Toni Morrison: “My father never trusted any white person at all, would not let them in his house. Luckily my mother was entirely different”
Toni Morrison breaks off from explaining a crucial passage in her new novel - Florens, the main character, has just been searched by a posse of witch-hunters - to check her mobile. "It's my son," she apologises, "is he kidding me?" She calls him back for a quick discussion about the latest presidential election headlines.
"We're gonna have such fun!" she exclaims afterwards. She will watch Tuesday night's TV coverage with friends, she says excitedly, but her assessment of what an Obama presidency might mean is measured: "It would be good, it would be interesting, it would have an impact, I think." Morrison famously described Bill Clinton as "the first black president" ("I said he was treated like a black man, and he was, but anyway they ... what can I say? Nuance is not a strong point"), and took her time in coming round to Obama. "I didn't know him," she says. "I knew Hillary. I really, really liked her and for years admired her." The first time Obama called and asked for her support she said no, but "we chatted for quite a while". In January she changed her mind and wrote a letter of endorsement that glowed with praise for his "wisdom".
A Mercy, Morrison's first book in five years, is published in the UK on Thursday, and is released in the US a few days later. Though publishing schedules are fixed months in advance and production of the book must have been well under way by the time Barack Obama was finally selected as the Democratic candidate, the timing is surely no accident.
In A Mercy, the 77-year-old Nobel laureate writes directly about American slavery for the first time since her celebrated 1987 novel Beloved. Though A Mercy is a very different book - around half the length, more episodic than epic, set in the 17th century rather than the 19th - it is billed by her publisher as a companion piece, or "prelude". Morrison says the new work is an attempt to separate racism from slavery, "to see how it was constructed, planted deliberately in order to protect the ruling class" from the "unpaid labour" on which their new civilisation and wealth depended. So as the US looks set to elect an African-American president, its pre-eminent African-American writer delivers her own vision of America uncorrupted - or only beginning to be corrupted - by racial thinking.
Morrison's great achievement, in a career spanning four decades and nine novels, has been to combine deep psychological insight with a vigorous and original critique of American history. "My books are always questions for me. What if? How does it feel to ...? Or what would it look like if you took racism out? Or what does it look like if you have the perfect town, everything you ever wanted? And so you ask a question, put it in a time when it would be theatrical to ask, and find the people who can articulate it for you and try to make them interesting. The rest of it is all structure, how to put it together."
In her debut, The Bluest Eye (1970), written in the early mornings while she was working full-time and raising two sons in New York, Morrison crafted a highly literary fiction out of the interior lives of poor black girls growing up in her hometown of Lorain, Ohio. Sula (1973) told a story of female friendship, partly inspired by her own life as a single mother and a more complex, ambivalent view of "sisterhood" than many in the feminist movement would then allow, while Song of Solomon (1977) took its alienated protagonist, "Milkman", on a voyage of discovery to the deep south.
But with Beloved, her prizewinning novel set in the aftermath of abolition, Morrison hurled herself at the legacy of slavery and the 20th-century American literary canon head-on. Inspired by a newspaper cutting she found while editing an African-American history anthology, The Black Book, and audaciously weaving together realist, modernist and supernatural elements, it tells the story of a runaway slave who, rather than give up her children when her former owners come looking for her, cuts her daughter's throat.
It is a novel of unspeakable horrors. But even more than the physical brutality, Morrison confronts us with the irreparable harm done by what Margaret Atwood described in a review as "one of the most viciously antifamily institutions human beings have ever devised", a system that sought to deprive human beings of what it is that makes them human.
"We were very keenly involved in the culture of African America, so of course slavery was back there," Morrison says of her upbringing in the midwest, "yet the pressure was not to remember it, but to get over it. So when I was writing Beloved, part of the architecture was the act of forgetting." When Beloved failed to win the National Book Award, a group of 48 African-American critics and writers including Maya Angelou and Alice Walker wrote to the New York Times praising Morrison, and the novel won the Pulitzer soon afterwards. Morrison herself is alert to the ways in which black and women's writing have been patronised and excluded from the mainstream, and after winning the Nobel in 1993 she wrote that she felt she had earned a "licence to strut".
