Toni Morrison On Bondage And A Post-Racial Age

Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winning author Toni Morrison is back on the literary scene with a new book, A Mercy. Set in 17th century America, the story follows a teenaged girl enslaved during a time when many people, not just blacks, were in bondage. Morrison talks about her book, its characters and whether we're living in a post-racial age.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

She is the only living American winner of the Nobel Prize for literature. She's been described as one of America's greatest authors and one who's helped shaped the narrative of African-American life in America from slavery to the present day.

But Toni Morrison stories are so much more than history lessons. Her writing also delves into the complex and powerful relationships, emotions, and motives of her characters, challenging simple stereotypes about victimhood and villain, and we are so pleased to have Toni Morrison with us now to talk about her latest work, "A Mercy." Welcome.

Ms. TONI MORRISON (Author): Thank you. It's good to be here.

MARTIN: It seems almost odd just to call you Toni Morrison. I feel like there should be some title attached. Her divaness.

Ms. MORRISON: (unintelligible)

MARTIN: Her majesty or something.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: You have this effect on people. People who have been circling all day wanting to just see you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Is that odd to get used to?

Ms. MORRISON: It's not me. It's the books. If they make some connection and they involved in it, they transfer that to the author.

MARTIN: So, it's a gift?

Ms. MORRISON: It's a gift. It's a compliment.

MARTIN: I want to talk about "A Mercy." It begins with the voice and follows the story of Florens...

Ms. MORRISON: Yes.

MARTIN: A teenage girl of African descent enslaved at the dawn of American history in the 17th century. In the political narrative this year, we've talked a lot about this being a post-racial age, if it indeed is that. Florens is essentially pre-racial, at a time when many people - not just black people were in bondage. And I so want to know why this era engaged you.

Ms. MORRISON: Precisely because it was - I guess pre-racial is good enough. It certainly was pre-racist. When slavery had not yet been coupled with race, when most of the world were slaves, and they may have been called surfs or peons or peasants or what have you, but empire has rested on the labor of people in bondage.

And that was not the exotic part of the origins of this country, but it became an unusual relationship when certain things happened, and the aristocrats and the landed gentry needed to protect themselves from the poor, which in this case were itinerants, and they were indentured servants from Europe, and they were enslaved Africans and enslaved native Americans.

So the solution in one instance in Virginia, which took root elsewhere, was to say that it's the invention of white people, really- which is another title for the book - that any white person could mame or kill any black person for any reason and be protected. So that is an immediate division, you know, between the various levels and kinds of poor people, and the benefit was only to the rich.

MARTIN: I don't know how much patience you have to talk about your method. But the book begins in Florens's voice, and really, this is her story.

Ms. MORRISON: Yes.

MARTIN: It's a narrative about her journey - several journeys. I wanted to ask, how did her voice come to you?

Ms. MORRISON: That I can't really explain. My question to myself was, I wonder what it felt like to be a young slave - black girl when there was no racism, the feeling that you are loathed genetically. And then, when I posed the question, at some point, I just heard this voice. And literally, the first words were, don't be afraid. And then, when I learned more about her, I realized that she would speak in the present tense, and that would give her language, set it aside. Also, it was accurate for her because everything is now, you know, urgent, now.

MARTIN: Just a teenager?

Ms. MORRISON: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Yeah. Yeah. But you know...

Ms. MORRISON: A teenager in love. I mean, you know, then we have a past that just has him or her, as the case may be.

MARTIN: The story is told, though, from a variety of perspectives that opens with Florens, in her voice. But Florens belongs to the household of Jacob Vaark. And I want to talk in a minute about why she's there.

Ms. MORRISON: Mm.

MARTIN: But the other voices are Lina, who's a Native American woman, who is, in essence, a slave.

Ms. MORRISON: Yes.

MARTIN: I don't know if you really call her that. Rebekka, the wife of Jacob, which is an interesting biblical, you know...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Who was sent to Jacob as a mail order bride, essentially, from England. They are all bound. They are all bound.

Ms. MORRISON: They are all in various stages of enslavement, sometimes, you know, the coarsest kind of exchange. But when you read the advertisements in the paths of Saddam, everybody was for rent or for sale and sometimes for hire, but generally not - and particularly young people, children. They were motherless, fatherless, they were vulnerable. People just picked them up.

You've read all those stories, perhaps, about being impressed on ships and just picked up off the street and sent places. Dozens were sent to Virginia, and they were European children. And some of them were supposed to be free after seven or eight years, but they weren't. Any infraction, you could extend their contract.

MARTIN: And who would enforce it anyway?

Ms. MORRISON: Yeah. There was no law. It was lawless, literally. And when there was law, it was somebody who owned the land, or it was a church. Because if you belonged to a flock, you could abide by those rules. And they sometimes involved slaughter, so that the churches and the institutions that had run from persecution were themselves frequently persecutors when they got to this country.

MARTIN: These - all these women and girls, and there's another young girl, Sorrow...

Ms. MORRISON: Yes.

