“A Life in Language” – An Interview from The Guardian, 2012

An interview with Toni Morrison in The Guardian newspaper (UK) in 2012 might be subtitled, A Life in Language.  Morrison speaks about her work and her childhood; politics and culture; and, at the end, the untimely death of one of her sons.  She relates everything she says back to language – its use and misuse.

The Guardian, Toni Morrison Interview (13 Ap 2012) (PDF file)

(Link to the original Guardian article )


Excerpts from the article [I retain the British spelling]:

When Morrison was 17, she had tried out a thought experiment. … On the news, she had seen footage of some white mothers in the south trying to turn over a school bus with black children in it. “I didn’t know if I could turn over a bus full of little white kids. I didn’t know if I could feel that … fury. And I tried very hard to. This is what I did: I said suppose horses began to speak. And began to demand their rights. Now, I’ve ridden horses. They’re very good workers. They’re very good racehorses. Suppose they just want more. Suppose they want to go to school! Suppose they want to sit next to me in the theatre. I began to feel this sense of – ‘I like you, but…’; ‘You’re good, but…’ Suppose they want to sleep with my children?!” She’s laughing heartily now. “I had to go outside the species! But it worked, I could feel it. You know; don’t sit next to me.”


[Her novel Home] is dedicated to her son, Slade, who died 18 months ago and in the face of whose death she found herself wordless. She could not work. She could barely speak and didn’t want to hear comforting words from others.

“What do you say? There really are no words for that. There really aren’t. Somebody tries to say, ‘I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.’ People say that to me. There’s no language for it. Sorry doesn’t do it. I think you should just hug people and mop their floor or something.”


“I used to think there was a Republican attitude and language that, although I vehemently disagreed with it because I thought it was fraudulent, it wasn’t dumb. It made some sort of sense. If you really and truly think that the United States is free, and capital is free – none of that’s true, but if you really believe it – you can develop an argument that’s not embarrassing. But they don’t do that any more. They use coded words.”

[Editor:  Such as Newt Gingrich referring to Obama as the “food-stamp president”; Mitt Romney accusing him of wanting America to be a “welfare state”; etc.]


From an interview with Toni Morrison

If you substitute “segregation” or “white racism” for “slavery,” the following quotations can apply to Song of Solomon as well as Beloved (the original context).  (T.L.)


From a 1987 interview with Toni Morrison in The New York Times when Beloved was published. Expanded from Seth’s original post:

The novel is not, [Morrison] said, about slavery. ”Slavery is very predictable,” she said. ”There it is, and there’s some stuff about how it is, and then you get out of it or you don’t. It can’t be driven by slavery. It has to be the interior life of some people, a small group of people, and everything that they do is impacted on by the horror of slavery, but they are also people.”

”There are certain emotions that are useful for the construction of a text,” she said, ”and some are too small. Anger is too tiny an emotion to use when you’re writing, and compassion is too sloppy. Almost everything that makes you want to write, or feel like writing, is not useful in the act of writing. So it’s the mediation between those two states, the compulsion and all those feelings, that make you compelled.”

What is useful, she said, is the images. ”The controlling image is useful,” she said, ”because it determines the language that informs the text. Once I know what the shape of the scar is, once I know that there are two patches of orange in that quilt, then I can move. Once I have the controlling image, which can also work as the metaphor – that is where the information lodges. When I know where the white space is, when I know where the broad strokes are.”

Ms. Morrison said that unlike some authors, who despise being labeled – a Jewish writer, for instance, or a Southern writer – she does not mind being called a black writer, or a black woman writer. ”I’ve decided to define that, rather than having it be defined for me,” she said. ”In the beginning, people would say, ‘Do you regard yourself as a black writer, or as a writer?’ and they also used the word woman with it – woman writer. So at first I was glib and said I’m a black woman writer, because I understood that they were trying to suggest that I was ‘bigger’ than that, or better than that. I simply refused to accept their view of bigger and better. I really think the range of emotions and perceptions I have had access to as a black person and as a female person are greater than those of people who are neither. I really do. So it seems to me that my world did not shrink because I was a black female writer. It just got bigger.”

