CHLOE WOFFORD talks about
Date: September 11, 1994, Sunday, Late Edition - Final
Byline: By Claudia Dreifus;
THE WOMAN BREEZING INTO A Princeton, N.J., restaurant in
a brilliant silk caftan and with salt-and-pepper
dreadlocks is Toni Morrison, 63, the Robert F. Goheen
Professor in the Council of the Humanities at Princeton
University and the 1993 Nobel Prize winner for
literature. Heads turn as she moves to a table.
Princetonians in khaki stare.
Since her Grand View-on-Hudson, N.Y., home burned to the
ground last Christmas, Morrison has been living in this
very Anglo-Saxon American town. "Princeton's fine for me
right now," she explains as we sit down to lunch. "I
have wonderful students and good friends here. Besides,
I'm in the middle of a new novel and I don't want to
think about where I'm living."
The new novel is tentatively called "Paradise." In
writing it, Morrison says she has been trying to imagine
language to describe a place where "race exists but
doesn't matter." Race has always mattered a lot in
Morrison's fiction. In six previous novels, including
"Beloved," "Song of Solomon" and "Jazz," she has focused
on the particular joys and sorrows of black American
women's lives. As both a writer and editor -- Morrison
was at Random House for 18 years -- she has made it her
mission to get African-American voices into American
As a luncheon companion, she is great fun -- a woman of
subversive jokes, gossip and surprising bits of
self-revelation (the laureate unwinds to Court TV and
soap operas). The stories Morrison likes to tell have
this deadpan/astonished quality to them. Like fellow
Nobel winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez, she can recount the
most atrocious tale and give horror a charming veneer.
One suspects that Morrison long ago figured out how to
battle the cruelties of race with her wit.
She grew up Chloe Anthony Wofford, in the rust-belt town
of Lorain, Ohio. Her father, George, was a ship welder;
her mother, Ramah, a homemaker. At Howard University,
where she did undergraduate work in English, Chloe
Anthony became known as Toni. After earning a master's
in English literature at Cornell, she married Harold
Morrison, a Washington architecture student, in 1959.
But the union -- from all reports -- was difficult. (As
open as Morrison is about most subjects, she refuses to
discuss her former husband.) When the marriage ended in
1964, Morrison moved to Syracuse and then to New York
with her two sons, Harold Ford, 3, and Slade, 3 months
old. She supported the family as a book editor.
Evenings, after putting her children to bed, she worked
on a novel about a sad black adolescent who dreams of
changing the color of her eyes. "The Bluest Eye" was
published in 1970, inspiring a whole generation of
African-American women to tell their own stories --
women like Alice Walker, Gloria Naylor and Toni Cade
"I'm not pleased with all the events and accidents of my
life," she says over coffee and a cigarette. "You know,
life is pretty terrible and some of it has hurt me a
lot. I'd say I'm proud of a third of my life,
comfortable with another third and would like to redo,
reconfigure, the last third."
Q: When you went to Stockholm in December to collect the
Nobel Prize, did you feel a sense of triumph?
A: I felt a lot of "we" excitement. It was as if the
whole category of "female writer" and "black writer" had
been redeemed. I felt I represented a whole world of
women who either were silenced or who had never received
the imprimatur of the established literary world. I felt
the way I used to feel at commencements where I'd get an
honorary degree: that it was very important for young
black people to see a black person do that, that there
were probably young people in South-Central Los Angeles
or Selma who weren't quite sure that they could do it.
But seeing me up there might encourage them to write one
of those books I'm desperate to read. And that made me
happy. It gave me license to strut.
Q: You've said that even after publishing three novels,
you didn't dare call yourself "a writer." How was that
A: I think, at bottom, I simply was not prepared to do
the adult thing, which in those days would be associated
with the male thing, which was to say, "I'm a writer." I
said, "I am a mother who writes" or "I am an editor who
writes." The word "writer" was hard for me to say
because that's what you put on your income-tax form. I
do now say, "I'm a writer." But it's the difference
between identifying one's work and being the person who
does the work. I've always been the latter. I've always
thought best when I wrote. Writing is what centered me.
In the act of writing, I felt most alive, most coherent,
most stable and most vulnerable.
