'I Regret Everything': Toni Morrison Looks Back On Her Personal Life
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today, we begin our end of summer series featuring some of our favorite interviews from the year so far, beginning with Toni Morrison. She's one of the most celebrated writers of our time. Morrison won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1988 for her novel "Beloved" about a former slave looking back on her life after the Civil War. In 1993, Morrison became the first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize for literature. In 2012, President Obama awarded Morrison the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. This year, she won the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Book Critics Circle. Morrison, who is now 84, published a new novel last April called "God Help The Child." We spoke when it was published. The novel begins with the line it's not my fault. Those words are spoken by an African-American woman explaining that she has no idea why she gave birth to such a dark skinned baby. The mother is embarrassed by her daughter's darkness and wants to distance herself. The daughter is scarred by not having her mother's love. The novel is about childhood wounds that leave a lasting mark, even into adulthood.
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GROSS: Toni Morrison, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I'd like to start by asking you to do a reading from your new novel. So this is from very early in the novel where Sweetness, the mother who is light-skinned African-American, is talking about how shocking and upsetting it was to give birth to a daughter with very dark skin - as she describes it, midnight black, Sudanese black. So would you pick up from there with the reading?
TONI MORRISON: Sure. (Reading) I hate to say it, but from the very beginning in the maternity ward, the baby, Lula Ann, embarrassed me. Her birth skin was pale, like all babies', even African ones, but it changed fast. I thought I was going crazy when she turned blue-black right before my eyes. I know I went crazy for a minute because once, just for a few seconds, I held a blanket over her face and pressed. But I couldn't do that no matter how much I wished she hadn't been born with that terrible color. I even thought of giving her away to an orphanage someplace, and I was scared to be one of those mothers who put their babies on church steps. Recently, I heard about a couple in Germany, white as snow, who had a dark-skinned baby nobody could explain. Twins, I believe - one white, one colored - but I don't know if it's true. All I know is that for me, nursing her was like having a pickaninny sucking my teat. I went to bottle-feeding soon as I got home. My husband, Louis, is a porter. And when he got back off the rails, he looked at me like I was really crazy and looked at her like she was from the planet Jupiter. He wasn't a cussing man, so when he said, goddamn, what the hell is this, I knew we were in trouble. That's what did it, what caused the fights between me and him. It broke our marriage to pieces. We had three good years together. But when she was born, he blamed me and treated Lula Ann like she was a stranger - more than that, an enemy. He never touched her. I never did convince him that I ain't never, ever fooled around with another man. He was dead sure I was lying. We argued and argued till I told him her blackness must be from his own family, not mine.
GROSS: That's Toni Morrison reading from her new novel, "God Help The Child."
So the mother distances herself from the daughter because of the daughter's dark skin. The father leaves thinking this child must not be his because he, too, is lighter-skinned. And that sets the whole story in motion. And I'm wondering why you chose color, you know, the level of blackness, as a central part of a story.
MORRISON: Well, I wanted to separate color from race. Distinguishing color - light, black, in-between - as the marker for race is really an error. It's socially constructed. It's culturally enforced. And it has some advantages for certain people, but this is really skin privilege. The ranking of color in terms of its closeness to white people or white-skinned people and its devaluation according to how dark one is and the impact that has on people who are dedicated to the privileges of certain levels of skin color.
GROSS: So were there times in your life when you've been exposed to that kind of hierarchy of color within the African-American community?
MORRISON: I have. I didn't have it until I went away to college. I didn't know there was this kind of preference. But I noticed, in addition to the outside world of Washington, D.C., which at that time - this is 1949, 1950 - there were very obvious stated, written differences between what white people were able to do and what black people were able to do. But on the campus, where I felt safe and welcome, I began to realize that this idea of the lighter the better and the darker the worse was really - had an impact on sororities, on friendships, on all sorts of things, and it was stunning to me.
GROSS: And you went to a traditionally African-American college, Howard University.
GROSS: So what effect did that have on you, and where did people see you? Where did people perceive you as fitting in in that hierarchy of color?
MORRISON: I don't know. I really don't know. I had some very - I thought the whole thing was a little theatrical. None of that seemed real to me. I left - I was an English major, we'll say. And I went into the drama department with the Howard Players because they, A, read literature differently from the way it was discussed in a class, and also the criteria for excellence had nothing to do with color. It had only to do with talent. And that was a different environment, one in which I thought - well, I did actually - I thrived in that kind of environment.
