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Morrison's Mix of Tragedy, Domesticity, and Folklore
NEW YORK -- Early in Toni Morrison's new novel, "Paradise," a young mother, Mavis, beset by unbearable circumstance, abused by her husband, leaves her infant twins in a Cadillac on a hot day with the windows up, and the babies die. It is a terrible moment, wrought in the full glare of Ms. Morrison's uncompromising gaze, at that nexus of parental feeling where love and destructive power meet. Those moments have appeared before in Ms. Morrison's work, most notably in "Beloved," her novel about a former slave who kills her baby rather than have her live a life of slavery.
You might expect Ms. Morrison, Nobel Prize winner, Pulitzer Prize winner, to speak of Mavis's predicament in hushed tones. But no. "That Mavis is stupid!" Ms. Morrison cried the other day, with a laugh and a toss of her long silver dreadlocks. "These children die in a Cadillac, and then she goes and says that the twins were the only ones of her children who weren't a trial to her!"
Ms. Morrison "has a grasp of that old folk wit," said a college friend, the poet Amiri Baraka. "Even though it may be a very complex psychological and emotional moment, in the end, there is a blunt conclusion. It deformalizes the situation. It makes it easier to grasp as a human point. She's very down to earth, and yet very serious."
At 66, Ms. Morrison has silken skin and her carriage is majestic. She has the cozy laugh of someone who likes the company of other women. But there is a flicker of shyness in her eyes, a vague distrust.
Her favorite place to talk is the kitchen, she said in her SoHo apartment, indicating a grand inlaid marble table. Her novels are full of delicious images of cooking that have inspired some of her friends. "They cooked the green snapped peas from 'Beloved,' " Ms. Morrison said. "They boiled the egg in 'Song of Solomon.' It was perfect."
Ms. Morrison's novels have the arc of Greek tragedy, yet they are filled with domestic details, street talk and folklore. She is also a literary critic of ferocious intellectual power. In her 1992 book "Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination," she unravels the way, she says, white writers like Bellow, Cather and Hemingway either ignore blacks or portray them as stereotypes. Her introduction to "Race-ing Justice, En-Gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas and the Construction of Social Reality," a book she edited, is a withering critique of the discourse surrounding Justice Thomas's Supreme Court appointment.
"Paradise" (Alfred A. Knopf) is Ms. Morrison's first novel since "Jazz" in 1992. It is risky and structurally complex, and barely heeds the laws of time and place. It is also her most overtly feminist novel, and it has received some mixed reviews. Michiko Kakutani, writing in The New York Times, called it "a heavy-handed, schematic piece of writing." But Louis Menand said in The New Yorker that Ms. Morrison was "at her novelistic best."
The book is set in 1976 in Oklahoma, where a group of women live in a former convent that is a refuge for the lost women of the earth -- for Mavis, for a woman who discovered her boyfriend in bed with her mother, for a former foster child who mutilates herself, all led by Connie, a former slave from Brazil who is a drunk. They practice a blend of Christian and African rituals.
To the men of the nearby all-black town of Ruby, the women's self-sufficiency is deeply threatening, and the house is "a coven not a convent." The men suspect them of orgies and unspeakable acts, and one day the men come with guns and begin to shoot. The novel wraps itself around that moment, delving into the lives of the women and Ruby's citizens.
"The book coalesced around the idea of where paradise is, who belongs in it," Ms. Morrison said. "All paradises are described as male enclaves, while the interloper is a woman, defenseless and threatening. When we get ourselves together and get powerful is when we are assaulted." Ms. Morrison was also interested in the history of all-black towns founded by freedmen.
Not Categorizing Characters by Race
Strikingly, she is vague about the color of the women. "I never say what color they are," she said. "We slot and characterize people when we know their race." In her book, she said, "the reader is not given the usual comfort" of being able to categorize a character by race.
On a trip to Brazil in the 1980s, Ms. Morrison heard about a convent of black nuns who took in abandoned children and practiced candomble, an Afro-Brazilian religion; the local populace considered them an outrage, and they were murdered by a posse of men. "I've since learned it never happened," Ms. Morrison said. "But for me it was irrelevant. And it said much about institutional religion and uninstitutional religion, how close they are."