Interestingly, I've always felt deserving. Growing up in
Lorain, my parents made all of us feel as though there
were these rather extraordinary deserving people within
us. I felt like an aristocrat -- or what I think an
aristocrat is. I always knew we were very poor. But that
was never degrading. I remember a very important lesson
that my father gave me when I was 12 or 13. He said,
"You know, today I welded a perfect seam and I signed my
name to it." And I said, "But, Daddy, no one's going to
see it!" And he said, "Yeah, but I know it's there." So
when I was working in kitchens, I did good work.
Q: When did you do that kind of work?
A: I started around 13. That was the work that was
available: to go to a woman's house after school and
clean for three or four hours. The normal teen-age jobs
were not available. Housework always was. It wasn't
uninteresting. You got to work these gadgets that I
never had at home: vacuum cleaners. Some of the people
were nice. Some were terrible. Years later, I used some
of what I observed in my fiction. In "The Bluest Eye,"
Pauline lived in this dump and hated everything in it.
And then she worked for the Fishers, who had this
beautiful house, and she loved it. She got a lot of
respect as their maid that she didn't get anywhere else.
If she went to the grocery store as a black woman from
that little house and said, "I don't want this meat,"
she would not be heard. But if she went in as a
representative of these white people and said, "This is
not good enough," they'd pay attention.
Q: What role did books play in your childhood?
A: Major. A driving thing. The security I felt, the
pleasure, when new books arrived was immense. My mother
belonged to a book club, one of those early ones. And
that was hard-earned money, you know.
Q: As a young reader, when you encountered racial
stereotypes in the classics of American literature -- in
Ernest Hemingway or Willa Cather or William Faulkner --
how did you deal with them?
A: I skipped that part. Read over it. Because I loved
those books. I loved them. So when they said these
things that were profoundly racist, I forgave them. As
for Faulkner, I read him with enormous pleasure. He
seemed to me the only writer who took black people
seriously. Which is not to say he was, or was not, a
Q: It must have been fulfilling, in 1970, to see your
name on the cover of "The Bluest Eye."
A: I was upset. They had the wrong name: Toni Morrison.
My name is Chloe Wofford. Toni's a nickname.
Q: Didn't you know that your publisher, Holt, was going
to use the name?
A: Well, I sort of knew it was going to happen. I was in
a daze. I sent it in that way because the editor knew me
as Toni Morrison.
Q: So you achieved fame misnamed?
A: Tell me about it! I write all the time about being
misnamed. How you got your name is very special. My
mother, my sister, all my family call me Chloe. It was
Chloe, by the way, who went to Stockholm last year to
get the Nobel Prize.
Q: In your acceptance speech you spoke against
"unyielding language content to admire its own
paralysis" -- language that "suppresses human
potential." Some of your critics thought you were using
the Nobel ceremony to advocate politically correct
A: You know, the term "political correctness" has become
a shorthand for discrediting ideas. I believe that
powerful, sharp, incisive, critical, bloody, dramatic,
theatrical language is not dependent on injurious
language, on curses. Or hierarchy. You're not stripping
language by requiring people to be sensitive to other
people's pain. I can't just go around saying, "Kill
whitey." What does that mean? It may satisfy something,
but there's no information there. I can't think through
that. And I have to use language that's better than
that. What I think the political correctness debate is
really about is the power to be able to define. The
definers want the power to name. And the defined are now
taking that power away from them.
Q: Which authors influenced you when you began writing?
A: James Baldwin. He could say something in a phrase
that clarified all sorts of conflicting feelings. Before
Baldwin, I got titillated by fiction through reading the
African novelists, men and women -- Chinua Achebe,
Camara Laye. Also Bessie Head and the Negritude
Movement, including Leopold Sedar Senghor and Aime
Cesaire. They did not explain their black world. Or
clarify it. Or justify it. White writers had always
taken white centrality for granted. They inhabited their
world in a central position and everything nonwhite was
"other." These African writers took their blackness as
central and the whites were the "other."
After I published "The Bluest Eye," I frequently got the
question, "Do you write for white readers?" The question
stunned me. I remember asking a white woman at Knopf,
"What do white people mean when they say, 'I know you
did not write that book for me, but I like it'? I never
say, 'Oh, Eudora Welty, I know your book was not written
for me, but I enjoy it.' " This woman explained that
white readers were not accustomed to reading books about
black people in which the central issue is not white
people. In my work, the white world is marginalized.
This kind of ground shifting seems much more common to
black women writers. Not so much black men writers.
Black men writers are often interested in their
relations with white men. White men, by and large, are
not powerful figures in black women's literature.
