'Beloved' author speaks about writing, revelations, and good and evil

Pulitzer– and Nobel Prize–winning author Toni Morrison sees an increasing prevalence of evil in literature

Toni Morrison (photo by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders)
Author Toni Morrison will deliver the Peggy Downes Baskin Ethics Lecture on October 25, and receive the UC Santa Cruz Foundation Medal at the Founders Celebration dinner that evening. (Photo by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders)

Editor's note: Toni Morrison delivered the Peggy Downes Baskin Ethics Lecture at the Rio Theatre in Santa Cruz on October 25, and received the UC Santa Cruz Foundation Medal at the Founders Celebration dinner that evening.

Read an extended Q&A with Toni Morrison and Angela Davis.

At 83, Toni Morrison has no plans to retire. At this point in her career, that kind of drive has little to do with unmet goals; the Nobel Prize winner has written 10 novels, a play, and many nonfiction pieces. Her body of work, including the novel Beloved, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988, is already part of the literary canon.

But Morrison, speaking by phone in her distinctive low, whispery voice from her home in New York's Hudson Valley, said she just can't be happy without a project. Her creative impulse and her desire for artistic freedom are as strong as ever.

"Writing novels is the world to me," she said. "The outside world can be OK or not OK, beautiful or not beautiful, but I am in control here," said Morrison, who still scratches out the first drafts of her novels with a pencil on yellow legal pads. "When I'm writing, nobody's telling me what to do. The expectations are high because they are mine, and that is a kind of freedom I don't have anywhere else. Nowhere."

While Morrison was a well-known literary figure before Beloved, that book's blockbuster success took her into the mainstream—a remarkable feat, considering the novel's unflinching look at slavery. Its main character, Sethe, based on real-life escaped slave Margaret Garner, kills one of her children to spare her a life of enslavement.

The impact of Beloved—and Morrison's writing output as a whole—cannot be overstated, said Angela Davis, the scholar, activist, and UC Santa Cruz professor emerita who will introduce Morrison at the Peggy Downes Baskin Ethics Lecture.

Morrison, through fiction, has made social change, a feat many others haven't been able to accomplish through nonfiction writing and activism, Davis said.

"I don't think that our notion of freedom would be what it is without the impact of Toni Morrison."

Beloved "helped us think about U.S. history in an entirely different way," Davis said, and Morrison's specificity—including her elegantly crafted characters—helped change "the abstractness of the portrayal of slavery.… It became possible to humanize slavery, to remember that the system of slavery did not destroy the humanity of those whom it enslaved."

The two have been friends since the early '70s, when Morrison, while working as an editor at Random House, edited Davis's autobiography. During that period, Morrison was bringing out new works by uncompromising authors including the African American feminist writers Toni Cade Bambara and Gayl Jones.

Morrison, once an outsider, went on to change the face of publishing, both as a writer and editor, said Paul Skenazy, professor emeritus of literature at UC Santa Cruz, who taught Morrison's work for years.

"At this point, more than a quarter century later, it's hard to remember how compact and insular the publishing world was before Morrison, Maxine Hong Kingston, and others made cracks in it," Skenazy said.

Morrison's book Song of Solomon is as smart and evocative as writing gets, Skenazy said.

"Her ability in that book to move across fantasy and the hard terms of black life; to turn folk stories into palpable mythologies that rule the everyday; to make a quest of forgotten, unspoken, hidden, and discarded history: These are beautifully entangled in that book."

The silence of goodness

Writing gives Morrison more than the freedom to imagine worlds beyond her own. Her books allow her to explore a topic that has been tugging at her for more than 40 years, and which she will explore during the Santa Cruz lecture: "Literature and the Silence of Goodness."

Morrison believes an "obsession" with evil has crept into literature over the past century or so while the forces of good have been driven to the sidelines and compelled to bite their tongues.

Morrison thinks this preoccupation, which she credits in part to the horrors of World War I, also holds true in the media. She spoke of news reports that portrayed the Amish community as "freakish" when members of the religious group reached out to comfort the widow of an Amish man who took his own life after committing a killing spree that left five schoolgirls dead. TV broadcasts and newspapers "twisted" what Morrison considered to be a selfless refusal on the part of the community to seek vengeance.

She believes the media has a lurid obsession with things like mass killings, brazen kidnappings, and heinous abuse and neglect, and that it is simply "too easy" to let such forces dominate works of fiction.

Evil, she says, often has a superficial glamour in stories and novels: "I always think of evil with a top hat and a big band and a cape, a cane maybe, some shiny jewelry so you are very attracted by the glitter."

On the other hand, compelling portrayals of good are harder to pull off, Morrison said.

Nevertheless, "there really isn't anything else that humans ought to be cultivating and living for," she said. "The rest of it is petty and selfish: cartoonish almost."

She talks about her efforts to dramatize good without resorting to sentimentality. She mentioned the strong women who nurse an ailing woman back to health in her most recently published novel, Home. There is nothing warm or cuddly about these "country women who loved mean … They didn't waste their time or the patient's with sympathy and they met the tears of suffering with resigned contempt."

But these women are forces for good because they have an innate desire to heal and save lives. "When their maker said, 'What did you do?,' they didn't want to say, 'Well, uh.…'" Morrison said. "They had to answer."

Revealing revelations

Some readers may be surprised to hear Morrison's concerns about literary evil, considering its strong presence in so many of her books, which contain, among other things, a gang rape, gruesome depictions of slavery, and an act of infanticide.

Morrison concedes "there is a lot of sadness and melancholy among the people in my books," but "for me, there is always an ending in which somebody knows something extremely important that they didn't know before; the acquisition of knowledge is a gesture of mine toward goodness.

"The accumulation of events, theories, changes of mind, encounters, whatever is going on, at the end of the book, it tends to move toward some kind of epiphany that is a revelation of a better self."

As Morrison pointed out, during one horrific rape scene early in her novel Love, one character, Romen, refuses to participate and is shunned by his peers. Romen comes to realize he has repressed his instinctual desire to help the girl and ends up reaching out to her.

And the infanticide at the center of Beloved is a morally complex act of desperation. During the interview, Morrison spoke of her deliberate withholding of judgment of Sethe. "Suppose I knew definitely that my boys—my children—were going to be kidnapped, taken off, molested: What would I do? And I couldn't answer." (Morrison is the mother of two sons, Harold and Slade; Slade died in 2010 at age 45.)

Resisting cynicism

Morrison said she simply could not create her works if she wrote out of a place of cynicism or despair. This is not to say that her faith never wavers.

Sometimes the realm of politics and the cruelty of world events wear her down.

Once, 10 years ago, she was feeling especially "sad and disturbed," she said. "Whatever it was, it was paralyzing. Peter Sellars [the theater and opera director, who has collaborated with Morrison] called up as he often does on Christmas Day or during the holidays.… He said, 'How are you?,' and I said that I didn't feel very good.

"I said, 'You know, Peter, I can't write,' and I told him why I thought I couldn't, and he started shouting, 'No, no, no, no!' He said this is precisely the time when artists go to work, not when everything is fine but when things were difficult. Dire. This is when we're needed."

After that pep talk, she had a realization: "I thought to myself, 'God, think of all the writers who wrote in prisons.' In gulags, you know. I mean, it is just amazing. I felt a little ashamed but very happy that he said that. I never had a problem since."