Thursday, July 7, 2011

Talking Out of Turn #20: Toni Morrison (1982)

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show, On the Arts, at CJRT-FM in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to artists from all fields. In 1994, after I had gone to CBC, I had an idea to collate an interview anthology from some of the more interesting discussions I'd had with guests from that period. Since they all took place during the eighties, I thought I could edit the collection into an oral history of the decade from some of its most outspoken participants. The book was assembled from interview transcripts and organized thematically. I titled it Talking Out of Turn: Revisiting the '80s. With financial help from the Canada Council, I shaped the individual pieces into a number of pertinent themes relevant to the decade. By the time I began to contact publishers, though, the industry was starting to change. At one time, editorial controlled marketing. Now the reverse was taking place. Acquisition editors, who once responded to an interesting idea for a book, were soon following marketing divisions concerned with whether the person doing it was hot enough to sell it.

For a few years, I flogged the proposal to various publishers but many were worried that there were too many people from different backgrounds (i.e. Margaret Atwood sitting alongside Oliver Stone). Another publisher curiously chose to reject it because, to them, it appeared to be a book about me promoting my interviews (as if I was trying to be a low-rent Larry King) rather than seeing it as a commentary on the decade through the eyes of the guests. All told, the book soon faded away and I turned to other projects. However, when recently uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large.

Tom Fulton of On the Arts.
After the murder of Martin Luther King Jr, in the late sixties, the momentum of the Civil Rights movement seemed to wane. No leader could fill that vacuum and black voices in the eighties became fragmented. Often the question of black identity came up during interviews. While many of the individuals I spoke to were male, author Toni Morrison (Song of Solomon, Beloved) brought perspective on black culture from a woman's point of view. On the day she came in, we discussed her then new book Tar Baby. The novel portrays a love affair between Jade and Son, two blacks who came from different worlds. While Jade is a Sorbonne graduate and fashion model who was sponsored into wealth and privilege, Son is a poor, strong-willed man who literally washes up on the shore of the wealthy white family home in the Caribbean where Jade's uncle and aunt work as servants. Although Jade and Son try to make a home in the United States, the compromises each makes (dictated by their class differences) doom the affair.

kc: Does it bother you that often you are categorized as both a black and female writer?

tm: Yes. But I'm not sure that it's the readers that do it. It's probably more the critics who make a point of pigeonholing writers. Although they never seem to identify someone as a "white male" writer. But they do talk about women writers, or Mexican writers, or black writers, in that fashion. It sets up artificial barriers in the minds of people who choose the books. They think that it must be about feminism, or it must be about how hard it is to be a black person. They end up developing attitudes about whether they'll pick up the book. So it's difficult for an author to write within the pigeonhole and out of it at the same time. You see, sometimes when they call you a "black female writer" it's meant in the pejorative. It means you're pretty good...considering (laughs).

Toni Morrison.
kc: But black culture is the basis for all of your work?

tm: Precisely. Always. I never concentrated on any other culture but my own. I try very hard to create a style that is unquestionably black, and I invent and employ all of the characteristics that universally make up black art – whether it's dance, music or sculpture. I'm using what my sensibilities have been formed by. And I think that it is a legitimate pursuit because there still is something called the "French novel" and the "19th Century novel" where people simply use what they're interested in and what they have. But it is not diminishing; it is enhancing to fully realize your scope. It's like saying to Faulkner that he should stop writing that regional literature and write about London and New York. You shouldn't penalize a writer for doing what he does.

kc: What you seem to be writing about is both the culture and the exploration of the personality.

tm: But that's similar. The writers that I read explored culture and their regions. After all, there is such a thing as a white culture and an American culture. But it doesn't stop there. These writers also talk about the differences between this character and that character. That's precisely what is most compulsive in my efforts to be a writer. How do people get on, what is their crises and what do they learn. In other words, fiction is about people. That's one of the art forms that must be about people. The others don't have to be.

kc: Your characters are always confronted with cultural attitudes. Much like Jade in your new book Tar Baby, the reader can discover many different corners of what it means to be black.

tm: I felt that in Tar Baby I wanted to explore male/female relationships. And in order to examine the turning point, or conflicts in that relationship, it didn't seem to me that you could talk about the conflicts in marriage or love and just say it was domestic battles that go on in gender. It wasn't just about male this and female that. There were much more profound differences operating and those differences were cultural. So the young, lovely, well-educated international model would have to leave her background in order to make it. You have to go away. And when you go away, you leave perhaps a stultifying environment, but you also leave behind family and friends – the things that nourish you. So you pay a little penalty. The man she falls in love with – and who falls in love with her – has never left anything. He's very romantic and stubborn in the sense of an expatriate who is away from home and always thinks it was better that it ever was. You discover that they can't really speak the same language in spite of my urging them to be permanently happy. The differences were enormous and they're both right. It's just that she's in the 20th Century and he's not.

kc: Those differences that cause misunderstandings are also the little things that make things in life so unresolvable, right?

tm: Oh, indeed. It's hard to know what to do about the habits that are so different. But I like to put my characters in situations that are stressful and under duress so that I can see what people will do when their backs are against the wall. And then I let them act it out. It gives a tragic and melancholy cast to the books, but I mention it because people really want a happy ending and to have everything solved. I'm not able to provide it though because it would be fraudulent.

kc: What responsibilities then do you feel you have to your readers?

tm: I think my responsibility as a black writer is to illicit a visceral reaction from those who might not read very much, and to also have enough there to be provocative for people who are fastidious readers. I think my best analogy is what happens with black music. There are certain aficionados of jazz who really understand what the music is about. And they're very amused and thrilled by the risks that the musicians take, the innovations they make and their echoes of other musicians within. But then there are other people who don't know anything about that, but they love it anyway. They come to it with a different, or limited appreciation, but it doesn't make it any less real. Just because they haven't the vocabulary for it, or they haven't the insight in order to describe it, doesn't mean that the pleasure is any less. Yet that's what's interesting about black art. It can do both things.

kc: What do you think makes a book a thing of great value?

tm: I think a book ought to be unremittingly beautiful as well as unremittingly useful – politically useful, at the same time. I don't think you have to abandon one thing for the other. I get very distressed when people talk about art as if it has no political or cultural function. It's as if the novel were not a form developed for a specific class. The aristocrats had theirs, and the peasants had theirs, and this new breed of middle-class people didn't have to read novels, but the form was devised for them to guide them about manners. That's why we talk about the novel of manners. Shakespeare was writing very political theatre. The best art is, in that larger sense, very political art. I know it's not fashionable to do this anymore. Today it's stripped down language and characters who become clusters of words that move through pages and not being sentimental or whatever it is that's opposed to being in vogue. I think it means that they don't want people to feel anything. It's a reduction to minimalism and it reduces the intelligence and scope of the reader. And I won't – at the great risk of diminishing readers – do that. I think the best thing to do is to make the literature better. You enhance it, not abandon it.

 Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. His four-part lecture series, Forbidden Desires: The Films of Alfred Hitchcock and Brian De Palma begins at the Revue Cinema on Monday, July 11th at 7pm. It continues on July 25, August 8th and 22nd. 

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