a cane. And it has all this stuff, glamor, and a costume, maybe even a little theme music.
But the goodness never has anything, because it doesn't want anything. Can't use anything, it's just there. And in the literature, the early literature, you know, 18th, I guess, and certainly 19th century, the Dickens kind of moved, you know, horrible, horrible life, that there was this yearning, this stretch toward a resolution. And the good people survived and the bad people either didn't or changed. And that was true of many of them.
Jane Austen, of course, that kind of thing was about getting married and being married was good, if you got the right person. And that was true of most of that literature. I think what happened is World War I. When goodness-- and certainly after World War II-- when being a good person was trivial, almost silly. A character could only be understood to be good if he was stupid. He was never a clever, or sophisticated, or even well-educated, but always vaguely stupid.
Hemingway has a lot of those little good stupid people, except for himself, of course. He's always good. And more and more and more. And I haven't done the really important work, which is to look at the very recent literature to see if there is anything different about that. My sense is that there is not a difference. The few books that, you know, the good few books that I get and read, sometimes had extraordinary, brilliant, beautiful language, but the thrust and the effort in the language is toward trying to explain something that is corrupt, or lacking.
If not reaching the heights of evil, it lurks around evil. And that's what's supposed to interest the reader. It's not interesting to me. It's too easy, if you get my drift. Goodness is really and truly hard. You can't seduce it. So writing and trying to find language for it has been probably all I have ever done in the novel.
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: Yes, and that was what I was thinking when you were giving this lecture. [INAUDIBLE] my goodness, but what about all your own work? And, in a sense, in the lecture at a certain point, you turn to it, and I think everyone in this room, whom I assume has probably read everything that you've written, every narrative you've written. We all have our preferred moments from your works, in which what we could call goodness speaks. Not asking for anything and without a trace of sanctimony or self righteousness, but rather exactly with this kind of humility, but the real humility that comes with real virtue if you put it in practice.
And speaking of your most recent novel, Home, at a certain point in that lecture, you did talk about your own work and you stated of the character, Miss [? Ethyl, ?] whom you probably all remember if you've read Home, who with her fellow women not only heals the protagonist's sister, Cee, physically, but challenges her with the following words, quote, inside you is that free person. Locate her and let her do some good in the world, unquote.
And you also mentioned your first fiction, The Bluest Eye, and the misguided wish of the character to give, quote, the gift of blue eyes to a little girl in psychotic need of them, close quote. And you went on to state, in his letter to God-- the character, Soaphead Church-- imagines himself doing the good that God refuses.
Misunderstood as it is, it-- his wish-- has language. This is all quotation from that lecture, which I hope we are going to see published. It has language. I, myself, can think of nothing more important one can give to goodness, and no greater challenge to the literary imagination than to make that language work as language, rather than as a beautiful picture or a poor cousin of the ineffable, the transcendent, and thus, the necessarily mute.
What I'm really interested in asking, which I hadn't really, and I really have to thank everyone for organizing this event, because I hadn't thought of it this way-- even having heard that lecture as it was delivered until I had to think about what I wanted to speak about this evening. Would you care to comment on how you try in your novels to use narrative to give goodness language?
TONI MORRISON: Yes. I thought I coined a phrase-- which I didn't, apparently-- called invisible ink. And it was writing a novel in such a way that the reader gets taken in, in his works with the novel, that the reader and I created together. And I do that by using this thing, or this technique-- which you can forget, since I say it-- called invisible ink, where the meaning is in the structure. The ending is always what I have to know before I start, because that's where it's going. That's where the meaning lies.
I don't always know the middle. I have to know how to get there. But I know that it's in the way it is put together-- what I withhold from the reader and what I dwell on at the same time. In that way, I can use-- I can employ whatever language is at my disposal in order to summon in the reader these responses. This pride in something that really is moral, it's not cheap. It's not easy. It's hard won. It's very hard won. But it's like Miss [? Ethyl ?] says, you're a girl, and you're black, and you're young, or whatever, and that may be problematic for you. However, you are a person and deep down is this free person. That's the one you should be paying attention to. That's the one you need to use to do some good in the world.
And that kind of-- I don't know-- simple clarity about what is valuable without painting it with some colors that are just sentiment. This is hard. These are hard-won lessons, spoken by people who have been there and are not crushed, and are not crushed.
I think one of the lines which I used to hear a lot when I was little is they were taking care of a woman in home, a woman who was down on her luck and very sick and couldn't help herself, but it was a neighbor who hated them, and always thought she was above them, and lorded it over them. But they take care of her when she's in trouble. And they say the reason-- or the author says-- the reason is that He at the end of their lives might say, or ask, what have you done? And they didn't want to-- I mean, they had to answer that. They couldn't come up short and say ooh, I watched TV. But something [? serious, ?] they did not want to be halting in their answer.
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: Well, yeah, I'd say the narrative is your doing in that event. Oh, you're doing something for your reader and that's very different from people simply making speeches. Takes a long time for Cee to get to the place where Miss Ethyl can actually say that to her. First of all, she's almost dead.
TONI MORRISON: It takes a long time for the crushed character, who's very busy looking for love, or kindness, or support, or am I OK, is it true, so desperate, and gets in a lot of trouble. So when she gets close to death, and is literally saved, when that happens-- and by the way, while she's ill, the women say, shut up. Stop crying. Shut your mouth. Don't puke. If you do, you have to drink it again. Open up your legs. They have no sympathy, just our skill and confidence. But they don't want to hear whining. They don't want to hear any of this. They're tough. But they're also the people you can rely on, completely, and who will tell you those things that Miss [? Ethyl ?] said to Cee.
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: Last spring, your work Desdemona was presented at Lincoln Center. The work is hard to categorize because it is not a play in any traditional sense, nor a spectacle, unless one thinks, as [? Walter Benjamin ?] wrote of [? baroque ?] tragedy, that what is being perceived are not events or a story, but words-- words spoken by a consciousness in the course of thought, a spectacle, one could say, of reflection. Very hard to do. Would you please describe what Desdemona is and how it came about?
