In her new book, A Mercy (Knopf, 2008), Pulitzer Prize–winning author Toni Morrison mines the epic themes of race and class, love and friendship, oppression and freedom—this time through the rarely told tale of early colonists and the black slaves with whom they lived. It’s a page-turner, riveting and complex, and Morrison, ever the chain-rattler, hopes it bears bigger lessons for humanity. Empresslike with her thick, graying locks, yet given to easy, raucous laughter, the 77-year-old says there’s more in the works—a sign that after nine novels (including the acclaimed Beloved), the Nobel Prize for Literature, and tours as an editor, professor, and social critic, she’s not about to start taking final bows.
Q: You set your new novel in the late 1600s in Virginia, long before slavery had matured as an institution. Why? I was very interested in separating racism from slavery. The assumption has always been, in this country, that [slavery] began with a few colonists, and then came the Africans, and that relationship is the reason for much of the racism that still exists in this country. And I didn’t believe it, because nobody is born [a racist]. Racism is constructed. It was an insisted-upon protection for the landed and the aristocrats.
Q: You’re saying people start off in pretty innocent fashion? Think about all the ordinary folks who came here [from England]. Who were they? What was so horrible about where they were that they would spend half a year on a ship going someplace else? Well, 70 percent said they were servants—but many were felons or prostitutes or homeless people. And lots of children. Their choices were jail or transportation [to America].
Q: But then they arrived to find laws that gave them great privilege. Any white could kill any black for any reason. Now, you’re a poor white person who is indentured, and what you have is nothing but a little superiority over another race. And who does it protect? The people in power.
Q: You imagine some complex and surprising relationships, though. Well, once you take racism—not race—out of the picture, there is this rich, wonderful territory to investigate. The collection of people I put together were trying to make a community, make a family. What were the obstacles, the pleasures, the triumphs, the management, in a totally ad hoc universe? Anything might happen at any point!
Q: Might any of this inform how we live with one another today? It would be beneficial if people could imagine a world where there are strong ethnic and racial differences without hierarchy.
Q: Is this your hope? My hope is that it becomes not just imaginable, but rational. Everyone knows that children don’t feel any of this. You have to be instructed, told. It has to be reinforced. I always thought about that little white child who is nursed by a black woman and then learns that his affection is wrong, that he should not have loved and respected her. So if what you love is wrong, that is as shocking and traumatic as if you had the same experience with your biological mother.
Q: Will there ever be a time when race doesn’t matter in this country? Well, as long as it’s useful, as long as it’s profitable, as long as it is used to maintain power by nefarious people, no.
Q: You aren’t so optimistic. I have guarded optimism. Guarded. Because the young people I talk to are just different. They’re not hanging on to the powerful stories. They’re just marching along, marrying who they want to marry. They are not like my generation or even the generation right after me.
Q: You endorsed Barack Obama for president—you said he was not just smart, but wise. Can he bring anything to the table on this issue of race? I don’t really care about his race. You can’t go there. Race and gender are distractions. It’s not enough you’re white. It’s not enough you’re black. You can’t just rest on your victimhood or your shame or your privilege or your religion. You have nothing but you and your human response.
Q: And is that the big lesson of your book? Yes. You have to be a human being. You have to learn. And when you do learn, it’s [deciding] what stuff you have to give up—like gender, race.
Q: We have a way to go. We had better hurry up. The icecap is separating.
Q: Let’s talk a little about aging. Okay, I’m sitting here with all these Advils [for her achy hip]. [Laughter.]
Q: Do you find you’ve become more creative as you’ve gotten older? Oh, yes. I’m much, much better with creative things—people generally get better. They just know more.
Q: Your mind certainly seems to have stayed fertile. Yes, but what’s really important is humor—the way you see through things. And I don’t mean just “Ho, ho, ho!” but real irony about the diabolical nature of things. If you don’t have that, you just collapse.
Q: Except most people probably don’t think “funny” when they think of Toni Morrison and her books. Well, let me tell you what the deal is about the happiness in my books. I do not write about people who are just going to live a happy life, because it’s not compelling, there’s no angst. But if people have had an epiphany, that is called happiness. Some way they are improved. It may be a hard lesson, but to me a good idea and realization is the best thing there is for the mind.
Q: You yourself certainly seem happy. How do you reconcile the desire to stay this way with the realities of aging, of loss? I can’t. I don’t reconcile. I’m unreconciled. Completely. I’m not even reconciled to my own death! What kind of outrage is that?
Q: So what does that mean—are we, you, approaching aging all wrong? No, no. We should be as active and cared for—in health terms—and busy as possible. The bad thing is regret.
Q: You have regret? Oh, yes. Full of it— everything I did right, I didn’t do well enough. I’m not morbid at all. It’s just that I would like to do it again.
Q: But you won the Nobel Prize! That made you happy? It made my mother happier. And it got me a lot of money.
Q: Did it change you? It changed other people—they look at you differently. And then people use you—nicely, but that’s okay. It’s like there’s a person who won the Nobel Prize, and her name is Toni Morrison. And then there’s a person right behind her named Chloe [Morrison’s birth name], and that’s me.
Q: Are they a contradiction? No, just a separate persona. I had to create a persona in order to protect the person I am—the writing person.
Q: When exactly did you begin thinking of yourself as a writer? When I wrote Song of Solomon [in 1977]. Before, I only thought of myself as a teacher and editor. Writing was just something I did. It’s a way to be in the world for me. I don’t think I could have managed this place without it—it’s too melancholy.
Q: And the writing did what? Made sense, meaning. And it made me a much nicer person. [Laughter.]
Q: What inspires you to keep doing it? Well, the inquiry is so fascinating to me. It’s called the life of the mind. That’s what I live.
Q: How do you get into the heads of your characters so convincingly? You have to be able to enter the skin of another person. You may have noticed that I don’t describe people physically very much. Because people make judgments if you’re tall or short or fat or thin.
Q: So you go inside. It’s like what an actor does. You get a sketch of a character and then step in and look at the world the way that character looks at it.
Q: You’re obviously having fun. I am 77 years old—but in real life I’m 23. I have no idea why—I don’t remember doing anything at 23. But I know all this absence of cartilage stuff is insulting!
Q: Do you ever think about your legacy? I should, because I had an awkward moment some years ago when I was in England for a reading. The [moderator] onstage asked me how I would like to be remembered, and I said as trustworthy, as embracing, as someone in whose company you always felt a little bit better. And some black girls [in the balcony] said, “What are you talking about? You mean you have won the Nobel Prize and all you want to be is trustworthy?” They were furious.
Q: What was your reaction? I was so taken aback. And I said I wasn’t thinking about them or the world. I was thinking about my children, my sister, my mother, my father. I wanted to be remembered as somebody they could trust. But those girls wanted me to be remembered as “the first black person, the first female…”
Q: Well, I suppose there’s something in between, yes? There’s nothing in between.