30 October 2008

Toni Morrison reading

Toni Morrison read from A Mercy--the section on Florens' arrival to the farmhouse...and how she leaves.

On being asked about the preoccupation with the past in her work: "It's infinite. There's more of it. And it's rich." She said we must recast history in order to move forward into the future and accommodate ourselves to the present. She compared individual memory to a nation's past and said that she's always been after the truth.

But in the United States, there seems to have always been a "deliberate, sustained erasure of the past." A nation of immigrants who were "newborn" when they arrived. "But what were they running from?" Were they frightened of what they left behind? She is interested in the "deliberate blindess" of the nation and the "gaps in history."

Slavery existed everywhere--in virtually every era. It was not unusual. She examined the situation of the indentured servants and said that their condition wasn't really that different from that of slaves (their contracts could be prolonged indefinitely, they could be included in wills just like property). The biggest difference was that they were white and so if they escaped, they could blend in and had a much better chance of surviving.

She wanted to know what it must have been like for the slaves at a time in history before racism was experienced as such and the subsequent system: if poor whites had what poor blacks didn't, it benefitted those who exploited both.

She talked about how unlikely the framing of the nation was--its "ad hoc" nature. It seemed that everyone had a vested interest in the land and what could be gained from it.

"Religious bloodletting" was also something she examined in her research. The violence inflicted on people in Europe for various religious reasons and why the writers of the Constitution found it extremely important that the president of the nation not have to pass any sort of religious "test."

In being asked about a specific character in her new novel, she talked about the slow rationalization of slavery in a good man who abhorrs the cruelty, but not the fruits of slave labor. How something irremediable happens when this principled man suddenly becomes the owner of another human being.

The portion she had read was in the first person, but she was asked to clarify why the entire novel isn't written that way. She heard Florens' voice first and considered her journey to be important. And she speaks only in the present tense. The stories of the other characters help to move hers forward.

Her mother has given her away. Asked about the difference between love and mercy, Morrison said that love tends to be beneficial both to the self and the beloved. But mercy is something that is directed outside of the self.

In the Q&A session, she was asked if she relies on the intelligence of her readers. She said she is "completely reliant on our exchange as readers." She hopes that they will be willing to step into her work, although it may seem disorienting at first. There must be a level of trust established and wishes to say, "Don't be afraid. It will be scary, but don't be afraid. I'll be holding your hand all the way." And for those who don't get it--"They can do what I always do: read it again." She acknowledged that she is very dependent on their generosity and intelligence.

Someone else asked if she was ever afraid when she wrote. "Once"--in trying to "imagine the unimaginable" with Beloved. But she thought, "If they can live it, I can write it."

Resolving problems through language is "curious" and "exciting." The hard part is being between projects.

Another person asked her about something she had said when Jazz was published--that it was "a private thing for public consumption." Has she achieved this?

She related an experience she had at a book signing. A woman came to tell her how much the novels have meant to her. When Morrison reached out her hand to take her copy, the woman said, "I don't want anyone to sign my book."

"It wasn't mine anymore." She was deeply pleased...and compares the experience she wants to create in readers to listeners of music. "It's yours." It is deeply personal, although it's also shared by thousands.

She read the last two and a half pages of A Mercy before we all quietly filed out into the cold.

The words are still tumbling in my head.

Listen to her read and watch an interview on NPR. (A second interview is here.)

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