TONI MORRISON: Yeah, that was something I was extremely, ultimately proud of, and extremely excited about doing it with Peter Sellars, who wanted to do something-- well, it goes back a little bit, because he was doing a course, and I'll tell you at Princeton. He was there for a month doing some drama with the students. And he said to me, while we were sitting outside on a bench, I think, eating lunch or something, he said he would never, ever, do Othello. And I said, why not? And he said, it's just too thin. There's nothing there.
And I said, you're talking about the productions, which are kind of thin and predictable. You know, big black guy, little white girl, dut dut dut dut dut.
He kills her, whatever. I said, but that's not it. First of all, he's a Moor, which means he's probably an Arab. Second of all, she is not this little kiddie girl that he steals. A, she runs away from home during the time when you either went to the convent or you were married, and she could have been jailed for eloping with him. That's a very daring thing to do.
Secondly, she went to war with him. You know, they went out. She's sitting out on the edges of the battle while they're fighting. And then she gets all involved in his business, telling you who to hire and who to fire. So she was not this little creepy girl. Well, I shouldn't say creepy. Innocent little girl. And I thought that when he was trying to kill her, she probably fought like the devil. You know, it wasn't ugh, oh, he's strangling me. Don't, don't, don't, don't.
You know, I thought maybe because I was-- anyway I went on and on, so he did an Othello, very interesting one at the public theater. And then, by that time, I had agreed to do what he asked me to do, which was a play about Desdemona, this woman than I thought was much more interesting than I had ever seen her performed on stage.
And I said, why does she like this guy, anyway, Othello? All she did was turn down people. Her father kept bringing guys, she would say no, and he was getting a little nervous. And Othello comes, the captain of the Army, and so on, and she likes him. Why? Well, she says, and other people say, he began to tell her stories about his life, what he had experienced as a soldier, as a man, as a child. And they only mention one, or hint, at one.
But Shakespeare never describes those stories that he told her. But he does say that she responded with trembling and tears. But she was interested, is what I'm trying to say, in the outside world. And he was not one of the local guys, so she wanted out. And he provided this other world. But, of course, in the actual play, Othello was never alone on stage, ever. He's always with somebody.
So I had this one requirement. I got very interested in Desdemona. And of course, in the people around her, but I said, Peter, I cannot write this unless you let me take Iago out. As long as he's in there, talks every minute, takes the whole conversation, nobody knows what to do with him. They lie to him, or they try to please him. It's just like hopeless. He's in there, you know.
Now, that, for me, is part of what I think we were talking about earlier, which is connected not only to that gesture of removing Iago, but also what has been happening more and more and more in my books. Actually, all of them. But to take away what I call the white gaze. Whose eye? Whose language is controlling this?
Well, in Othello, it's Iago. And when I began to write, the moment that I began to write, the publishing world-- these are the African Americans-- was leaning heavily toward-- I call them get whitey books, but there's a better word for that. [INAUDIBLE] you know, very-- And I published many of them. But anyway, and they were like the traditional African American novel, where the oppressor is the white man, or the white idea, or the captain, or the plantat-- whatever. That's who they were confronting-- Ellison, you know, Baldwin, Richard Wright.
I mean, you understood they were responding to defending themselves, or aggressively attacking that idea of the white oppressor. And I thought, I can't do that. What is the world like if he's not there? And the freedom, the open world that appears is stunning. And I noticed most African American women writers, they did the same thing-- Toni Cade Bambara, not always Alice Walker, but many times, Maya Angelou-- those writers and the poets, because the poets were more productive, I think, at that time than the novelists were.
But there was this free space opened up by refusing to respond every minute to the gaze, somebody else's gaze. So that flavored a great deal of what I was writing, still does. But you'll understand about Iago now, why I get rid of him.
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: In [INAUDIBLE], you told me that Peter-- I didn't hear this happen, but you told me that Peter Sellars as a director said it was hard to talk about Desdemona for him and he had to call it an event rather than a play or a spectacle, and that would have to do it the very openness that you were describing, but it's still a really hard thing to pull off. If you don't have an Aristotelian drama, you don't have a beginning, middle, and end, because you set out to write a spectacle in which everything that we witness is actually identical to what we hear. There are no actions, per se.
TONI MORRISON: No.
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: What we hear-- no concrete physical actions-- what we hear and also, importantly, what we read--
TONI MORRISON: Read, yeah.
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: So we witness the speaker's minds and memories at work, both alone and in dialogue, as they give voice in what is the afterlife. This play takes place in the afterlife.
TONI MORRISON: Everybody's dead, so they could say what was really on there minds.
It's timeless. They don't have to-- and, more importantly, they can learn, which they do, many, most.
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: Things happen.
TONI MORRISON: Yeah.
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: But they're verbal occurrences.
TONI MORRISON: Right.
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: And it is quite remarkable. And I have to say that it was a couple of sold-out shows and people were captivated. People who-- really, truly, special effects were not needed. It the barest stage. People were captivated. I'm just going to let you in on this, that this--
TONI MORRISON: We had this Rokia Traore is a young woman from Mali, and she sings and plays instruments. She's the first African musician who said, you know, most African music doesn't have drums. I said, what?
So she plays this other drumless music. It's gorgeous. And she does her own lyrics. She's very famous, and so on-- particularly in London. So she responded to what I wrote, and she had songs for many of the characters. So what Peter did, which I thought was extraordinary, he has Desdemona, and she takes many of the other parts that are there. And then he has Rokia, who's singing with her group. She has two women and two men.
And then her lyrics and my text are huge on the stage. You know, not little things in the back of the opera house, you know, when you're translating Mozart or something. This was, you could actually read what she was saying while she was saying it. And, particularly for me, Rokia's lyrics were the same way.
Now understand this. Rokia, is from Mali. Her native tongue is Bambara. Bambara is not written, it is only spoken. So she takes an unwritten language, translates it into French, and then subsequently, German, Italian, and English. I mean, she didn't do all those translations, but somebody would take the French and-- because they play quite a bit all over Europe.