Q: When you began writing, the best-known black literary
voices were male -- Ralph Ellison, Baldwin, Richard
Wright. Did you make a conscious effort to change that?
A: When I began writing I didn't write against existing
voices. There had been some women writing -- Paule
Marshall, Zora Neale Hurston, though I hadn't read
Hurston yet. When I began, there was just one thing that
I wanted to write about, which was the true devastation
of racism on the most vulnerable, the most helpless unit
in the society -- a black female and a child. I wanted
to write about what it was like to be the subject of
racism. It had a specificity that was damaging. And if
there was no support system in the community and in the
family, it could cause spiritual death, self-loathing,
Once I did that, I wanted to write another book. By the
time I wrote the third one, I began to think in terms of
what had gone on before -- whether my territory was
different. I felt what I was doing was so unique that I
didn't think a man could possibly understand what the
little girl in "The Bluest Eye" was feeling. I did not
think a white person could describe it. So I thought I
was telling a tale untold.
Q: There's a boom now in black women's literature. Terry
McMillan makes best-seller lists. Bebe Moore Campbell's
"Brothers and Sisters" is a Book-of-the-Month Club main
selection. Is the book world changing?
A: Yes. This means there is now such a thing as popular
black women's literature. Popular! In 1992, there were
four books by black women on the best-seller lists -- at
the same time. Terry McMillan's, Alice Walker's and two
of mine. Now that's exhilarating!
When I was a book editor, I had to worry about all the
books I was publishing by black authors being lumped
together in reviews. Black authors who didn't write
anything at all like each other would be reviewed
together. Their works were understood first of all to be
black, and not, you know, history books or novels.
Q: Back to your Nobel. What did you do with the $817,771
that came with it?
[ Sighs. ] It's probably just as well. Because if I
hadn't done that, I would have taken the money and
rebuilt my house and it would have been like most of the
money I've ever had: as soon as you get it, there's this
big hole waiting for it.
Q: Did the fire seem like some kind of mystical leveling
for flying too high?
A: No. In the two years around the Nobel, I had a lot of
bad luck, a lot of very serious devastations. My mother
died, other things. The only thing that happened that
was unexpected and truly wonderful was the Nobel Prize.
So I regard the fact that my house burned down after I
won the Nobel Prize to be better than having my house
burn down without having won the Nobel Prize. Most
people's houses just burn down. Period.
When I think about the fire, I think I may not ever,
ever, ever get over it. And it isn't even about the
things. It's about photographs, plants I nurtured for 20
years, about the view of the Hudson River, my children's
report cards, my manuscripts. There were some months
when I wouldn't talk to anybody who had not had a house
Q: That must have been a limited circle.
A: Oh, I don't know. You'd be surprised how many people
had their house burn down. The writer Maxine Hong
Kingston and I traded information. She had her whole
house burn down. Right now, I don't want to think about
where I live because I'm working hard on a new book. And
I am getting deeper and deeper into the book. And I can
feel myself getting vaguer and vaguer and vaguer. Pretty
soon I will be like someone looking through water --
everybody will look to me as if I'm in a tank somewhere.
Q: I read that your two sons didn't particularly like
growing up with a writer for a mother.
A: Who does? I wouldn't. Writers are not there. They're
likely to get vague when you need them. And while the
vagueness may be good for the writer, if children need
your complete attention, then it's bad for them.
Q: You wrote your early novels while holding a full-time
job and raising your sons alone. How did you keep the
responsibilities from silencing you as a writer?
A: It wasn't easy. But when I left Washington, I really
wanted to see if I could do it alone. In New York,
whenever things got difficult I thought about my
mother's mother, a sharecropper, who, with her husband,
owed money to their landlord. In 1906, she escaped with
her seven children to meet her husband in Birmingham,
where he was working as a musician. It was a dangerous
trip, but she wanted a better life. Whenever things
seemed difficult for me in New York, I thought that what
I was doing wasn't anything as hard as what she did.
I remember one day when I was confused about what I had
to do next -- write a review, pick up groceries, what? I
took out a yellow pad and made a list of all the things
I had to do. It included large things, like "be a good
daughter and a good mother," and small things, like
"call the phone company." I made another list of the
things I wanted to do. There were only two things
without which I couldn't live: mother my children and
write books. Then I cut out everything that didn't have
to do with those two things.
There was an urgency -- that's all I remember. Not
having the leisure to whine. Not paying close attention
to what others thought my life should be like. Not
organizing my exterior and interior self for the
approval of men -- which I had done a lot of before.