MARTIN: Who is just sorrow…

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Sorrow. Who has just this - who has this history as a castaway child. I mean, was a child on a ship, and everybody on the ship seems to have been slaughtered. So, she's there, too, and is essentially silent, although it's kind of a - anyway. But they all become kind of a family for a time.

Ms. MORRISON: They do. They do.

MARTIN: But it doesn't last. Why doesn't it last? Why can't it?

Ms. MORRISON: Well, the family structure that they invent in isolation, they don't belong to any club or church, or they don't have any rights of law except this land that he inherits. So, they construct, as Americans frequently did, a family of disparate parts. But it was held together, as families frequently are, and certainly then, by the man.

He was the glue, and he was the head, and he was a decent man. So, when he goes, when he dies, they are left at their most vulnerable point, including his widow, who really has the inheritance, but she doesn't have the resources to stand alone. Some of the others do, and sometimes, as it turns out, Sorrow, this girl who starts from zero, who's like nobody, imagines along the way and becomes, through pregnancy and the deliverance of a child, she renames herself Complete.

So, I was interested in what happens when people have all the support systems kicked out from under them. Who survives? Who becomes an adult? Who collapses? Who chooses the wrong path or a path that may be satisfactory, but it's lesser? Lina remains with her mistress, even though their friendship, which is what they really had, deteriorates. Because the important thing for her, the nobility for her is loyalty. And her loyalty is so important to her that it does not depend on the worth of the person to whom she is loyal.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Speaking of Lina and so many of the critics have commented on the deliciousness of your descriptions of the landscape. I mean, it - just the description of what it was like to step into the marsh and the trees and the sunlight. But one of the things I noticed is that many of the characters are very respectful of the land and of animals. Like there's a scene where Jacob frees a raccoon from a trap. And he is about to intervene with some sailors who're beating a horse, but they traffic in human beings. What do we make of this?

Ms. MORRISON: Well, nature was dangerous. It was a real threat. Being wild was really being loose, and you could die if you weren't careful. You know, snakes and predators and - also, it's the (unintelligible). So, there was - what you describe as respect was the respect of something that could seriously hurt you. That was not at your mercy.

MARTIN: I have read that you did a tremendous amount of research to get that right.

Ms. MORRISON: I had to.

MARTIN: Well, you didn't have to because I wouldn't know. We weren't there. Why is this so important to you?

Ms. MORRISON: Oh, I need to feel comfortable, myself, as a writer. I didn't know what it looked like, what it felt like, what the weather was like, all of that. So that now, my characters are in an environment to which they're constantly reacting, based on something that's really accurate. So, I had to do that kind of research.

MARTIN: We have to take a short break, and we'll have more of this conversation in a moment. But before we do, we want to play a short excerpt of Ms. Morrison reading from "A Mercy" exclusively for NPR.

Ms. MORRISON: (Reading) Her voice was barely above a whisper, but there was no mistake in its urgency. Please, senor, not me. Take her. Take my daughter. Jacob looked (unintelligible) at her, away from the child's feet, his mouth still open with laughter, and was struck by the terror in her eyes. His laugh creaking to a close. He shook his head, thinking, God help me if this is not the most wretched business.

MARTIN: That was Toni Morrison, reading from her new book, "A Mercy." You'll find links to the special edition of NPR's book draw contest on the Tell Me More page of npr.org. Coming up, part two of our conversation with Toni Morrison. That's next on Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. We're going to continue our conversation with Nobel laureate and Pulitzer Prize-winner, author Toni Morrison. She joined us in the studio to talk about her new book, "A Mercy."

Ms. Morrison, I want to go back to the character of Florens and the section where she comes to the household of Jacob. Now, her mother had asked Jacob to take Florens to settle a debt in a scene that may remind some people of the novel, "Sophie's Choice." Now, you've tackled the topic of slavery before, particularly in "Paradise," and the work many consider your masterpiece, "Beloved," and you focused on some of the brutal choices that slavery forced on women.

But I have to tell you, there are times when, particularly as a mother, this story brought me to my knees thinking about what it must have been like to hand over your child. Now, you're a mother yourself, and I wonder, how do you go to such a place, even think about such a thing?

Ms. MORRISON: If I'm going to bear witness to these really terrible things, I have to tell myself that I don't have to do it. I just have to imagine it. And that is hard enough. Because the - really, you know, of the monstrous things that slavery in this country caused was the breakup of families.

I mean, physical labor was horrible, beatings horrible, lynching death, all of that, horrible. But the living life of a parent who, A, has no control over what happens to her child, none. They don't belong to you. You are not responsible for them. You may not even nurse them. They may be shipped off somewhere, as in "Beloved" the mother was, to be nursed by somebody who was not able to work in the fields and was a wet nurse.

But that division is traumatic. Sometimes there were other things, you know, where women literally threw their children away because their fathers were crew men or sailors or somebody they didn't know or like. I remember, in "Beloved," the man says, she put her arms around her father. This is quite different.