Finally saw the whole thing the first time in France, and then finally in English in New York. But I was thinking of-- I mean, it's not just that I couldn't do it, but it [INAUDIBLE]. I think you have to-- she would have to write, don't you think? An unspoken language? I mean an unwritten language, a language that has no alphabet. So she has to write that down. And then she translated it into another language. And it's exquisite. I mean, it's truly exquisite.
And little thing, we did a book called Desdemona, in which the text and the lyrics are there in one book. And the plan was to do a film, in Mali. But, as you have read recently, that's unlikely.
But that was an extraordinary drama, an exercise for me, under the guise of Peter, particularly, who's very stimulating intellectually.
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: I understand that you were going to counteract the notion of thinness, now, the thinness of the play, how that was part of it.
TONI MORRISON: Oh yeah.
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: And that you payed a lot of attention to Desdemona, which indeed hadn't been paid to--
TONI MORRISON: No, no, no. And his Othello was thick. I mean, you know, he did it, what's the name? Hoffman--
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: Stanley? Philip Stanley?
TONI MORRISON: Yes, yes.
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: Seymour Hoffman?
TONI MORRISON: Yes.
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: Oh, I didn't even-- I wasn't even aware.
TONI MORRISON: I'll go anywhere to see him.
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: She's a big fan.
TONI MORRISON: I told him that. I said I've seen a lot of bad stuff that you were in.
And he said so have I.
But he was Iago. Very good.
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: Oh, he was? Oh, he would be great.
TONI MORRISON: He knocked it out of the park. He really was. And then we did Desdemona.
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: [INAUDIBLE] as Iago. But still, it had to be a little bit-- I would, even for you, I think it might have been daunting to write a spectacle, or, as Peter said, and event which was a postscript, literally a postscript to a story, one of the most famous [? canonical ?] tragic dramas in English. And it wasn't only a postscript, in a sense, of course, because, as you mentioned, you were struck by the fact that what she fell in love with were his stories, you see? And stories are critical in your Desdemona, and you in fact create them. There's very, very, very lush language.
TONI MORRISON: I wrote all the stories that Shakespeare didn't.
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: That is really lush, I mean, no, the travels. There was like there's a tempest thing going on there. There are lots of-- there's a lot of Shakespearean language that surfaces in these individual stories. They were like jewels. They were beautiful.
TONI MORRISON: That was a really, you know, undaunted. You know, you don't go where Shakespeare is in language. Forget about-- you can't imitate that. You can't-- so you have to find where is the language that you want to use in this production? And it has to be-- because I start with her. But soon as I knew how she felt about her name.
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: Oh yeah.
TONI MORRISON: They call-- you know, my name is Desdemona, which means doomed, or dead, or all these things. And she said, I am not my name. So then I had the quality of intelligence and I had the language so I could write her section. And then the other problems were writing the sections for other people.
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: You had said to me that what troubled you about actual performances of Othello was precisely, of course, the way that they dealt with the supposed-- you point out the word used for Othello as Moor, but the supposed racial identity of this very commanding captain, and that they can only seem to do this, or they could only seem to do this, by further racializing it, making race itself a very clear, if not the clear part of that spectacle. That is one, and it was like a no-win situation.
One, if a fellow was going to be played by a white man, then not only did he have to be in blackface-- Laurence Olivier-- but as a white man, even more grotesquely trying both psychologically and physically through certain gestures to be black.
TONI MORRISON: Right.
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: Right
TONI MORRISON: And red lips, Laurence Olivier.
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: But then, it played by-- and I don't know who played against Phillip Seymour, but played by a black man, that was going to be just as difficult because he also has to try to be black. That is to say, as black as would be recognizable, I'm supposing, to white people, and perhaps even to other black people, whose own self-conceptions might be completely inhabited by what you just called the white gaze.
TONI MORRISON: And you had the really classically trained black actors. They loved that play because that was the one time they could be the head, you know, the star of a Shakespearean play, legitimately. And so it, you know, it circled itself constantly. And nobody was really interested in what, I think, what was really going on underneath his role, as well as hers. It got very pro forma, you could imagine. Eugene O'Neill, in that restless [INAUDIBLE], nah, don't want to.
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: Well, yes, it's the one great Shakespeare-- supposedly great Shakespearean role, but it also centers around something which came to be understood as an interracial marriage.
TONI MORRISON: Right, exactly.
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: And once you have interracial marriage, at least in stagings of it, then you are clearly exacerbating the racially-inflected visual baggage of Othello being black onstage.
TONI MORRISON: That you and I were talking about this woman, young girl named Barbary.
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: Yes, yes.
TONI MORRISON: Who is Desdemona's nurse, companion, and who dies early because her lover or something or other didn't like her. So she faded away and sang a song, which Desdemona sings constantly after she finds out that she's in the same position. She's called Barbary, and I didn't think about it, but Peter said, Barbary? What is that? And I said, I don't know, it's the Barbary coast. He said it's Africa. It's not a name. It's just what people say when they want to say Africa, back in the day. Now it's different.
So I called Rokia, and I said, what's a good Mali name, I mean a name of a person. So she gave me five or six. And I think I picked [? Roanne, ?] or something. So in the play she says, they're all dead, right? So Desdemona says, Hi, oh I'm so happy to see you. Are you my best friend, and Barbary says you don't even know my name. Then they go into a little thing about but you're my friend. No, I was your servant. But, no, no, no. You [? never did-- ?]
And then they end up, she's saying, you don't know my life. Desdemona says what are you talking about? I married a black man, so I don't want to hear about-- and then finally, this little argument goes on in the play, and finally, Desdemona says to Barbary, did I ever hurt you? And Barbary says no. Now, they can get rid of all this who's better than? Who cheated me? Who's black, who's white, who's this? On a personal level, did I ever do anything mean to you? No. Well, now we can talk. I mean, it's that kind of feeling.
