“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

George Eliot’s Deronda Notebooks: Introduction – and Excerpts (added 9/7)

Now that we’re reading the passages about Mordecai and his ideas, it might be useful to get a better sense of how George Eliot learned about Judaism and the Jewish diaspora – and in particular, how her research managed to feed her imagination as well as her intellect, so that she could try to enter the minds and experiences of a number of Jewish characters who were otherwise outside her immediate understanding.

I brought to our last meeting a thick book containing the Notebooks in which Eliot recorded her reading and study before and during the writing Daniel Deronda.  I’ll bring it with me again this week.  I also post here the Introduction to that volume which contains some interesting insight into Eliot’s methods.  — Tom

Introduction by editor Jane Irwin to Eliot’s Deronda Notebooks

“…George Eliot’s distinction as a novelist lies in her power to locate vivid impressions and dramatized experience within a considered and comprehensive intellectual framework of reference. The intelligence which sustains her fiction is nourished by extensive preparatory reading.” – Jane Irwin

ADDENDUM 9/7:  In order to give a flavor of Eliot’s scholarly research, I’ve arbitrary selected some sample pages from the 500+ published by Cambridge University Press. Eliot here makes notes about Jewish history and religious customs – and the women’s issues that have so angered Daniel’s mother.  The PDF contains about 12 eminently-skimmable pages.

Sample excerpts from Eliot’s Deronda Notebooks

Israel and Daniel Deronda

Here’s an essay by Paula Marantz Cohen that appeared in the Hudson Review back in 2002. It does a neat job of showing how the so-called Jewish part of Daniel Deronda really is tied inseparably to the never is, but should be, called British portion. Along the way Cohen shows how Eliot reverses tried and true expectations of Victorian novels and Western commonplaces about how Christianity supersedes Judaism.

Gwendolyn on Horseback

Riding plays such a big part in Gwendolyn’s life, at least in the first two books of Daniel Deronda, I thought it might be fun to see what her often mentioned riding dresses might have looked like. These pictures are taken from a website by Kate Tattersall. Take a look if you want a really detailed account of Victorian British women’s riding habits. Another good site on Victorian riding habits, this time American, can be found on the Victoriana Magazine website.