GROSS: There was a New York Times Magazine cover story about you recently, and in that article you described, when you were young, witnessing your father throw a white man down the stairs because your father thought this man was coming up the stairs after his daughters. Was your father afraid that this man was coming to abuse you and your sisters?
MORRISON: I think he thought so. I think his own experience in Georgia would have made him think that any white man bumbling up the stairs toward our apartment was not there for any good. And since we were little girls, he assumed that. I think he made a mistake. I mean, I really think the man was drunk. I don't think he was really trailing us. But the interesting thing was, A, the white man was - he survived. B, the real thing for me was I thought - I felt profoundly protected and defended. I was not happy because after my father threw him down the steps all the way out into the street, he threw our tricycle after him. That was a little bit of a problem since we needed our tricycle.
But that made me think that there was some deviltry, something evil about white people, which is exactly what my father thought. He was very, very serious in his hatred of white people. What mitigated it was my mother, who is exactly the opposite, who never rejected or accepted anybody based on race or color or religion or any of that. Everybody was an individual whom she approved of or disapproved of based on her perception of them as individuals.
GROSS: It sounds - you said that this incident made you feel protected. It sounds terrifying, though, for two reasons. One is that your father basically gave you the idea that this man was coming upstairs to do you harm. And, two, watching your father not only throw him down the stairs, but throwing your tricycle down the stairs after him, it sounds like that would be a little frightening to see also.
MORRISON: Well, if it was you and a black man was coming up the stairs after a little white girl and the white father threw the black man down, that wouldn't disturb you.
GROSS: I'm trying to think that through. I guess, you know, I guess...
MORRISON: My father felt about...
GROSS: I think it's a product of being in this, like, not-very-violent, working-class, middle-class family where I didn't see a lot of violence when I was growing up, so any violent act would probably have been very unnerving to me.
MORRISON: Well, it was my father who could do no wrong. So I didn't think of it as, oh, look, my father's a violent man. He never, you know, spanked us. He never quarreled with us. He never argued with us. He was dedicated, and he was sweet. So he did this thing to protect his children.
Now, I lived in a little, working-class town that had no black neighborhoods at all - one high school. We all played together. Everybody was either somebody from the South or an immigrant from East Europe or from Mexico. And there was one church, and there were four elementary schools. And we were all pretty much, until the end of the war, very, very poor. My neighbors were from - my mother's neighbors, who brought her stuffed cabbage, were from Czechoslovakia - what used to be called Czechoslovakia. So that I'm not at all a person who has been reared or raised in a community in which these racial lines were that pronounced.
Occasionally as children, we might figure out how to call somebody a name, and they would figure out how to call us. But it wasn't - it was so light. It was so fluffy. I didn't really have a strong awareness of segregation and the separation of races until I left Lorain, Ohio.
GROSS: You know, I'm thinking...
MORRISON: I thought the whole world was like Lorain.
GROSS: I think it must have been hard for your father to hate white people and to live in a neighborhood in which there's a lot of white people.
MORRISON: Well, you know, my father saw two black men lynched on his street in Cartersville, Ga., as a child. And I think seeing two black businessmen - not vagrants - hanging from trees as a child was traumatic for him.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Toni Morrison. She has a new novel called "God Help The Child." Let's take a short break here. Then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Toni Morrison, and her new novel is called "God Help The Child."
You know, another theme in your book is how, you know, parents can mess up their children and how, as one character puts it, how childhood cuts festered and never scabbed over. And I know you're writing this as an older woman, but when you were younger and first became a parent, were you very worried that you'd mess up, that you'd do something that was unknowingly terrible or terribly wrong? I don't mean something as extreme as to what happens to the characters here, but I think so many parents worry that they're going to inadvertently do something that scars their child.
MORRISON: I never worried about it. When I had them, when I, you know, lived among my family and then just myself and my children, when they went to school, I never did think that I would hurt them in any way while it was going on. Afterwards, I remember every error, every word I spoke that was wrong or incontinent, every form of when I did not protect them properly (laughter).
Now that I'm 84, I remember everything as a mistake, and I regret everything. Now, mind you, one of them is now deceased. One is very successful. So I don't have any reason for this except perhaps age and regret, but I always thought I was able and competent all the while I was rearing them.
GROSS: Yeah, I want to say, your younger son died of pancreatic cancer. I was very sorry to hear about that. That was a few years ago, and he was in his 40s...
GROSS: ...When he died. Why do you think that later in life you started focusing on everything you thought you perhaps did wrong?