The New York Times, August 26th, 1987
http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/01/11/home/14013.html

September 19th, 2015

(Format revised 2019)
Saturday’s discussion hit on more topics than I can remember, so I’m going to cover a couple that I do.

We talked about the names of characters in Beloved, and who (or what) Beloved is. We loved the names Morrison gives her characters, and tried to figure out how they fit into the story. Beloved’s and Garner’s names drew the most attention. Some us wondered why Morrison used the woman, Margaret Garner, whom Sethe’s story is based on, for the owner of Sweet Home’s name. I’m not sure we reached a good answer beyond remembering that slaves were often given the last names of their masters, which might indirectly tie Sethe to Margaret Garner. Paul D introduces himself to Denver as Paul D. Garner. Could Sethe’s slave name have been Sethe Garner?Morrison makes it clear how Beloved is named and from where Sethe gets the idea. What goes unsaid is how the name refers to both the baby and, also, once we know where Sethe gets the idea, to all the “Dearly beloved” at the funeral. Beloved’s name not only refers Sethe’s beloved child, but to the whole community.

So who or what is Beloved? I think some of us had a difficult time pinning that down. Probably, Morrison doesn’t want to make it easy. The supernatural bothers a lot of us. Is Beloved really the ghost of the murdered child, thrown out of 124 by Paul D, who then returns as a ghost in the flesh, or is she some kind of psychological projection of a traumatized family? I think she’s real and that, like it or not, we need to suspend our disbelief or we’ll lose most of the story. Beloved is not only the ghost of Sethe’s child. She has inchoate memories of being taken from Africa, crossing the ocean on a slave ship, and watching her mother die during the crossing. At points she conflates her African mother with Sethe. If that’s not enough, some of the characters in the novel guess that Beloved has escaped from a long captivity similar to the one that Ella suffered through. We have to hold all these possibilities in mind when we think about Beloved.

In the group we talked about how much we liked Sethe’s word, “rememory”. Early on in the story she explains to Denver that memories are “out in the world” and what has happened can be seen by other people:

Someday you be walking down the road and you hear something or see something going on. So clear. And you think it’s you thinking it up. A thought picture. But no. It’s when you bump into a rememory that belongs to someone else. (page 43)

Aren’t Beloved’s returns an example of this kind of rememory, maybe even rememories of rememories?

Historical curmudgeons: Stanley Crouch and Charles Taylor

(Format revised 2019)
STANLEY CROUCH’S provocative (but, I think, thoughtful) essay can be found on the web within an archive.  http://rvannoy.asp.radford.edu.
I’ve put this in slightly more readable form in a PDF file that you can download:
The New Republic (1987) review of Beloved (Stanley Crouch)
Crouch misreads a great deal, but I think his criticism evokes the cultural context, the historical moment, within which Morrison was writing in the 1980’s.  I find this useful.


When Jonathan Demme’s movie of Beloved (starring Oprah) came out in 1998, an apparent admirer of Crouch, CHARLES TAYLOR, wrote a review for Salon that panned the movie.  Taylor has written film criticism for a number of years, in Salon, the NYTimes, Dissent, etc. — and is white.  His prose is more over-the-top than Crouch’s and his criticism sometimes strikes me as simplistic — clever rather than insightful.  But his irreverence may be an example of a new kind of contrarianism and perhaps illustrates some changes in our culture between the 80’s and the millennium.

I’ve assembled a PDF of excepts from his full review for folks who might like to see his comments about Morrison and Beloved but don’t want to read so much about Demme.

Excerpts – Beloved movie review, Taylor, Salon (1998)

For completeness, here’s the Internet link to his full review.

Or you can download a PDF of the same.  Beloved movie review, Taylor, Salon (1998).