The author was born Chloe Anthony Wofford in the rust-belt town of Lorain, Ohio; Toni is a nickname. Her father was a welder. Over the years, Ohio "has been a matrix for me," she wrote in "Black Women Writers at Work." She added: "Ohio also offers an escape from stereotyped black settings. It is neither plantation nor ghetto."
From a Family of Storytellers
The Woffords were a family of storytellers. "People told ghost stories" and their dreams, Ms. Morrison said. She was the first to read in her kindergarten class, she has said. But at 13 she was cleaning houses for whites.
She attended Howard University. "She was running for Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority queen," said Baraka, her classmate.
Later, Ms. Morrison received an M.A. from Cornell for her thesis on suicide in the works of Virginia Woolf and Faulkner, and returned to Howard to teach. Among her students were Stokely Carmichael, the future civil rights activist, and Claude Brown, who was to write "Manchild in the Promised Land."
She married an architect, Harold Morrison, and they had two sons. But it was a troubled relationship, and she began writing, she has said, to forestall "melancholy."
Her first story was about a homely black girl who wants blue eyes so she will be beautiful. It became her first novel, "The Bluest Eye," in 1969. In the book, the child is raped by her father. It was a study of the psychic disease of racism, she told Charlie Rose on PBS. "How does a child learn self-loathing for racial purposes?" she said.
Ms. Morrison worked as a textbook editor in Syracuse, N.Y., and when the company was bought by Random House, she moved to New York City. At Random House, she nurtured black authors who became staples of African-American literature -- Angela Davis, June Jordan, Wesley Brown, Toni Cade Bambara. She also edited "The Black Book," an anthology of black history.
Every morning, after getting up at 5 to write, Ms. Morrison drove her sons in from Queens to school. "That was our close time," she said. "They didn't have my full attention. It seems very hard. But I had my sister, my parents, my brothers. I had a lot of friends with small children who would take over. At least among black women, friendship is something you relied on totally. I felt that carapace." Such friendship is a theme of her 1973 novel, "Sula."
Today, one son, Slade, 30, is a painter and musician; Ford, 33, is an architect. There is a granddaughter, Kali, 10, Slade's child.
Only when her "Song of Solomon" was published in 1977 did Ms. Morrison consider herself "a real writer," she has said. "Song of Solomon" is the story of Milkman Dead, so called because his mother nurses him beyond the accepted age. He goes in search of a cache of gold and discovers his heritage. The book won the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Ms. Morrison stayed on at Random House through the publication of "Tar Baby" in 1981, a novel about the clash of light and dark-skinned blacks in the West Indies. She wanted the security of a job. "I am a child of the Depression," she said. In 1985, after being offered a professorship at the State University of New York at Albany, she left Random House.
"Beloved," based on a true story she discovered while editing "The Black Book," was published in 1987, and it won her the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize. In 1993 came the Nobel Prize.
At the Nobel ceremony in Stockholm, she made a speech that was compared to William Faulkner's address in 1950. She spoke of the ability of language to "to limn the actual, imagined and possible lives of its speakers" and to ward off fear, "the scariness of things that have no names." She also spoke of language's obverse power: "Oppressive language does more than represent violence. It is violence."
Since 1989, Ms. Morrison has been the Robert F. Goheen Professor at Princeton. She teaches in what she calls an "atelier," in which artists like Peter Sellars and Yo-Yo Ma work with students. "I started it because art never gets created at universities," she said. "There is no fecund ground."
Ms. Morrison lives in Princeton during the school year. In addition to her New York apartment, she has a house in Grandview-on-Hudson, overlooking the Hudson River, which she rebuilt after a fire in 1993.
Ms. Morrison has begun notes for another book, she said. But she has a disquieting sense that she hasn't quite finished with "Paradise."
"I'm mad," she said. "Something I forgot to do is bothering me a lot. The last word in the book, 'paradise,' should have a small 'p,' not a capital P. The whole point is to get paradise off its pedestal, as a place for anyone, to open it up for passengers and crew. I want all the readers to put a lowercase mark on that 'p.' "