Twenty-one years after it was first published and twenty years after it began to receive unending world critical acclaim, a book “universally acknowledged” as one of the foremost novels in contemporary literature written by one of the world’s most celebrated authors was yet again highlighted on centre stage before an international audience. One month after similar attention was given to the poem Omeros by Derek Walcott, the novel Beloved by Toni Morrison was the focus on the BBC World Service when the author was interviewed in London.
The World Book Club at the South Bank Centre in London is a monthly feature broadcast by the BBC in which world famous authors discuss their most outstanding works with the public. This programme has been moderated by Harriet Gilbert since 2002 and has so far presented six winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature, the most recent being Toni Morrison. She read excerpts from Beloved and answered questions about the book.
Morrison is a novelist, editor, university lecturer, and critic who has also published plays, short fiction and children’s literature co-authored by her son Slade Morrison. She was born in Ohio on February 31, 1931 and named Chloe Anthony Wofford by her working class parents among whom she grew up on a diet of African storytelling, music and literature which obviously shaped her life and career. She has mentioned her father’s strong anti-white sentiments but her own inclination was different, although she valued and utilized the folktale tradition. It is very prominent in her most epic novel, Song of Solomon. Her work has focused on black issues and history but she has said that “personal experiences have nothing to do with my novels.” One of the motivations behind her first novel The Bluest Eye, was the fact that before that “I had never read a book in which a young black girl was central.” Then “afterwards I never wanted never to have a book in mind” with such a focus. But she avoids the obvious labels, is not a feminist and does not set out to write feminist literature since she feels those labels restricts her books.
Her interest in writing began at Howard University where she did a BA in English (1953), and began touring the American South with the campus repertory theatre group, but it was more than 15 years before her writing career took any shape. It was at Howard also that she changed her name from Chloe to Toni. She researched in literature for her MA at Cornell and later lectured at Texas Southern University, State University of New York, Howard, and Princeton where she held a Professorial Chair from 1988 till her retirement in 2006. Between academic posts she was a publisher’s editor, working at Random House in New York where she was when she wrote her first novel. But, she explained, her placement there did not help her to get published since she was employed as an editor, not a writer. She began with a short story about a black girl whose great desire was to have blue eyes. She wrote in secret and it took her 5 years to turn it into a novel. The Bluest Eye was published in 1970.
Her career was on its way with Sula (1973) which became something of a popular favourite, but gave her early critical acclaim. It was nominated for the National Book Award in 1975. In a way Sula is based on a concept of the woman that Morrison was to further develop in Beloved. She develops novels not so much from stories or characters but from as she describes it “concepts and ideas,” and Beloved was moved by a concept of women. She sees women as having certain strong “nurturing characteristics.” The woman “traditionally takes care of other people” and “loves the thing more than herself.” That is how Morrison views her heroine Zephyr who runs away from slavery with her children and was pursued by the Teacher, a particularly vicious overseer who some time later, catches up with her. But rather than allowing her daughter to be recaptured and returned to slavery, she preferred to kill her, which she did.
There is quite a bit there in Morrison’s concept. It is the idea of “a mother loving a child enough to kill it” and of the mother thinking of her daughter “if I didn’t kill her, she would have died.” It is very much in evidence in the earlier novel, Sula, which tends to be better known for its more sensational sexuality and the almost vengeful malice and mischief of the notorious, promiscuous Sula. She seems to have sold her soul to some evil spirit that holds her possessed to the end. But it begins with the mother figure, the poor black woman who makes a calculated personal sacrifice in order to provide for her children, a quality recreated later in Zephyr.
After Sula, however, it was Morrison’s next novel that moved her higher towards the pinnacle of literary acclaim and won her first major award. Song of Solomon (1977) is a somewhat larger novel, something of an epic of the African American who is dead without some meaningful reconnection with his cultural roots symbolised in the book by a number of things, but most memorably by an African myth. In the root of this story an African in America manages to regain the ability lost by the enslaved after the middle passage, to fly back home to Africa. But in order to achieve that he had to shed a great deal of baggage which unfortunately included his children and domestic responsibilities in his escape from America. The novel examines the black culture, identity and spiritual death. Song of Solomon won the National Book Critics Circle award and was named by the National Book of the Month Club, the first book by a black writer to have that honour since Richardson Wright’s Native Son in 1940.