TEASERS FROM CHARLES TAYLOR’S REVIEW OF THE MOVIE, BELOVED (1998):

… befitting his new status as an acclaimed Oscar-winning director, Demme has approached [Morrison’s novel] in the manner that has become de rigueur when talking about Toni Morrison – with bowed head and bended knee, incense burning. …

… Nothing is more inexplicable [in the movie] than [Thandie] Newton’s performance [as Beloved], which is one of the most appalling I’ve ever seen from a professional actor. It’s understandable that an actor might run into difficulties playing a literary device, a ghost who embodies her mother’s guilt over committing infanticide. What isn’t understandable is why Newton has chosen to play Beloved as a simpleton. (Morrison didn’t write the character that way.) Every time you look at Newton here, she’s acting up a storm, staring into space, drooling, smearing food around her face and talking so that the half-chewed bits fall out, letting her tongue loll into the side of her mouth and then speaking in a voice that sounds uncannily like the character of Crazy Guggenheim from the old Jackie Gleason show.

September 26th 2015

(Format revised 2019)
On Saturday I managed to open our discussion on three topics that we were, somehow, supposed to discuss at the same time. I suggested we talk about Baby Suggs, the scene in the clearing with Sethe, Denver, and Beloved, and the question of whether the characters in Beloved managed to successfully overcome the brutality of slavery. We are a perceptive group and the last question was quickly answered: What matters in Beloved is not so much some “fullness of recovery” but any success any former slave has in building a new life. Baby Suggs proved more complicated. We spent a fair amount of time trying to figure out why the black community turned on her after the feast. Jealousy of her talents, the excess of her feast, which contradicted her long-time emphasis on “knowing when to stop”, and her pride were all considered. We also discussed all the things that made her take to her bed to contemplate color. Sethe believes that her arrival without Halle was what did in her mother-in-law, although Baby denies it. Baby, herself, gives us plenty of reasons for giving up. When Stamp Paid tries to convince her to preach again, she tells him three times, “They came into my yard”, referring, most of us thought, to school teacher and his crew. She means, I think, that anything she does, thinks, preaches, or loves can be taken away by the white world. Her last words: “‘Those white things have taken all I had or dreamed,’ she said, ‘and broke my heartstrings too. There is no bad luck in the world but whitefolks”. It might be worth considering if the rest of the book affirms Baby’s pronouncements.
Unfortunately, our discussion of Baby Suggs barely touched on her preaching, only glanced at her slave life, and missed the story of Garner taking her to freedom–all important parts of Baby’s life. It’s too bad, but we couldn’t go over everything. A good deal of time was spent trying to figure out just what and when things happened in the story. On a less important level, a fair amount of  time we might have spent talking was spent, instead, trying to hunt down passages. Morrison’s unnumbered chapters often make it difficult to find what you want. She has said that she wants readers to be confused and lost in the reading the story so that they feel something like the confusion her characters feel. For my money, this is one of the book’s greatest strengths.Towards the end, we looked at a harsh review of Beloved by Stanley Crouch, who complains that the world of Beloved “exists in a purple haze of overstatement, of false voices, of strained homilies; nothing very subtle is ever really tried. Beloved reads largely like a melodrama lashed to the structural conceits of the miniseries.” He also finds a good deal of her prose overwrought and phony. I don’t want to spend much space here on Crouch. I’ll leave that for next Saturday, if the group wants to discuss him. But the forceful response of the group to what we heard of Crouch’s criticisms, interested me. Apologies, I know I’m not doing this response justice. The point was that Crouch didn’t understand that Beloved is about women, and many of us found their stories not trite or sentimental, but powerful. It struck me that the fact that Beloved is very much about women may lie at the bottom of Crouch’s literary dislike of Beloved. I have other arguments with Crouch. My overall take is that, while he occasionally hits a small target when he finds an overwritten passage, overall he seems almost purposefully blind to what the book has to offer.

The Guardian (UK) interview with Toni Morrison (2012)

“A Life in Language” might be the subtitle for an engaging interview with Morrison I’ve just found in Britain’s The Guardian newspaper, dating from April 2012.

The discussion ranges widely through Morrison’s work; her childhood; politics and culture; and, at the end, the untimely death of a son.  Morrison relates everything she says back to language – its use and misuse – which makes the interview germane to our purposes.