MORRISON: I guess I'm depressed (laughter) I don't know. I can't explain it. Part of it is the irritability of being 84, and part of it is being not as physically strong as I once was. And part of it is my misunderstanding, I think, of what's going on in the world. And so writing, for me, is the big protection. But when I'm not creating or focusing on something I can imagine or invent, I think I go back over my life (laughter) - I don't recommend this by the way (laughter) - and you pick up, oh, what'd you do that for? Why didn't you understand this - not just with children, as a parent, but with other people, with friends. So it's a long period of - it's not profound regret. It's just a wiping-up of tiny, little messes that you didn't recognize as a mess when they were going on (laughter).
GROSS: Well, this reminds me of a couple of lines from your novel that I want to read. And this is, you know, the main character, the woman who was born with very dark skin and grows into being, like, very, very beautiful and has her own cosmetics line and everything. At one point - I don't want to give away too much of the actual story. But at one point, she's in an accident and breaks her foot, so she's kind of immobilized. And so she's thinking, (reading) helpless, idle - it became clear to Bride - Bride is her name - it became clear to Bride why boredom was so fought against. Without distraction or physical activity, the mind shuffled pointless, scattered recollections around and around.
And that strikes me as, like, what you were talking about when you're not writing, when your mind is idle, that it just kind of goes through the shuffle of thoughts - in your case, negative thoughts (laughter) - that you dwell on in a way that you'd prefer not to.
MORRISON: It's true. It's true. And then, you know, I'd be - when you reach a certain age - you know, some very, very close friends of mine are dead, and others are far away. So you narrow down your acquaintances, the ones that mean a lot to you. I have my sister, who's a year-and-a-half older, and of course, my own son and grandchildren. But it gets - you're in a smaller world, personally. And so there is this boredom, or the absence of something to do. I mean, I don't work. I keep telling people I'm unemployed. And I don't wash dishes, and I don't wash clothes (laughter). And I don't clean my house. Somebody else does that.
So there's this void, and I think you're absolutely right. What you pull - what you can pull, if you're an irritable old lady, into that void is every misstep, wrong word, why-didn't-you-visit, why-didn't-you-do-this (laughter). It's - you know, the opposite of that is when you get to a certain age in this void and you begin to remember every hurt somebody did to you. That never happens to me.
GROSS: Why not? Because I'd like - I kind of think you could hold both thoughts in your mind at the same time and run through all the hurt you've created while at the same time running through all of the things that people have done to you that have hurt you (laughter). One does not preempt the other (laughter).
MORRISON: I think I'll start.
GROSS: My guest is Toni Morrison. Her latest novel is called "God Help The Child." After we take a short break, she'll talk about why she needs a wheelchair to get around and about how her physical limitations are affecting her life and her thoughts. And Maureen Corrigan will review the new posthumously published collection of short stories by Lucia Berlin called "A Manual For Cleaning Women." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with more of our interview with Toni Morrison, one of the most celebrated writers of our time. In 1993, she became the first African-American woman to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. Her latest novel, "God Help The Child," is about young adults still healing from wounds inflicted during their childhood by parents or predators. Morrison is now 84. When we left off, we were talking about how, as she's gotten older, she's found herself dwelling more on the mistakes she thinks she's made over the course of her life.
You get around on a wheelchair now. And I'm not sure of why you need it, but I'm wondering if the limitation on your physical abilities also leaves more idle time for negative reflection.
MORRISON: Oh, a negative reflection and a floating anger - a back operation that worked for eight months and doesn't work anymore.
MORRISON: Do I go back?
MORRISON: Or do I sit in the chair?
GROSS: Oh, all right.
MORRISON: You know what I mean? You know, there's something about being arthritic or back ache or what the hell - whatever - that makes you feel put upon. You know, I remember my mother used to think if she lost her socks, that they hated her (laughter).
GROSS: That the socks hated her (laughter)?
MORRISON: Yeah, of course (laughter). And if the...
GROSS: So do you feel like your body hates you?
MORRISON: Yeah, right. I did so much for you, body.
MORRISON: Why aren't you helping me now (laughter) when I need you? I was so nice to you (laughter).
GROSS: I - no, but that's - it's hard to make peace with your body when you feel like you're under attack with pain.
MORRISON: I do feel like I'm under attack (laughter). You know, it's a little way of dealing with it. I don't take painkillers I sometimes take at night, but I don't have anything else that I do - that some people do - in order to avoid their pain or make it lower. I just have it. And I know that I cannot stand up for more than six minutes. And I cannot walk long distances.
