Toni Morrison — interview (1998)

In 1998, Nobel prize and Pulitzer winning author Toni Morrison was interviewed by journalist Jana Wendt, and discussed Morrison’s feelings about writing literature involving race.


Morrison: This is shocking. It’s always shocking, and I insist on being shocked. I’m never going to become immune. I think that’s a kind of failure to see so much of it that you die inside. I want to be surprised and shocked every time.

Wendt: You have in your writing certainly marginalized whites. Why are they of no particular interest to you or seemingly no particular interest?

Morrison: Well, I was interested in another kind of literature that was not just confrontational, Black versus white. I was really interested in
black readership and I wanted to, I think for me, the allegory or the parallel is is this Black music which is as splendid and complicated and wonderful as it is because its audience was within its primary audience the fact that it has become universal worldwide. Anyone, everyone can play it and it has evolved is because it wasn’t tampered with and editorialized within the community. So I wanted the literature that I wrote to be that way I could just go straight to where the soil was, where the fertility was in this landscape, and also I wanted to feel free not to have the white gaze in this place that was so precious to me.

Wendt: Which is the work and you will maintain this safe place for yourself for your art? You don’t think you will ever change and write books that incorporate white lives into them substantially?

Morrison: I have to mmm

Morrison: You can’t understand how powerfully racist that question is and you as you could never ask a white author when are you gonna write about black people whether you did or not but she didn’t not hmm even the inquiry comes from a position of being in the center and being used to being in the same thing used to being innocent hmm and saying you know is it ever possible that you won’t enter the mainstream. It’s inconceivable that we’re, I already am is the mainstream.

Wendt: Oh no I that that wasn’t the implication of my question. I think you are very very much in the mainstream. It’s a question of the subject of your narrative, whether you want to alter the parameters of it, whether you see any any benefit in doing that or will you clearly see disadvantages in doing it from your own point of view.

Morrison: Artistic disadvantage is there are no plusses for me being an African-American writer is sort of like being a Russian writer, that writes about Russia, in Russian for Russians and the fact that it gets translated and read by other people is a benefit it’s a plus but he’s not obliged to ever consider writing about French people or Americans or anybody.

Wendt: When we were talking earlier about you being or not being in the mainstream you are sure in the mainstream when it comes to public acclaim.

Morrison: I can’t tell you how satisfying it is to know that I have earned a readership that is that large, as large as it is I stood at the border stood at the edge and claimed it as Central claimed it as central and let the rest of the world and this grant things a Nobel Prize.

Wendt: As grand I imagine it is a wonderful thing to receive does that alter people’s attitudes towards sometimes.

Morrison: Yes, oh yeah. All prizes particularly that one sometimes they respond to you as though you weren’t a person and so everything you said was sort of capable of being carved into marble. It was so stunning a surprise to me I felt very representational. I felt American for probably the first time. I like I felt representative of all African Americans and I felt hugely a woman receiving this prize because that’s not too common in the halls of the Nobel, you know alumni, so I felt all those things knowing full well as what always said no prize has ever made it easier you still have to look at that blank page and all of that was always going to be my problem leaving all of that to one side the publicity and all the rest of it the acclaim.

Wendt: Do you these days sit back when you’re writing, read over a phrase that you’ve just written, say “my god that’s beautiful”?

Morrison: Occasionally. I’m aware of what’s very beautiful. Things that I think came off really well and I’m also aware of the sentences that I have written that at last I know how I should rewrite them even long after the books been published.