Here’s a direct link to the Guardian article.html

I’ve also put the text of the article into a PDF file which you can download and read at your leisure:

Toni Morrison Guardian Interview.pdf


Excerpts from the article [I retain the British spelling]:

When Morrison was 17, she had tried out a thought experiment. … On the news, she had seen footage of some white mothers in the south trying to turn over a school bus with black children in it. “I didn’t know if I could turn over a bus full of little white kids. I didn’t know if I could feel that … fury. And I tried very hard to. This is what I did: I said suppose horses began to speak. And began to demand their rights. Now, I’ve ridden horses. They’re very good workers. They’re very good racehorses. Suppose they just want more. Suppose they want to go to school! Suppose they want to sit next to me in the theatre. I began to feel this sense of – ‘I like you, but…’; ‘You’re good, but…’ Suppose they want to sleep with my children?!” She’s laughing heartily now. “I had to go outside the species! But it worked, I could feel it. You know; don’t sit next to me.”


[Her novel Home] is dedicated to her son, Slade, who died 18 months ago and in the face of whose death she found herself wordless. She could not work. She could barely speak and didn’t want to hear comforting words from others.

“What do you say? There really are no words for that. There really aren’t. Somebody tries to say, ‘I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.’ People say that to me. There’s no language for it. Sorry doesn’t do it. I think you should just hug people and mop their floor or something.”


“I used to think there was a Republican attitude and language that, although I vehemently disagreed with it because I thought it was fraudulent, it wasn’t dumb. It made some sort of sense. If you really and truly think that the United States is free, and capital is free – none of that’s true, but if you really believe it – you can develop an argument that’s not embarrassing. But they don’t do that any more. They use coded words.”

[Editor:  Such as Newt Gingrich referring to Obama as the “food-stamp president”; Mitt Romney accusing him of wanting America to be a “welfare state”; etc.]


Lady Button-Eyes

Lady Button-Eyes is a poem written in 1893-1894 by Eugene Field. Morrison uses stanzas 1, 2 and 4 (sound familiar?) of the poem on page 95. Here it is, complete:

When the busy day is done,
And my weary little one
Rocketh gently to and fro;
When the night winds softly blow,
And the crickets in the glen
Chirp and chirp and chirp again;
When upon the haunted green
Fairies dance around their queen –
Then from yonder misty skies
Cometh Lady Button-Eyes.

Through the murk and mist and gloam
To our quiet, cozy home,
Where to singing, sweet and low,
Rocks a cradle to and fro;
Where the clock’s dull monotone
Telleth of the day that’s done;
Where the moonbeams hover o’er
Playthings sleeping on the floor –
Where my weary wee one lies
Cometh Lady Button-Eyes.

Cometh like a fleeting ghost
From some distant eerie coast;
Never footfall can you hear
As that spirit fareth near –
Never whisper, never word
From that shadow-queen is heard.
In ethereal raiment dight,
From the realm of fay and sprite
In the depth of yonder skies
Cometh Lady Button-Eyes.

Layeth she her hands upon
My dear weary little one,
And those white hands overspread
Like a veil the curly head,
Seem to fondle and caress
Every little silken tress;
Then she smooths the eyelids down
Over those two eyes of brown –
In such soothing, tender wise
Cometh Lady Button-Eyes.

Dearest, feel upon your brow
That caressing magic now;
For the crickets in the glen
Chirp and chirp and chirp again,
While upon the haunted green
Fairies dance around their queen,
And the moonbeams hover o’er
Playthings sleeping on the floor –
Hush, my sweet! from yonder skies
Cometh Lady Button-Eyes!

From an interview with Toni Morrison

From an interview with Toni Morrison:

The novel is not, she said, about slavery. ”Slavery is very predictable,” she said. ”There it is, and there’s some stuff about how it is, and then you get out of it or you don’t. It can’t be driven by slavery. It has to be the interior life of some people, a small group of people, and everything that they do is impacted on by the horror of slavery, but they are also people.” ‘Compassion Is Too Sloppy’

New York Times, August 26th, 1987

http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/01/11/home/14013.html