Her novels found an influential champion in Oprah Winfrey, who chose four of them for her book club, ensuring huge sales. Winfrey also produced and starred in the 1998 film of Beloved, directed by Jonathan Demme. Morrison's response to critics who suggest her canvas is too narrow is to cite Joyce and Dostoevsky: no one complains that Joyce always writes about the Irish, or Dostoevsky about Russia. She projects a formidable self-belief, but the impression of imperiousness is offset by her soft voice and almost girlish manner.
A few years ago she bought a house on Princeton's main street, a long straight avenue with the university campus on one side and a parade of colonial-style architecture, bookshops and ice-cream parlours on the other. She has done the top floor up for her two grand-daughters, as "classical little girls' rooms with all the pillows ... I know it's just a luxury but I had such fun." The contrast to her own childhood in Ohio could hardly be greater. "There were factories there, shipyards, steel mills, and people came from all over to work," she says. The town was not segregated along racial lines - "Mrs Gallini lived next door and the Terschaks on the other side, that's the way it was and I thought the whole world was like that." Both her parents' families migrated north to escape poverty.
Morrison, who was born Chloe Anthony Wofford in 1931 - Toni was the nickname she took as a student, Morrison is her ex-husband - had two younger brothers and an older sister. Her father worked as a welder, but "after the war began, my parents had less and less, and their conflicts were the conflicts poor people have."
In The Bluest Eye, Morrison depicts Lorain as a town cruelly stratified along class and caste lines. Homelessness, or "being outdoors", is "the real terror of life", and while Pecola Breedlove is doomed by her perception of her own ugliness, the more spirited Claudia is frightened by urges to harm the "little white girls" whom even black women seem to prefer to their own daughters. Morrison has said she would have brought up her sons differently had she anticipated the poisonous race relations of the 1980s, but of her own youth she says she "felt like an aristocrat", and when I ask if she remembers when recognition of her own blackness dawned, wondering whether she too suffered from feelings of rage or insecurity, she fires back: "That's not the question, the question is when you first understand you're white."
But on the lessons of the past her parents were deeply divided: "My father never trusted any white person at all, would not let them in his house, insurance people and so on. Luckily my mother was entirely different, she was always judging people one at a time. My mother talked about her childhood in the south - she left when she was about six - as if it was the most wonderful, romantic, nostalgic, lovely [memory]. And my father talked about it in diametrically opposed ways. But he went back every year to this place he hated [Georgia], while my mother never went back to Alabama, the place she loved."
Such conflicts recur in her novels, which dig away at rather than paper over the cracks in the African-American story, exposing divisions of religion, politics, class and gender. She chose to go to the traditionally black Howard College in Washington DC because she "wanted to be around black intellectuals", and has sought to explore the compromises and sacrifices as well as the triumphs of integration. Her novel Paradise (1998) is a brutal fable of what happens when the dream of an all-black community turns sour, while Love (2003) mourns the ruin of an African-American entrepreneur's dream: an upmarket black holiday resort crumbling into the sea.
She edited books about the controversies surrounding OJ Simpson's trial for murder and the appointment of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, while her criticism has drawn attention to the racial themes of such classics as Moby-Dick and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. African religion, medicine and stories are shown to have vivid meaning for Morrison's characters, but she has never been to Africa: "something always happened or I couldn't get there". In Beloved, Stamp Paid reflects that "White people believed that whatever the manners, under every dark skin was a jungle. Swift unnavigable waters, swinging screaming baboons, sleeping snakes, red gums ready for their sweet white blood." But there are black racists in her books too, who believe whites are subhuman, devils.
With its focus on a time before the slave system, A Mercy confirms Morrison's determination to think beyond racial categories. The novel sets out to blur the lines and its characters include indentured servants, slaves, a Dutchwoman sold into marriage (whose filthy voyage is the closest Morrison has come to writing about the slave ships) and a free black man. She also writes from the point of view of a white slave owner for the first time, and when I ask whether she and others are now moving towards a "post-racial" literary discourse - in a parallel development to what commentators have described as Obama's "post-racial" politics - she concurs, before offering the qualifier that "you have to walk that line, you don't want the culture de-raced".
