Tickets had sold out in December and the line in front of the Park Slope synagogue Beth Elohim stretched around the block. 1,200 people had arrived to see America’s only living Nobel Laureate for literature, and arguably (I will fight you) the greatest writer in the world today: Toni Morrison. She appeared as a part of the Brooklyn Public Library, Community Bookstore, and Congregation Beth Elohim-run Brooklyn By the Book literary series, now in its fourth year and would speak in conversation with a Princeton colleague, Claudia Brodsky, scholar of Morrison’s work. (Odd conditions for a friendship, I imagine. And yet.) She entered to a standing ovation.
“Yes, I’ll explain,” she said, when asked about the multiple voices in God Help the Child. “I don’t really trust the characters—I like them, I don’t like them, I want to do them justice—but they don’t know much more than they say. There are other people who know them in other ways.” Those other ways are what she also wants to show.
“I really mean that, about not trusting my characters. Not that they are bad or ignorant, but they are like us, human beings, they know what they know.”
“I hate that title,” she said of God Help the Child. “It’s awful. My original title was wonderful, but everyone hated it in the publishing world. My original title was The Wrath of Children.”
“I tend to go off on tangents because that’s what I do.”
“The main problem I faced with that book was language.” She had begun God Help the Child before Home, her second most recent novel. “Contemporary language eluded me in a literary sense. I didn’t really understand how I could translate very modern, very convenient language—how to elevate it so it had more meaning. So it put it aside. I came back because I thought I had absorbed enough, watching tv, reading little articles.” So much of her linguistic world, she explained, is in academia. “I wanted to have it in that language and not have it shallow. And contemporary language often is. It’s hard and it’s kind of stupid.”
“And we just got through these elections,” she paused, shaking her head. “Nothing nothing nothing.”
“I wanted very much, as I always do—I think always—is to have every book I write end with knowledge. They’re not such happy endings. I always thought you begin at a certain place, whether it’s a literary journey or a journey journey, and the very end has to be the acquisition of knowledge, which is good, which is virtue, which is helpful. Somebody knows something at the end that they didn’t know.” Affirmative murmurs rise through the crowd. “How they use it I don’t know.”
“I have to tell you—I think I mentioned it to you earlier, about my own relationship to” Sweetness, the color-obsessed mother from God Help the Child. “Anyway here’s the story. When I was a little girl, my sister is a year-and-a-half older than I am. As I remember we were playing on the floor of our house. I was three and she was four, something like that. My great grandmother was visiting from I’m sorry to say it, Flint, Michigan. She was understood to be a legend, she was understood to be the wise one, she was understood to be the head. She was a very sought after midwife. This was the first time I had ever seen this. When she walked into a room, all the males stood up. Without any prompting. She was this incredible presence, mythological the way the families talked about her. She walked in and she greeted my mother. She carried a cane, which I don’t think she needed,” Morrison said, her back was so straight. “She said ‘Those children have been tampered with.’ My mother was offended. Three years old, you think there’s nothing but you. I thought it sounded interesting, ‘tampered,’ exotic. She was the darkest women I had ever seen. My great-grandmother was pitch black, saying we have been tampered with. We were not pure as she was. We were sullied inside. It may occur to you that I’ve been talking about that for forever.”
She spoke a little bit about a series of lectures she was working on about “the literature of belonging.”
“Nobody comes out of the womb like that,” she said, talking broadly about hatred, racism, oppression. “It has to be learned. And what good does it do? I mean power, a sense of empowerment, that trashy thing. Do you need that? You know, I know, that it’s not about the other one, it’s all about you, end of speech.”
“We were talking about being good to some people other than your beloved ones. The concept of goodness, the concept of altruism is thought of as weak.” In literature, she says, “Evil has vivid speech. It has a blockbuster audience. Goodness lurks backstage. Goodness bites its tongue. It is Billy Budd, it is Melville’s Bartleby,” speaking in stutters or repetition. “It is Faulker’s Benjy, an idiot.”
“I always thought that evil, murder, all those things needed a top hat, a drum roll, a tuxedo because, fundamentally, they are not complex or interesting. It is devastating, that is all.” What interests her is goodness and how it is expressed. “That strange stuttering muteness.”
“I just think goodness is more interesting. It’s more complex, more layered. Evil is constant, it can elevate itself, but it’s all about pain and death. Period. A child can think of different ways to murder people, that’s not interesting. You do have to be an adult to be consciously, deliberately good. That’s complicated. That’s my sermon.”
She spoke a little of the reading she had done about goodness. “Many of them were by psychiatrists and psychologists and they all identified altruism as something’s wrong with you. They made it almost deviant behavior. I was very disappointed. I thought they had something important to say.”
“I am working on a novel that is—I have to tell you this—it is the best thing I’ve ever written. Now this may change. So far the title is Justice. I’m not going to change it, I don’t care what you say Knopf.”
“The one I’m writing now is the most difficult” novel she has written yet. “They are all so different. Each one is a different enterprise for me.” Though, she admitted, the contemporary language of God Help the Child was difficult in a unique way. “Au courant, so to speak. Slang, all stuff and stuff.”
“Different people are speaking” in that novel “because no one person knows it all, except me, but who wants to hear from me?” She laughed.
“A character in—what was the name of it?—A Mercy. She, what’s her name again? You know, A Mercy? Anybody know?” She looked enquiring at the audience. “Anyway, read that book. There’s no end to what her life became after her house burned down. I always know [what happens to characters] except for that one, I always know the ending before I write. That’s where the meaning is. I know the ending, I know the beginning, I just don’t know the middle. The ending is the point.”
When asked for advice she would give to young writers, “I would say wait till you’re 50. When I was teaching at Princeton, I would say please don’t write these little stories about yourself. When I said that they absolutely did it. They were free of self”—and here Morrison made a sound halfway between a honk and a groan. “Release them. Forget yourself, invent something, and move along. Now you know why there won’t be an autobiography, no memoir. They won’t let me lie, so.” The prospect of retelling a story she already knew would bore her. “I know it all, there’s nothing going on. Yeah I did, that I saw that.”
Of the work of writing that she continues to this day, “I really don’t know how to stop. I’m not as fast paced as I used to be but I can’t imagine me in the world without writing or thinking of something to write. I don’t need to be pushed. I don’t need a contract. My first two books I didn’t have a contract.” Writing “was my place. It was totally free. It was mine. I owned that place, even when I didn’t own anything else.”
And when asked if she had learned anything from the women she had created, Morrison answered, “Not power, just strength. A willingness to go places I may never have wanted to go. Also a sovereignty. It’s okay to be me. I don’t mean the publishing me but the me-me, the person inside. When you hear at the end of Sula, when [Nel] says ‘Ah girl, girl, girlgirlgirl,’ that’s a revaluation in the book. For me that was a kind of cry,” she said, that made a person “think of all you did not do for someone you loved. The tiny regrets. All of us, everyone one of us, has a bunch of those things. But when I wrote that cry, ‘Ah girl, girl, girlgirlgirl.’ ‘We were girls together.’ That meant something.”
“There,” she said, it was done.