Now, of course, I have therapy. I have a therapist. I have this and that. But you have to do that constantly, you know, to really keep in shape. And I have to admit, I have not been attentive to what the body should be doing or should be made to do as you grow older.
GROSS: So where does writing come in? Does writing focus your attention on something positive and take your mind off the pain, or does the pain prevent you from doing the writing that you want to do because the pain is focusing your attention on it?
MORRISON: No, the writing is - I'm free of pain. It's the place where I live. It's where I have control. It's where nobody tells me what to do. It's where my imagination is fecund and I am really at my best. Nothing matters more in the world or in my body or anywhere when I'm writing. It is dangerous because I'm thinking up dangerous, difficult things, but it is also extremely safe for me to be in that place.
GROSS: Let me get to something else that happens in your novel without explaining why or how or to who, but there's a fire, and a house burns down. And you write about the fire. (Reading) It began slowly, gently, as it often does, shy, unsure how to proceed. And that made me think, I know that you had a fire in one of your homes in - it was a while ago. I think it was, like, 1993. Do I have that right?
MORRISON: Exactly. Yeah.
GROSS: Yeah. And so did your fire begin slowly and gently?
MORRISON: Apparently. One of my sons was home. I had just come back from the ceremony about the Nobel Prize, and somebody called me. I was in Princeton. I was teaching there. And I rushed back in a car with my other son and picked up the one who had been at home. And in that house, I had a fireplace. And I had those things that hang from the fireplace around Christmas time - cones and little green wreaths and things. And some of that caught on fire. And he came down the steps when he smelled smoke and took the fire extinguisher and put it out - put out the fire - and then went back upstairs. And a little spark in the couch, under the pillow, was not dead.
MORRISON: And by the time the fire department arrived (laughter), it had taken the whole house, practically. So that notion...
GROSS: How did they find that out, that there was a spark under the pillow?
MORRISON: Well, when they went in - you know, they just break into your house - fire department - when they save you or save - put out the fire, and they look for the source. And one pillow was burnt a lot on one side, and on the other was this tiny, little hole that they recognized as, you know, a coal that was still burning...
MORRISON: ...And had obviously spread to the pillow and spread to everything else and so on. So the idea of a sneaky beginning of a fire, I knew from experience.
GROSS: So what did you lose in the fire? And did it change your relationship to things?
MORRISON: Oh, yeah. I mourned a couple of things. First of all, I spent a lot of time being happy that my son was not hurt.
MORRISON: The second thing was, I lost his and his brother's report cards, which I will never get back (laughter). And the third thing was, I had a pot of - a jade bush that was about 15 years old. And it was huge and beautiful, and it burnt in a snap. Of course, I lost manuscripts (laughter) and books and some other things, but the hurt was the report cards. And the hurt was the jade bush.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Toni Morrison. She has a new novel called "God Help The Child." Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Toni Morrison, and she has a new novel called "God Help The Child."
The main character's birth name is Lula Ann Bridewell. When she's 16, she changes it to Ann Bride. Two years later, she changes it to one name - Bride. And she's in the fashion world, in the cosmetics world. So it's a very, you know, signature kind of name to have. Names are very important in your fiction. There's often people - people often have nicknames. And I'm interested in hearing about why names have such real and symbolic importance in your stories.
MORRISON: Well, there's a whole history, I think, in naming. In the beginning of black people being in this country, they lost their names, and they were given names by their masters. And so they didn't have names. And they began to call one another, you know, decades later, by nicknames. I don't think I knew any of my father's friends - male friends - by their real names. I remember them only by their nicknames.
And also there was a honesty. Sometimes the names were humiliating, deliberately so. Somebody would pick out your flaw. If you were little, they would call you Shorty. And if you were angry, they would call you the Devil. I remember a man in the neighborhood who was called Jim the Devil. And then you think of the musicians - Satchmo, Louis Armstrong. What is Satchmo? That's Satchel Mouth. Or you think about them giving themselves royal names - Duke and Count and King.
You know, it's a very personal identification, trying to move away maybe from the history of having no name and then personalizing it on the one hand, to give you a name that's embarrassing in order to make you confront it, deal with it, now. And then later on, more charming names, moving away from humiliating names like Satchmo.
GROSS: So your birth name is Chloe Wofford. Morrison was your married name when you were married, but you've been divorced a long time - since 1974. And Toni was shortened from Anthony, which was the name when you were...
GROSS: ...Baptized. And so am I right in saying that you became a Catholic when you were 12? That's what I read.