So that in the play, such conversations take place which move people from where they were at the end of the Shakespearean play and into other areas. And some of them-- almost all of them-- well, actually, all of them end up good. I mean, they're good places to be, that they have talked out. That's [INAUDIBLE].
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: Well, you essentially made that character.
TONI MORRISON: Yes.
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: And, again, what can I say? When they speak at cross purposes to each other, and one believes that no they've always been in perfect harmony, and the other says what are you talking about? It takes a little while for the change to take place. But then, in fact, the change comes from the person who believed that there was always perfect harmony. She provokes the change. And it's quite-- I'm just going to say, to use a bad word, "masterful."
But I want to speak to you about something you once said to me in conversation about Beloved, and we both laughed at the time because I found out the following that you, too, you said to me, had trouble finding-- that was your word-- a couple of your own sentences in that text. And those in which you said the active infanticide is committed, the act, as in--
TONI MORRISON: Yeah, I couldn't find it.
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: Yeah.
TONI MORRISON: I was so-- it's so buried. I mean you know it, the reader knows it fairly soon, but the actual act is so buried in the text, I couldn't remember exactly where there it was.
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: Always hard to find.
TONI MORRISON: Right. Still is.
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: And so, if you buried it from yourself, I thought, which is, in effect, what had happened, even to you, what the reason for that was was interesting. And we talked about it and you said to me that the act that these kinds of sentences-- and it's just a couple, really-- barely represent is one that was, quote, already done, that's already happened, unquote, and what was, quote, more interesting to you was how it could have happened and then what, quote, what happens then.
TONI MORRISON: Yes.
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: And then you went on to relate your near allusion or blank statement of such moments to the problem. This is early on, before the Ingersoll lecture, the problem of representing goodness as opposed to evil. And here I'm going to quote you, because you refer to the opening sentence of Paradise, so I'm just going to quote from what you had said to me earlier.
And so this is before the Ingersoll lecture, and you have this on your mind. It's not because the Divinity School invited you to talk about goodness. It was already there. This is a previous conversation that we had had. And I found it. I realized there was something back there, quote, I always thought that evil, war, murder, all these things, needed a tuxedo, or a top hat, or a drum roll because fundamentally, they are not complex and not interesting. They are devastating. That is all. What is really interesting to me is their opposite, which has no top hat, has no musical, has nothing, it's just good goodness. And you don't get anything with or for it. Now that is not far away from the way in which I write.
TONI MORRISON: I said that?
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: You said it, quite a while ago. And I checked, and there it was. I had this little echo in my mind. I don't want you to think-- this is Toni Morrison still talking-- I don't want you to think about the thing, the infanticide, or returning to paradise, the first sentence. They shot the white girl first. And probably, I don't know, if it's the most stunning first sentence, sort of shocking first sentence in a long novel.
TONI MORRISON: It's saved, and saves time for the rest.
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: Oh, saves time for the rest, absolutely. Everybody wants that? It's done.
TONI MORRISON: Everybody wants that.
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: And now they'll never know who that white girl was. Guess what.
TONI MORRISON: Yes, I'm not going to be describing her.
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: I wanted to say that, earlier, though, and I'm just going to say it now that I was thinking it must've been quite challenging for you because, think about it, all of you, there is an enormous amount of particular description, particularly of natural things, [? made ?] things, landscaped, but there are almost never, or there wasn't really one that I could recall, an actual kind of third-person description of a person, of a person's physical appearance in all of the fiction. And that remains, really, it's kind of a tour-de-force in Paradise, because you don't know who these people are ethnically, racially, et cetera, et cetera, from the beginning to the end.
And that word "white" happens at that sentence, and it happens with a gun. And that's that. And it is truly true, because the specificity of your concrete descriptions is quite stunning, and yet, when one thinks about it, people don't get treated that way.
TONI MORRISON: They don't describe them, what they looked like. Paradise, they have this very, very serioso closed black [? town, ?] whose blackness is [? a ?] rock. And that's what they do. And then you have this other place, where they shot the white girl first, and it's a group of women. And the effort was to not to use any language that would signal cultural language, any, which would signal which of those women was the white girl. Although many black girls tell me I know who it is.
I know who it is. So when I was selling the movie rights, I said, you know, we can't do it. If you sell it as a movie, you have to have a cast. And one of them is white.
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: Something somewhat similar happens in a different way, a very different way, which I think you told me your own editor remarked upon.
TONI MORRISON: Oh about--
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: In Home. So, Home, your most recent work, it really is, I think, one of the most beautifully-written of all your works. And it has a particularly powerful invocation of natural sensuous beauty, the beauty of the natural world. Also, the cultivated natural world, all those gardens, in which nothing goes to waste.
I would like to ask you about the way you brought that sensuousness into view. It's a very particular way in that novel. But first I want to ask you about that period in American history in which you chose to situate, as was mentioned in the introductions, that the story of Home, which, of course, is a very Homeric story of a returning soldier warrior. It seems fitting to add here, in Ithaca.
All your historically-situated novels take place either in a time unmemorialized in American literature, such as racially, religiously, and nationally, ethnically unsettled 17th-century America. I remember when Toni Morrison was first researching that book, immersing, and very few people are aware of how absolutely rigorously Toni researches these book.
I mean, it's just, she'd said, Claudia, know any books, any decent books about 17th-century America? I mean, it's the most interesting time. I mean, nothing had gotten coded yet, and every [? house has ?] different monies, and there are these different people running around--
[? TONI MORRISON: We can't ?] find the money.
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: And there are no book. There are really no books. But she worked, really, that was over a year of people just out scouting for books. But in any event, or you deal with a much publicized age, like the Jazz Age, but from a point of view and about people in that age, never written about before. And as you pointed out to me, and did you notice that I never mention Jazz? In Jazz?
TONI MORRISON: We know the Jazz Age among us in literature is always Fitzgerald, you know, white people dancing--
-- and getting hip, you know. And you know, you [INAUDIBLE] have these bands. So it's a little exotic. As they sort of, in literature, they claimed it. Like it was theirs. It's not yours, Fitzgerald.