It's not a bad thing to please a husband or a lover, but
I couldn't do that. It took up time and thought.
Q: There's a lot of sexual violation in your fiction.
A: Because when I began to write, it was an
unmentionable. It is so dangerous, it is so awful, so
wicked, that I think in connection with vulnerable black
women it was never talked about. I wanted to write books
that ran the whole gamut of women's sexual experiences.
I didn't like the imposition that had been placed on
black women's sexuality in literature. They were either
mothers, mammies or whores. And they were not vulnerable
people. They were not people who were supposed to enjoy
sex, either. That was forbidden in literature -- to
enjoy your body, be in your body, defend your body. But
at the same time I wanted to say, "You still can be
prey." Right now, I've been writing a page or two in my
new book, trying to evoke out-of-door safety for women.
How it feels. How it is perceived when you feel
perfectly safe a long way from home. This new book,
"Paradise," has taken over my imagination completely and
I'm having the best time ever. I wrote 13 pages in three
days. I've never done that in my life.
Q: When you relax, what do you read?
A: Well, I don't read much fiction when I'm writing, as
I am right now. If I read fiction, I want to be in the
author's head, and I have to be in mine. I did have some
time off recently and I read Marguerite Duras and Leslie
Marmon Silko and Jean Genet's biography. When I'm on
tour or traveling, I generally read mystery stories --
Ruth Rendell, John le Carre, P. D. James and this man
called Carl Hiaasen. He has a wonderful ear for
dialogue. Q: Have you been following the O. J. Simpson
A: Yes, and I find it very sinister. It's a carnival.
Sometimes you think it's about men beating women,
sometimes about athletes and their being curried and
made into things. Sometimes you think it's about
white/black, Hollywood, but it's not. This is just one
big national spectacle, and they get to kill him. We get
to watch. We get to focus on the detritus, not the
Q: "Beloved" is the story of an escaped slave, Sethe,
who kills her daughter rather than see the child live in
slavery. Were you frightened while writing it?
A: I had never been so frightened. I could imagine
slavery in an intellectual way, but to feel it
viscerally was terrifying. I had to go inside. Like an
actor does. I had to feel what it might feel like for my
own children to be enslaved. At the time, I was no
longer working at an office, and that permitted me to go
With "Beloved," I wanted to say, "Let's get rid of these
words like 'the slave woman' and 'the slave child,' and
talk about people with names, like you and like me, who
were there." Now, what does slavery feel like? What can
you do? How can you be? Clearly, it is a situation in
which you have practically no power. And if you decide
you are not going to be a victim, then it's a major
risk. And you end up doing some terrible things. And
some not-so-terrible things. But the risk of being your
own person, or trying to have something to do with your
destiny, is one of the major battles in life.
Q: Do you ever get writer's block?
A: I disavow that term. There are times when you don't
know what you're doing or when you don't have access to
the language or the event. So if you're sensitive, you
can't do it. When I wrote "Beloved," I thought about it
for three years. I started writing the manuscript after
thinking about it, and getting to know the people and
getting over the fear of entering that arena, and it
took me three more years to write it. But those other
three years I was still at work, though I hadn't put a
Q: Several of your friends told me you were surprised
when you won the Nobel Prize. Why?
A: Because I never thought I had that many supporters. I
never thought that the Swedish Academy either knew about
my work or took it seriously. The reason it didn't occur
to me is not because I didn't think my work eminently
worthy. But I was aware of the cautions and the caveats
and the misunderstandings that seemed to lie around the
criticisms of my work. My books are frequently read as
representative of what the black condition is. Actually,
the books are about very specific circumstances, and in
them are people who do very specific things. But, more
importantly, the plot, characters are part of my effort
to create a language in which I can posit philosophical
questions. I want the reader to ponder those questions
not because I put them in an essay, but because they are
part of a narrative.
Let me put it another way. I think of jazz music as very
complicated, very sophisticated and very difficult. It
is also very popular. And it has the characteristic of
being sensual and illegal. And its sensuality and its
illegality may prevent people from seeing how
sophisticated it is. Now, that to me says something
about the culture in which I live and about my work. I
would like my work to do two things: be as demanding and
sophisticated as I want it to be, and at the same time
be accessible in a sort of emotional way to lots of
people, just like jazz. That's a hard task. But that's
what I want to do.
Home | The New York Times Book Review | Search | Forums |
The New York Times on the Web
Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company