As her latest book God Help the Child is published, the Nobel prizewinner talks about the danger of beauty, supporting Hillary and earning the right to say ‘Shut up’
Of all the mantles that have been foisted on Toni Morrison’s shoulders, the heaviest has to be “the conscience of America”. It’s both absurd-sounding and true. For almost half a century her subject has been racial prejudice in the United States, a story that she has told and retold with a steadiness of rage and compassion. Her latest novel, God Help the Child, is her 11th and when I arrive at her apartment in Tribeca, Lower Manhattan, America’s Conscience is having her eyebrows drawn on. “For the photographer,” she explains with a chuckle.
Later, she’ll tell the photographer: “We did makeup for you. I have eyebrows and everything,” then add: “You lose all that stuff … ” The implied second half of that sentence is “when you reach my age”: Morrison turned 84 in February. Her many literary laurels include a Pulitzer in 1988 for Beloved, a Nobel in 1993, and, in 2012, the presidential medal of freedom, from her friend Barack Obama. Being America’s most venerated living writer does not, however, stop a person wanting to look good in pictures. And, it is natural that beauty and the notion of self-image are on her mind as at the center of her new book is a striking, dark-skinned woman called Bride who tries to shield herself from her own past with surface beautification. A love story unfolds, precariously, between her and Booker, a scholarly young black man adrift in grief for a dead brother. He tells her: “scientifically there’s no such thing as race, Bride, so racism without race is a choice. Taught, of course, by those who need it, but still a choice. Folks who practice it would be nothing without it.”
Bride’s blackness is both the source of her childhood misery – her lighter-skinned mother is so horrified by it that she considers killing her baby – and of her adult success. She works in the fashion and beauty industry where, heeding one stylist’s dictum to dress only in white, she makes herself, “a panther in snow”, an exoticised “other”. The novel intimates that fetishising blackness, both for the observer and the observed, might be just as insidious as outright prejudice. There’s the ex-boyfriend, for example, who seems to claim her as some kind of racial trophy. When this young white man takes her home to his parents it’s clear “that I was there to terrorize his family, a means of threat to this nice old white couple. ‘Isn’t she beautiful?’ he kept repeating … His eyes were gleaming with malice.”
“I’m trying to say,” Morrison tells me now, “it’s just a color.”
As for beauty: “It can destabilize you if that’s all you have and that’s all you care about and that’s where your success comes from. There’s a three-dimensional person somewhere outside the clothes and the makeup and the nudity, as they call it, since everybody beautiful is buck naked now. I mean,” she says, switching into a tone of outrage that is tinged with self-parody – an older woman pronouncing on the waywardness of the young – “they don’t even make gowns any more that are not, you know …” and she gestures over her bosom to delineate extreme skimpiness.
“Now think about this,” she continues, her voice becoming low and mysterious in the manner of a seasoned storyteller. She pauses for effect. “The nipple is the first thing every human being sucks on. Comfort, nurture, you know? But it’s not like ‘Uhh’” and she mimes jutting a breast out in sexual exaggeration. Once her wheezes of laughter subside, she observes mildly: “That’s interesting how that happened.”
The new novel’s obvious precedent is 1981’s Tar Baby, the only other of her novels to have a contemporary setting, in which a Sorbonne-educated fashion model, Jadine, who fears she has been deracinated by the world of white culture she has come to inhabit, falls in love with Son, a penniless drifter at complete ease with himself and his blackness. If more seems to be at stake in this earlier book, it might simply be a reflection of the increasing superficiality of our moment: Jadine may have been a model but she is not the appearance-obsessed, emotionally stunted child-woman that Bride is. The universe of God Help the Child can seem a little thinner, even as redemption and deliverance bloom.
But with its island of spirits and talking trees, Tar Baby, Morrison points out, is more timeless phantasmagoria than identifiable present reality. So this, really, is her first contemporary novel and she admits that it gave her some trepidation. “It was so fluid,” she says. “Everything else I sort of had a theme about but this doesn’t have any anchor for me. But then I thought, well, yes it does, it’s what we started this conversation about. Beauty – and its worth in the world. And what does that do.”
It was a similar question that began her publishing career 45 years ago. She has always talked about her first novel with disarming simplicity: it was the book she wanted to read and that did not exist. So, as a single working mother of two small sons, she rose at 4am every day and wrote it. Published in 1970, The Bluest Eye is the story of Pecola Breedlove, a young black girl who prays for blue eyes. Morrison wrote in a 2007 foreword that she wanted to focus “on how something as grotesque as the demonisation of an entire race could take root inside the most delicate member of society: a child; the most vulnerable member: a female”.
Most writers claim to abhor labels but Morrison has always welcomed the term “black writer”. “I’m writing for black people,” she says, “in the same way that Tolstoy was not writing for me, a 14-year-old colored girl from Lorain, Ohio. I don’t have to apologise or consider myself limited because I don’t [write about white people] – which is not absolutely true, there are lots of white people in my books. The point is not having the white critic sit on your shoulder and approve it” – she refers to the writer James Baldwin talking about “a little white man deep inside of all of us”. Did she exorcise hers? “Well I never really had it. I just never did.”
She’d say it’s because she grew up in Lorain, where the neighbourhood was racially mixed: Poles, Italians and Jews as well as African Americans. I’d say it’s less to do with demographics and more to do with her own supreme self‑assurance. It was this that propelled her to Howard University and then on to Cornell, where she completed a master’s in literature. It was this self‑assurance, too, that gave her the courage to split from her husband when she was pregnant with her second child and, that made her such an iconoclastic force as an editor at Random House where she propelled works by black writers such as Angela Davis and Toni Cade Bambara into the mainstream. Finally, of course, she herself became one of the publishing house’s most cherished names.
It was Beloved, her 1987 novel about a slave woman who kills her own baby, that secured her current standing. When it failed to win the National Book Award, 48 black writers signed a letter of protest published in the New York Times. Soon after, it won the Pulitzer Prize and a clutch of other awards.
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SOURCE: The Guardian – Hermione Hoby