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: Oh, I love F. Scott. I'm sorry.
TONI MORRISON: Oh, I love F. Scott, too.
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: He's a Princeton man, you know, he had his troubles.
TONI MORRISON: No, I'm just taking a little cultural thing off of here. So we talk about it and we never talk about the big-time jazz musicians. We never talk about the big-time-- it's just all over uptown. It's in the city.
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: Most beautiful descriptions of the city I've actually ever read, but we're going to leave that aside for now, because I want to go back to Home. Why did you choose to read write specifically about the 1950s, and post-Korean War United States?
TONI MORRISON: Well, it was seemed to me to be unwritten about, in the sense-- I don't mean, historically it was written about. But I wanted to pull that scab off. You know, we sort of think of the '50s, you know, all those Leave it to Beavers and Doris Day. It was after the war, everybody was making money, and Levittown, and so on.
And when I heard these people before the first election of Barack Obama, they're saying we want to take our country back. And I was wondering, back to where? And it was really the '50s. I mean, I think that's what the "back" meant. And it also meant some other things, but that time in their minds is like-- it's not what was going on. First of all, there was a war that nobody even called a war. They called it a police action. And, you may notice, it is still going on.
They have a militarized zone, now, with soldiers on one side and the other, and Mr. [INAUDIBLE] has just said he's blowing everybody up if they do bad things to him, yesterday. So there's this war thing, and it was the height of anti-communism. People went to jail, people lost their jobs. And it was also a time when doctors and scientists were experimenting on helpless people-- you know, children and black people.
We only got a hint of it in-- I only, and I think the rest of the world-- in Vietnam, because they experimented with LSD on soldiers. And then, uh, it was sort of horrible for a while, I think. But prisoners, soldiers, black people, Mexican people, whoever, that was the group. You remember the experiment at Tuskegee with the syphilis? You know, they let half of the men get cured, and the other half, they didn't cure at all. They just wanted to see how it progressed. So, that kind of thing. So that's what Cee, the girl in there, comes across one such doctor.
So those things were things I wanted to start to create. And also, just the whole country is like a battlefield for him. He has been in a battle-- a real one, where you kill people. Then he comes back and it's another fight as a black man trying to get from area A to area B. And I never say he's black. My editor said something about that. And I said how do you know he's black? He said, I just know. And I said how? He said, I don't know, I just know.
But he said to me that it was not a good idea to never identify him as black. Now I've been with this editor forever and we read a lot. And I think about what he says, and I might do it or I might not. But I know he's thinking commerce, you know? So, [INAUDIBLE], so I had a little thing I stuck in, when he gets off the boat and he goes to this preacher's house. And the preacher says you have been in an integrated army. And you may think the north is different from the south. Legal and custom are the same thing. You know, he was trying to-- so that, if the reader is interested, is one moment where it becomes very clear. Not just that he can't go in a restaurant, or he can't go to a toilet.
But those things are just baked into the travel. He just is accommodating to it, all along, until he gets close to home.
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: Well, that, I wanted to say that. Actually, I mean, you were kind enough to give me a manuscript version of the book, and it didn't have that signal.
TONI MORRISON: Mm-mm.
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: But it had every other signal, of course.
TONI MORRISON: Yeah, it.
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: And it was the brilliance, really, of how you achieved this because you only identify his racial identity through indirection. And you present the moves that he makes from inside him, which is extremely difficult. That is to say, all those methods of direction-- you indirectly present all those very explicit signs and methods of direction, he doesn't read them out loud, but he'll just move aside at a certain point, choose a different water fountain at a certain point. Those methods of direction that indeed littered the landscape that we called segregation, and it just served as kind of [? didactic ?] instruction manual for the American landscape.
That is, signs that were saying not here, but there. You know, written large, wherever anybody went, and you managed to make them just part of the landscape. And that was extremely eerie. I wasn't for the signaling that your editor introduced-- god bless him-- but in commerce, but because you get left with, in fact, an actual immediate experience on the part of someone who has no choice but to accommodate himself to it if he wants to essentially stay alive.
He immediately experiences something, which isn't beautiful at all, as the landscape is going to become in Home, but a purely conventional written landscape which works like a kind of second nature for everybody who moved within it, including, of course the people who were allowed to drink here.
TONI MORRISON: Yeah, right.
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: Who would never drink there.
TONI MORRISON: Right.
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: So, inhabiting Frank's point of view, seeing these things from within him, without remarking upon them, at least up until that moment, that, I think, was authorial feat. It's kind of typical of you that you pull this off and you absolutely do not tip the top hat.
TONI MORRISON: No.
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: It just happens. It happens through a kind of accretion, and you get used to it as you're reading it. And at the same time as Frank moves throughout this very demarcated signed landscape, you present him as a person. That is, as just that, as Frank, a troubled man and war veteran on a mission that now involves returning home. And thus, we actually see him, despite the fact that he's being directed all along the way. And it's a very long trip, and there, of course, are the different train cars, and the different restaurants, and the different places you can stay, and the special book which tells you where you can stay, and where you can do this and that.
But yet, because this is all being done from inside him in an interesting-- really interestingly, you leave out the whole middle thing. You leave out all the explication. We don't really see him as black-- between quotation marks-- per se, but really we don't see him as other than a man, per se, who doesn't want to go home and has to go home because of this sister he's so close to.
At the same time, you do something equally subtle to what would be the natural colors of this landscape. And it's the only landscape-type book that you've got, the only travel Homeric kind of travel book that you have. Because usually it's in a place-- it's a house, it's the city, it's a specific place. Basically, until Frank arrives home, you delete all the colors of the landscape.
TONI MORRISON: Yeah.
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: Would you comment on that?
TONI MORRISON: Yeah, I have him with a little eye problem where all the color drains. But he's sort of off, so who knows? And he drinks. But in the description of things, there's no color at all. Everything's either black or white, or gray, or nothing, or it's not mentioned. Until he gets very close to home. The first spot of color is after he has a little fight protecting, he thinks, some girls. Turns out, he's beating up their pimp.
