The fascinating inner workings of Toni Morrison literary creations is a writing course I’d take in a heartbeat. This is a mere snippet starting at the 24:49 mark of an almost 55 minute interview of Toni Morrison conducted by Charlie Rose.
Charlie Rose: Bill Moyer I think, once asked you the question can you imagine writing a novel that’s not centered about race. And you said absolutely.
Toni Morrison: Yes
Charlie Rose: Will you?
Toni Morrison: That’s what he asked. I think aww see I answered the question he didn’t pose. You know um Tolstoy writes about race all the time. So does Zola, so does James Joyce. Now if anybody can go up to an imaginary James Joyce and say you write about race all the time it’s central in your novels when are you going to write about what. Because you see the person who ask that question doesn’t understand that he is also he or she is also raced. So to ask me when I’m going to stop and or when if I can is to ask a question that in a sense is it’s own answer. Yes I can write about white people. White people can write about Black people. Anything can happen in art. There are no boundaries there. Having to do it or having to prove that I can do it is what was embarrassing or insulting. In this book I did.
Charlie Rose: It was insulting that people, help me understand what was insulting that the idea that you felt you had to prove that you could write without?
Toni Morrison: The question was posed as though it were a desirable thing to do to write about white people or to write not about race that’s what that means to me. Um and that it was a difficult thing to do. A higher level of artistic endeavor or it was more important. Aww that I was still writing about marginal people and why don’t I come more into the main stream.
Charlie Rose: Now aren’t you importing too much into the question?
Toni Morrison: Maybe
Toni Morrison: But what else could it be Charlie? What, what does that mean? What does that question mean? You tell me if I’m making too much.
Charlie Rose: I don’t know. I mean I don’t that you. I don’t think it probably means, I didn’t ask the question, so I don’t think it probably means, I don’t think it had to do about you were marginalizing by not writing about..
Toni Morrison: It only works if I can go to William Styron, well maybe not William Styron because he has done it. Um somebody major White and say as a journalist
Charlie Rose: Can you write about Black people.
Toni Morrison: That’s right. Can I say that? What kind of question is that to put to Ed Doctorow, who has done it by the way.
Charlie Rose: True
Toni Morrison: But I mean if I can say to when are you going to write about Black people to a White writer. If that’s a legitimate question to a White writer than it is a legitimate question to me. I just don’t think it is.
Toni Morrison: In a … the glove has to be pulled inside out. If its, in other words it’s not a literary question. It has nothing to do with literary imagination. It’s a sociological question that should not be put to me. I couldn’t ask that of any writer who was. You know I wouldn’t ask it of a Black writer when your going to write about a White people.
Toni Morrison: Now maybe I’m wrong. You can tell me now or later if I’ve blown it up all out of proportion. I don’t think so. I just don’t know what the question means accept what I think it means. You think it maybe just a little question, a little curious, you know something small incidental question when are you going to.
Toni Morrison: Maybe I’m responding because I have had reviews in the past that have accused me of not writing about White people. I remember a review of Sula in which the reviewer said this is all well and good but one day she meaning me will have to face up to the real responsibilities and get mature and write about the real ah confrontation for Black people which is White people. As if though our lives have no meaning and no depth without the White gaze. I spent my entire writing life trying to make sure that the White gaze was not the dominant one in any one of my books.
Toni Morrison: And the people who helped me most arrive at that kind of language we’re African writers. Chinua Achebe, Bessie Head. Those writers who could assume the centrality of their race because they were Africans. And they didn’t explain anything to White people. Those questions were incomprehensible to them those questions that I would have as a minority of living in an all white country like the United States. But when I read the ah the poetry of Sezar or the poetry of Senghor or the novels particularly. Things Fall Apart was more important to me than anything. Only because there was a language, there was the posture, there was a perimeter I could step in now and I didn’t have to be comsumed by or be concerned by the White gaze. That was the liberation for me. It had nothing to do with who reads the book, everyone I hope, of any race, any gender, any country. But my sovereignty and my authority as a racialized person had to be struck immediately with the very first book. And it was strange because in this country many books particularly then 40’s, 50’s you could feel the address of the narrator over my shoulder talking to somebody else. Talking somebody white. I could tell because they’re explaining things that didn’t have to have to explain if they were talking to me. It was that. This is. profound for me so that I may be. You may be right. Maybe I’m over dramatizing the whole question that is innocent enough because the problem of being free to write they way you wish to without this other racialized gaze is a serious one for an African American writer. Very serious.
Charlie Rose: I think this one of those times where what you just said you gave a noble answer regardless of the significance of the question.