But she agrees that the emphasis placed on race by critics has meant that other aspects of her writing have received less attention. The questions she asks in her books have deep ethical and philosophical dimensions. What is love? Can a woman recover from having killed her baby? What does it mean to be forgiven? Like Beloved, the new novel springs from the action of a mother, a slave who gives her daughter away to a different master in the belief that he will be kinder, but when I say what a terribly sad story it seemed to me - Florens is desperately hurt, and then rejected again by her first lover - I am briskly corrected: "No, no no! Think about her, she was completely needy, yearning, selfless, 'my life is in you, I can't live without you'." The heartbreak of the novel, in its author's view, teaches its protagonist a lesson: "do not give yourself over completely to anybody. At least you know she'll never do that again."
Morrison calls Jazz (1992), a love story set in 1920s Harlem and narrated in such a way that the book itself speaks in the first person, her "best book" in terms of the technical obstacles she set herself. She relished the challenge of 17th-century dialogue posed by A Mercy, and describes her experiments with vocabulary and tenses. She has been reunited with her original editor, Robert Gottlieb, a former New Yorker editor and her exact contemporary.
She has never got over her house in Rockland County, New York, burning down in 1993: "My books and manuscripts I couldn't care less about, but my children's report cards ... There's a picture of my son shooting a basketball into the sky and it's gone." But she jokes that at least she won the Nobel prize that year as well, and has made an anecdote out of the fact that, for a long time, she could talk only to other people who had suffered house fires. ("Maxine Hong Kingston - she and I were on the phone every day!")
The prospect of a book tour is more daunting than it once was, and she hopes her son Ford will join her on this one. But she has two more book projects already in mind, one of which promises a departure. Only once before, with Tar Baby (1981), has she set a story in the present, and that was in the Caribbean, but she says "I've got sketches which are very much now".
For 40 years she has written of passionately experienced sexuality, and every possible permutation of family. Her early marriage to Harold Morrison, an architect from Jamaica with whom she had her two sons, lasted only six years, and she has rarely discussed it. When I ask whether she would have liked to remarry, she bats away the question with a "no, no, no", and she dismisses the idea that she might ever write her memoirs: "It's just not interesting, my life is not adventurous ... The life of the mind is interesting, but all these other little foibles? Please."
Morrison's family still call her Chloe, and she has often said that her pen name of Toni Morrison was a kind of accident. She says that when her father died, she was upset that she hadn't kept the name Wofford, and tells a story about a talk she gave in England where a young black woman in the audience asked her how she wanted to be remembered. "I said as an honest, trustworthy person - I think I even put humour in there. And the girl said 'What do you mean? You just won the Nobel prize and you want to be remembered as a trustworthy person?' And I didn't know what to say. I was talking about how I want to be remembered by my family. Do I want to be remembered by my sons as a writer who won the Nobel prize? There's a persona, Toni Morrison, and there's me, Chloe. They were asking Toni Morrison and I answered as Chloe."
But she is in no doubt as to what enabled her transformation from one into the other. "My sons needed me to be real, to know what I was doing, you know? When people say they don't have time to write with small children, well, for me it was the opposite. I didn't write anything before I had them. They gave me that."
"I walk alone except for the eyes that join me on my journey. Eyes that do not recognise me, eyes that examine me for a tail, an extra teat, a man's whip between my legs. Wondering eyes that stare and decide if my navel is in the right place if my knees bend backward like the forelegs of a dog. They want to see if my tongue is split like a snake's or if my teeth are filing to points to chew them up. To know if I can spring out of the darkness and bite. Inside I am shrinking. I climb the streambed under watching eyes and know I am not the same. I am losing something with every step I take. I can feel the drain. Something precious is leaving me. I am a thing apart. With the letter I belong and am lawful. Without it I am a weak calf abandon by the herd, a turtle without shell, a minion with no telltale signs but a darkness I am born with, outside, yes, but inside as well and the inside dark is small, feathered and toothy. Is that what my mother knows? Why she chooses me to live without?"
At this point Florens has already had the first sense of self-loathing, where the people say they associate blackness with Satan, and after they've examined her body she feels like a different species under their gaze. Something has died in her, and everything looks like it's looking at her in that hostile way. The trees are looking at her, everything. And she's thinking if they are looking at her because she's black, and finding that a problem and possibly evil and satanic, then it's something she has to think about. Now that she's by herself, she thinks maybe they mean there's something inside of me that really is bad and maybe they're right? It's the crumbling of the psyche.