Anyway, he sees this girl's blouse, which is torn, and it's bright yellow. And then he goes-- when he gets back to his hometown, and he says were the trees always this green? And then there was something that I found. It took a long time, Claudia. But, you know, when you see cotton fields, they're usually white because cotton is white. But before the ball, there's this pink flower. And if you look at it-- and it only lasts about four or five days before it drops and then the ball comes-- but if you look at that field at that time, you see all this pink, miles and miles of pink flowers.
So I had Renee, my assistant, find me-- I said find a picture of cotton at that particular time. So we did all the cotton research. You have no idea how much there is-- where, when, how to protect it, the balls, the vinegar, and what happened to the land. But anyway, I got two pictures of a cotton field at that moment, when before the balls come, and when they're just these pink blossoms.
And he stands there and looks at that, and then everybody has a garden. And it's not just for decoration. Certain plants are there to kill insects, or prevent this, color that, so that everything in this-- it's like it's a little personal in the days of my youth-- which is a long time ago-- we didn't have any garbage cans. Not only because nobody would pick them up, because there wasn't any waste. This is before they start wrapping things up.
You get blueberries now in a little cardboard box or a little plastic. The meat is all wrapped up with Saran wrap. Everything was-- you had to chop it, buy it, pick it up. And there was no waste. Newspaper had a lot of uses. Jars, you put nails in. Rotten food was compost. Everything was-- there was no waste.
So I kind of translated that into the '50s, although I don't remember it in the '50s, I remember it from the '30s and '40s, before the war. And so I put it in this little town. Well they did the same thing. The gardens were like-- I think there's a line in there which says this is not Eden. This is like a little war. You have to cover the tops of the corn so the squirrels don't get there. You have to do this so the skunks don't come. You know, it's a constant battle. And if you know where to spray the garlic, you don't get the things that will eat your tomatoes.
So there was that feeling of profound, bright color, and the [INAUDIBLE], because he hated that town. It was boring. Nothing was going on. So that when he returned, it is A, beautiful, because of the color, not because of the grand houses and the gardens. But also it's safe. And people may not like you in that little town, but they're not going to hurt you. Nobody's going to hurt you. And that was home. Whatever else one thinks of home, it's not just a house. It's this yearning for this place where you're safe.
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: I would like, if you don't mind, I'd like it if you'd read from-- I'm talking here about chapter 13, in which, in fact, you let the natural colors back in because he can first now see them. And you've taken all the color out, and you haven't identified him, really. And then from his point of view, it's no longer a segregated signed landscape. But, in fact, he's now seeing the place that he couldn't see before because he just wanted to leave it. So, if you wouldn't mind, and also at the end you bring the color back in a quilt.
TONI MORRISON: Oh yeah.
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: That Cee and others had made. And what is done with the quilt is to properly bury a man who had an unsigned--
TONI MORRISON: Grave.
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: -- grave. And that I just found very significant. And we're talking, toward the very, very end of the book. That's when the color comes back big, and you don't-- you know you're missing it, but you don't really know it, and it's sort of like him, in that sense. You really are-- put us right inside him, because he didn't know what he was missing.
TONI MORRISON: No, he didn't.
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: Yeah, well, here you go, if you don't mind.
TONI MORRISON: Let's assume--
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: Chapter 13.
TONI MORRISON: -- I know what I wrote.
And therefore I don't need my glasses.
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: I have your glasses.
TONI MORRISON: I know. Never mind. I've got it. I've got it. It was so bright, brighter than he remembered. The sun, having sucked away the blue from the sky, loitered there in a white heaven, menacing lotus, torturing its landscape, but failing, failing constantly, failing to silence it. Children still laughed, ran, shouted their games. Women sang in their backyards while pinning wet sheets on clothes lines.
Occasionally a soprano was joined by a neighboring alto or a tenor, just passing by. Take me to the water. Take me to the water. Take me to the water to be baptized. Frank had not been on this dirt road since 1949. Nor had he stepped on the wooden planks covering the rain washed-out places. There were no sidewalks. There were no sidewalks, but every front yard and backyard sported flowers, protecting vegetables from disease and predators-- marigolds and [INAUDIBLE], dahlias-- crimson, purple, pink, and China blue.
Had these trees always been this deep, deep green? The sun did her best to burn away the blessed peace found under the wide old trees, did her best to ruin the pleasure of being among those who do not want to degrade or destroy you. Try as she might, she could not scorch the yellow butterflies away from the scarlet rose bushes, nor choke the songs of birds.
Her punishing heat did not interfere with the [INAUDIBLE] and his nephew, sitting in the bit of a truck-- the boy on a mouth organ, the man on a six-string banjo. The nephew's bare feet swayed. The uncle's left boot tapped out the beat. Color, silence, and music enveloped him. This feeling of safety and goodwill he knew was exaggerated. But savoring it was real.
He convinced himself that somewhere nearby, pork ribs sizzled on a yard grill. And inside the house, there was potato salad, coleslaw, and sweet peas, too. A pound cake cooled on top of an icebox. And he was certain that on the back of the stream they called Richard, a woman in a man's straw hat fished. For shade and comfort, she would be sitting under the sweet bay tree, the one with branches spread like arms.
When he reached the cotton fields beyond Lotus, he saw acres of pink blossoms, spread under the malevolent sun. They would turn red and drop to the ground in a few days to let the young balls through.
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: This is up to you.
TONI MORRISON: The end?
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: Yeah.
TONI MORRISON: Yeah, why not?
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: Have a little drink, maybe?
TONI MORRISON: Hmm?
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: Have a little drink maybe?
TONI MORRISON: Little drinky-poo. OK.
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: Because it's very crafted. Seems to just have this very crafted. The entrance of the color and then the important, really symbolic color at the end is really--
TONI MORRISON: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah.
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: -- beautifully crafted.
TONI MORRISON: Yeah, that's nice.
Carefully, carefully, Frank placed the bones on Cee's quilt, doing his level best to arrange them the way they once were in life. The quilt became a shroud of lilac, crimson, yellow, and dark navy blue. Together they folded the fabric and knotted its ends. Frank handed Cee the show and carried the gentleman in his arms.