MORRISON: Yeah, I did.
GROSS: So let's start with your name. Once you started being called Toni, did you feel different from being called Chloe?
MORRISON: I never felt like anything other than Chloe. You know, my name, Chloe, nobody could pronounce it properly outside my family. In school, the teachers called me Chlo (ph) or Chlovee (ph) or Chlorey (ph) because it was spelled that way. It's much more common now. But I couldn't bear to have people mispronounce my name. But the person I was, was this person who was called Chloe. And then there's a wing of my family who are all Catholics. And I - and one of them was a cousin with whom I was very close, and she was a Catholic. And so I got baptized, et cetera, and I chose Saint Anthony of Padua as the baptismal name.
So then I go away and the people in Washington, they don't know how to pronounce C-H-L-O-E. So somebody mistakenly called me Toni 'cause she couldn't hear Chloe. So I said uh-huh (laughter). Now - so I don't care. Call me Toni. It's easy. You don't have to mispronounce my name. And then I meant to put my maiden name in the first book I wrote, as a matter of fact. But I called the publisher and said, oh, by the way, I don't want Toni Morrison to be on the book. And they said, it's too late. They've already sent it to the Library of Congress. But I really would have preferred Toni Wofford.
GROSS: So the opening quote in your book, and it stands on a page alone before the book begins, is "suffer little children to come unto me..."
MORRISON: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: "...And forbid them not." And it's - Jesus wants to bless the children, so he's basically saying, let the children come to me. Do not forbid them from coming.
MORRISON: Yeah, they were holding them back.
GROSS: Yeah, the disciples wanted to hold them, yeah.
GROSS: So it just made me wonder if you have spent a lot of time reading the Bible, either through your mother's religion when you were young - and she was very religious - or as a Catholic or as a literary person?
MORRISON: I think as a scholar that it's necessarily inspirational because it's gone through so many hands, so many translations. That's the way I approach it now. But in my mother's church, everybody read the Bible and it was mostly about music. My mother had the most beautiful voice and people came from long distances to that little church she went to - African Methodist Episcopal, the AME church she belonged to - just hear her.
So for me, her church was about her and music. The lessons, you know, were like fairytales to me. So at an early age I moved into this other religion and was perfectly content with its aesthetics. That's shallow, I understand (laughter). But that's what it was, until I grew up a little older and began to take it seriously and then - took it seriously for years and years and years.
GROSS: So is there any form of religion in your life now?
MORRISON: Not a structured one. I might be easily seduced to go back to church because I like the controversy as well as the beauty of this particular Pope Francis. He's very interesting to me.
GROSS: So just one more question - you didn't start writing till you were 39 or 40. Is that because you didn't have the time or didn't know you had it in you? Like, what was the point in which you said, I'm going to write a novel? What changed?
MORRISON: Well, I was teaching at Howard University after I got a master's at Cornell. I went to TSU, and then I went back to Howard to teach. And I was young - in my 20s. And I joined a group of faculty and writers who met to read to each other and critique each other. Some of them were professional writers, and some were not.
And so I brought to these meetings little things I had written for classes as an undergraduate - some fiction, some not and so on. And they had really, really good lunches, really good food during these meetings. But they wouldn't let you continue to come if you were just reading old stuff. So I had to think up something new if I was going to continue to have this really good food and really good company outside of the - my colleagues. So I started writing.
And I remember very clearly I was writing with a pencil. I was sitting on the couch, writing with pencil, trying to think up something and remembering what I just described. And I was - the tablet was that legal pad, you know, yellow with the lines, and I had a baby. My older son was barely walking, and he spit up on the tablet. And I was doing something really interesting, I think, with a sentence because I wrote around the puke because I figured I could always wipe that away, but I might not get that sentence again.
MORRISON: So I wrote a bit of that. I went to the meetings. They thought it was very interesting. It was just, you know, maybe five or six pages. And they were very encouraging. And then I left, and I went to Syracuse et cetera, et cetera. And in the mornings before my children were awake, I would go back and finish that. And then - it took five years, by the way, to write that little book because I wasn't thinking about publishing. I was thinking about that narrative and what I wanted to say, you know? So that's really how I got started.
GROSS: Toni Morrison, thank you so much for talking with us. I really appreciate it.
MORRISON: You're very welcome.
GROSS: Toni Morrison recorded last April after the publication of her novel "God Help The Child." Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews the new posthumously published collection of short stories by Lucia Berlin called "A Manual For Cleaning Women." This is FRESH AIR.
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