Morrison climbed even higher with Beloved (1987) which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988 in addition to the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award 1988. It was also voted in 2006 by the New York Times Review of Books as the best American novel for the previous 25 years. Like Solomon, it is based on the history of the blacks in the USA. When asked about the “poetry” in the novel, Morrison responded that she finds “poetry no better at criticizing racism than prose,” and that her “language is about the awful things that could happen under slavery.” The readers asked her why is Beloved such a “dark novel” and she replied that “if they [the slaves] could live it the least I could do was write about it.” But she confessed that the writing of it “at times overwhelmed” her. However, she did not feel anger. A writer has to be rid of anger because “to write in anger is to write badly.” The daughter, Beloved, in the novel was “consumed by anger and it turned her into something destructive.”
Morrison asserts that the standard slave narrative is about men escaping, but her research of historical documents found that there is “evidence of several women slave escapees, not only men.” As it happens, however, despite the dominance of the likes of Equiano and Montero, the published adventures do contain stories of those women. The story of Beloved is actually a fictionalised account of the case of one of these women. It is based on the recorded history of Margaret Garner, a very interesting story. On January 28, 1856, Margaret and her husband Robert Garner, both enslaved, fled from the plantation Maplewood in Boone, Kentucky with their children to safety in Cincinnati, Ohio. After a while, however, they were cornered by slave catchers and Margaret killed her 2-year-old daughter but was subdued before she could kill herself and the other children. She was arrested and had an extraordinarily long trial which attracted a great deal of publicity and interest. Her attorney tried to get her tried under the laws of a free state, but the judge ruled she had to be tried under existing slave laws. Very interestingly, these ruled that she could not be charged with murder but was returned to work on another estate. She attempted suicide again when she fell from a boat into the river and was glad that her youngest daughter drowned in the incident. She is reported to have died of yellow fever a few years later.
Morrison was very fascinated by Garner who she found very calm and coherent during the whole episode, declaring that “she would do it again.” Morrison’s view is that Garner’s act “was the right thing to do but she had no right to do it.” The tale inspired other works. It is said that the poem The Slave Mother written in 1859 by black American poet Frances Watkins Harper (1825-1911) was based on that history. Morrison also wrote a play, libretto (opera or musical) called Margaret Garner (2004) with music by Richard Danielpour which was first performed in Ohio in 2005 and had several other performances to extraordinarily large audiences and set records for opera attendance in Cincinnati.
Toni Morrison seems to have followed Walcott by one year in everything. She was born one year after him and won the Nobel immediately after him in 1993. She became the first black woman to win it and the third of African descent, Nigerian Wole Soyinka being the first in 1986. Her work and her success have done a great deal for black American literature. As a Random House editor, as a university academic and as a writer, she contributed significantly to bringing black literature more into the mainstream in the USA. As a novelist she certainly brought it unqualified acclaim.
The New York Magazine declares that “Toni Morrison has made herself into the DH Lawrence of the black psyche, transforming individuals into forces, idiosyncrasy into inevitability.” The Swedish Academy in bestowing the Nobel Prize upon her describes her as a writer who “in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.” In speaking for herself she is remarkably clear and self-assured in explaining her concepts and what she sets out to do in using language to dramatise human realities.
Despite the “dark novel” that those readers say Beloved is, Morrison manages to get some fulfilment out of the experience. It does have a relatively happy ending in which the “men are supportive of women. Paul D saves Zephyr and returned her to herself,” while her surviving younger daughter, Denver, grows considerably during the experience of her mother’s temporary possession by the ghostly, bewitching Beloved. Morrison’s latest novel is A Mercy (2008).