Back down the wagon road they went, then turned away from the edge of Lotus toward the stream. Quickly, they found the sweet bay tree, split down the middle, beheaded, undead, spreading its arms-- one to the right, one to the left. There at its base, Frank placed the bone-filled quilt that was first a shroud, now a coffin.
Cee handed him the shovel while he dug. She watched the rippling stream and the foliage on its opposite bank. Frank dug a four- or five-foot hole, some 36 inches wide. It took some maneuvering because the sweet bay roots resisted disturbance and fought back. The sun had reddened and was about to set. Mosquitoes trembled above the water. Honeybees had gone home and fireflies waited for night.
A light smell of muscadine grapes pierced by hummingbirds soothed the grave digger. When finally it was done, a welcome breeze rose. Brother and sister slid the crayon-colored coffin into the perpendicular grave. Once it was heaped over with soil, Frank took two nails and a sanded piece of wood from his pocket. With a rock, he pounded it into the tree trunk.
One nail bent uselessly, but the other held well enough to expose the words he had painted on the wooden marker. Here stands a man. Wishful thinking, perhaps. But he could have sworn the sweet bay was pleased to agree. Its olive green leaves went wild in the glow of a fat cherry red sun.
Then he speaks again, and he [? chatties ?] up this book. I stood there a long while, staring at that tree. It looked so strong, so beautiful, hurt right down the middle, but alive and well. Cee touched my shoulder lightly. Frank? Yes? Come on, brother. Let's go home.
We should get some questions.
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: Just a couple more that I-- and I think we have the time. And there are few that from the audience I would like to pose, as well. You just mentioned this. You said he's talking again. So let me go right to that, that you do something, another really unusual thing in Home. You've done these things before, especially the talking book you all probably remember from Jazz, the book that actually addresses the reader at the end of Jazz.
But you actually have, for the first time, I think, in your fiction, you have the character address you.
TONI MORRISON: Yes, right. That's the first.
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: You and the word you used is you-- you, as you, Toni Morrison, or you, rather, his narrator, and he seeks to enlighten you, as to acts that you could not have narrated since he himself had not yet acknowledged them or admitted them to himself. So you actually have him come to this and speak to you about it.
And, for example, chapter 14 begins very, sort of directly, I have to say something to you right now-- excuse me-- to you, right now. I have to tell the whole truth. I lied to you and I lied to me. That's how that chapter begins. So getting the truth from a character of your own making is an unusual, but may I say, characteristically Morrisonian innovation in fiction. Do you see any relation between this recent development, your latest novel, and something that indeed you've just repeated here that you said years ago about losing the white gaze from your imagination and you're writing? Freeing yourself from it and seeing the whole world open up?
TONI MORRISON: It did. And characters-- I don't want to be too sappy about this-- but they do sort of exist maybe like ghosts. And like ghosts, they talk all the time. And they're not interested in anything except themselves. And so you have to shut them up.
I found that very true when I did Song of Solomon. And there's that woman pilot. She was just so-- so she speaks once, at the funeral, I think, of her daughter. The rest of the time, people are talking about her, or with her, and so on. Because they're greedy. Now here, I use this character in order to give up control to someone that I sort of theoretically did not control, to, A, tell me things that I couldn't know-- tell me, the author. Also to explain his own himself to himself, to correct me, tell me you don't know what you're talking about. I didn't think that. I thought this, et cetera.
So our conversation-- the reader's eavesdropping on this conversation-- so that in effect, the sort of same thing that happens with those dead people in Desdemona. He can learn something about himself. It's not just, oh, and this happened, and this happened. And I wanted this and then this. He arrives at a place, through watching his sister grow up and stop being such a little baby, that he is able to remember and say what he did in the war.
Most of it's about oh god, my friends died. They died. And he's mourning them all the way through. And part of that mourning is to keep him from addressing his own culpability, you know? I was telling somebody the other day, were talking about shell shock, or the new treatment for it. And I said, don't you worry a little bit about the guys who come back who are not shell shocked? You mean, you just go over there, and come back, and everything's fine.
I worry as much about the damaged veterans-- I work a lot about them. But I also worry about the ones who are not damaged. They don't talk to me about it anyway. But it was the same sort of thing with this man, Frank, who did a terrible thing on a helpless, and certainly innocent, child. And until he says that, he can't bury this guy that he first met at the opening of the book with his sister.
And it is, in that sense, a little bit-- a lot about theoretical descriptions or feelings about what being an adult is, what being a man is. The book opens with they were so beautiful, so brutal, and they stood like men. [? These are ?] on [? horses. ?] And they stood like men-- beautiful, brutal, masculine. So then by the time we get to then end, there's another definition.
There's another definition when he says he stood like a man. That refers to his first teenage notion of what glory, adulthood, and manhood is, until he comes back and there it is. OK?
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: OK.
TONI MORRISON: Sorry that I go on a bit.
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: No, no. I know that we've gotten a few questions which ask this question, so I'm going to ask you right now. We both agreed you're not going to be discussing any novel you might currently be working on, but you will admit to the fact that you, in fact, you are writing another novel.
TONI MORRISON: I am writing.
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: Right now, right now.
TONI MORRISON: Right.
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: Do you want to say any words about it at all?
TONI MORRISON: No.
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: I think you said it's not-- OK.
Then I'm just going to go to just-- I think we have a few minutes, just a few-- and I'd like to just go to some questions from, well, first from Professor Leslie Adelson, who has a great quote from you in her question. She writes, in your Jefferson lecture of 1996, you, Toni Morrison, wrote, quote, time, it seems, has no future, unquote. And Professor Adelson asks, have your thoughts and literary approach to the relationship between past and future changed since then? And if so, how? I'm just going to repeat your quote. Time, it seems, has no future. Do you still feel that way?
TONI MORRISON: Well, I was thinking that the past, what we call the past, is always here and always now, and we're always responding to it. And we talk about the future. I don't know what that means-- generations and gadgets and so on, and maybe the weather changes, or an asteroid falls, an event. But the future of time-- I mean, think about the astrology. It's all about the past, isn't it? How the world got-- how the universes got here, and how long it was, and is there nothing? It's all happened already. There is nothing but the past. Sounds a little depressing.
But, I mean, the acquisition of knowledge even to put it to some use that might be used tomorrow or in ten years, and the knowledge comes from the past and the present. So, in a sense, the real-- all of the interests, whether they're these-- finding this-- what are they doing over there in Switzerland with the Boggs-- Higgs-- that's all about the past. Even though they only have the instrument to find it now. It's really about finding something that happened-- I don't know-- billions and billions of years ago. You understand that? It's so clear to me, but I don't have exactly the right words to explain it.
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: There's actually a directly-related question to your answer, just happens to be the case. And this is from someone named Alison [? Schaumberg. ?] Is she here? Is she still here? Alison?
TONI MORRISON: She might have gone home.
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: Oh, hi, Alison. There she is. There she is. And you write clearly, so I can read it. You write, in Beloved, you suggest that the past, and in particular slavery, are inescapable. They will always return, whether in physical form, as in the title character Beloved, or figurative form, as in the influence of slavery had upon Sethe's life. Do you still think this is true? Is our historical past something we cannot escape that marks us for life? Or is it something we can overcome? Or is that the dichotomy you want to--
TONI MORRISON: I think it's eternal, something that exists. And you don't move on. And we keep it in your head. You don't have to behave in a certain way because there was slavery, but there was. And you have to remember something, that it was not-- who said the peculiar institution? There's nothing in the world more common than slavery. Nothing.
Who were with the slaves in Rome? In Greece? What did they call them in Russia? Peons. What did they call them? There were always enslaved people. How slavery in this country got to be called black was the whole point of a mercy about when slaves were separated into white slaves and black slaves.
The white slaves were called indentured servants. But they're contracts went on forever. Then after this rebellion, the laws in Virginia were there will be a white person can maim or hurt any black person for any reason. And the black person can have no weapons, under any circumstances. And no rights of law. That was legal. So now you've got poor white people, still, thinking they're better than poor black people. Why? Because they manipulated this nonexistent thing called racial identity.
So all of that was part of this-- to answer the question, it's not about, oh, one they we will forget there's slaves. Maybe it will happen, when everybody remarries everybody, I don't know. Then it'll be that way. But I just wanted to take slavery itself and separate it from American slavery, as a particular thing that happened to black people only. That did occur, but it was deliberate, sustained, and it meant that the people on top didn't have to worry about what they called at that time the people's war. There will be no people's war if you put together all these poor people. If you make sure that this group of poor people hates that group of poor people and has control over them, then we don't have to worry in our plantations and in our lives. And that hasn't gone anywhere, as I'm sure you know. You may not be aware of it on this campus, but out in the world, it still operates.
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: Chris Holmes. Chris, great question. Well, I'm afraid he's probably-- well, Chris Holmes writes Beloved is famously understood both to be a story, quote, "not to pass on, and not to pass on." Do you feel that the novel as a genre is capable of both recovery of traumatic stories and exorcising the ghost of those stories?
TONI MORRISON: Very much exorcising ghosts. And I was-- a little bit of [? play ?] not to pass on, meaning not to ignore and not to retell. So that was the dilemma of Beloved, of the creature Beloved. And, I mean, the dilemma-- my dilemma-- in trying to figure out whether Sethe did something good or bad-- infanticide. There was a lot of it, by the way, when women were forced to have the children of their masters.
So, in the article, in the newspaper article that I read, that was published in Ohio in the 19th century-- '67, whatever it was-- the grandmother said I don't know whether to condemn her or praise her. So I was thinking sort of the same thing. If I absolutely knew that my children at a certain age, that my babies were going to be, in your name, something horrible, you know, so I couldn't figure it out either. So I decided that the only person who was legitimate to answer that question would be the dead child. She would know whether it was a good idea or not. Thanks a lot ma.
So when she appeared, sort of, in my imagination as a functioning thing, and in other people. She was real to Sethe. She was, as a returned child, she may have been an ex-slave taken when she was a child, [INAUDIBLE]. So there are a number of things she could have been. And she succeeded in that, in the imaginations of people.
But the very end, about the footprints coming and going, is a question of, at that time certainly, and probably still, no one has settled on that question that she's asking. They come and they go. The footsteps are big or they're small. And we don't hear her name. We just hear the weather and the ice cracking in the trees. And maybe that's her-- the disremembered. I mean, that's always there. Anyway, that was my solution.
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: There's a very short one, which you may not-- in fact, you may say, well, I have no answer to that question. And it's from Tommy, who wrote, if you could get the answer to any question, what question would you ask? It's kind of clever, Tommy, but I think--
TONI MORRISON: Very clever, Tommy.
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: But I think it also sort of begs the question, in a way.
TONI MORRISON: I don't really have any questions. I mean, I have interests, and I have imaginative journeys, but there's no final-- if somebody said, does God exist? And I could get an answer, yes or no, I did that when I was 11. And the girl that I was talking to said, He does exist. No, she said He doesn't exist. I said yes he does. She said no he doesn't. And I said how do you know? And she said because I have been praying for blue eyes for two years, and He didn't deliver.
So what do I get to get? 100 years later, I write a book called The Bluest Eye.
CLAUDIA BRODSKY: Good answer. Good answer. Thank you.
GERARD ACHING: Thank you. Another round of applause, thanking professors Toni Morrison and Claudia Brodsky. Thank you.
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Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison, M.A. '55, returned to campus March 7, 2013 for a conversation about literature, politics and, especially, language. She answered questions posed to her by longtime friend and colleague Claudia Brodsky, a professor of comparative literature at Princeton University, where Morrison is the Robert F. Goheen Chair Emerita in the Humanities.
The Africana Studies and Research Center and the Institute for German Cultural Studies co-hosted the event.