So even in "A Mercy," there was an urgent request or an encouragement for me to make it possible for Florens to hear and know and understand why her mother gave her away. And I resisted it completely because the truth is, she would never know. The fact that she becomes tough, the way her mother would have wanted her to be, this - because of the circumstances of her own journey. But she never hears. She never knows, as many of them did not, who these people were. Who were her parents? Where were they? And you do feel that enormous abandonment, which she felt all her life.

MARTIN: Florens' mother, at one point, says, there is no protection, but there is difference.

Ms. MORRISON: She knew one really, really terrible situation, which was the one she was in. And when she sees Jacob Vaark, and her master offers her as a payment of debt. And he doesn't want to be involved in slavery and all of that in debt by human flesh, and so he refuses.

But she has seen in his eyes, she believes, something unusual. She said, he looked at you, meaning her child, not as pieces of eight, not as money, but as a human child. So, yes, there's no protection for a female, but there is difference. And this might be better because she takes the risk.

MARTIN: One of the things that other commentators, critics have noticed is that there are no cardboard characters here. There's nobody who's just simple. There's no, like, you know, twirly-mustached villain here, even the - I could argue the most disgusting character in the book - it's kind of hard, you know. There's some competition for that - is the Portuguese slave trader to whom Florens originally belongs has his reasons and doesn't, you know what I mean? He's not a (unintelligible).

Ms. MORRISON: He's a businessman.

MARTIN: He's a businessman, and at least he entrusts her to a priest, who has taught her, who has allowed - allowed them to learn to read and write.

Ms. MORRISON: Exactly.

MARTIN: And then Jacob himself is an orphan who has made his way in the world. Now, what are you telling us about how we should...

Ms. MORRISON: That people are complicated, and that's what's interesting about us. The caricature or the cartoon figure has a place in cartoons, I think, and in some other, you know, agenda that I sometimes am impressed with. But if I really want to enjoy and invest in a piece of art that is representative of the magnificent landscape of human beings, then I need complicated people.

MARTIN: If you were to read "A Mercy" as, in part, an allegory of the American story, you know, there's so many elements that people who think about American culture will instantly recognize, the way we reinvent ourselves, the way we take pieces from a history that many of us don't particularly know as well as we wish we did, and we sort of construct it, the way we create new selves for ourselves. But it does fall apart. How shall we read this?

Ms. MORRISON: Look at the people in the book who did invent themselves. Lina's a prime example of that American invention. Her tribe was wiped out when she was little. She gets pushed into - as a Presbyterian, you know. So, she begins to construct herself. A little bit of this, which she remembers from her childhood, which she remembers from the Presbyterians, what she thinks of, her own love relationship that went so sour. Sorrow, just in sorrow, the character, just, you know, completely becomes an adult at that moment when she is literally responsible for another human's life, her own.

And Florens, her whole journey of executing her own story. She's telling her own story. And begins with a - kind of a plea. Don't be afraid. I'm not going to do this thing again. But by the end, the person to whom she speaks, she's saying, are you afraid? You ought to be. That's a whole different human being, and it comes through her ability to tell her story, to glean its meaning, and to become something very close to an adult human being, whatever her fortunes are.

So, I just wanted everybody there not to just be that person, static. Even Jacob, who has had this long journey and who loathes the whole business of slavery is willing to get a nice big house, to profit from slavery, although he doesn't want to be intimately related to the labor of slavery.

MARTIN: He doesn't want to see it.

Ms. MORRISON: No.

MARTIN: In spite of being involved in the rum trade, where - he's removed.

Ms. MORRISON: Exactly, that's it. The way we are, from sweatshops and all sorts of places where people are paid a nickel, then we get the socks cheaper. We know that. And, of course, we are correct. They are alive and not dead, and they're being fed. You know, you can rationalize practically anything.

And he does that in order to have what also becomes an American characteristic, which is the acquisition of something excessive, a bigger house. He didn't even have children anymore, but he wants this big house because he envies the Portuguese slave owners.

MARTIN: Who he doesn't even respect.

Ms. MORRISON: Who he hates. But you understand that what was exciting for me, and I hope the reader gets some of that, is how ad hoc everything was, how fluid aAnd the unlikeliness, the unlikelihood of this nation becoming what it is. It started within everybody and anybody, with competing interests. And before it was both Eden and hell. I mean, it was - anything could happen.

MARTIN: What do you think the books mean for people? What do you think these stories mean to people?

Ms. MORRISON: I think it's a...

MARTIN: Because they're not easy. They're not easy stories.

Ms. MORRISON: No, they're not. And that's one of the reasons I think that when people connect with them, they do really connect, you know. It's like complicated music that, when you tap into it, it's almost ineffable. You cannot even say why it is that it's important to you. And if you love it, you recognize something about yourself, about other people, about the world. And it's clarifying and enlightening, and even when it's sad, you see this kind of survival, kind of.

And people learn things (unintelligible) in my books. They know stuff. And when that happens - it certainly happens with me when I read books like that - you might be inclined to transfer that gratitude for that insight and that experience to the author in addition to the books. And now, you've got a - you've got live flesh to smile at, and that's fine.

MARTIN: Well, I'm happy for that. If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. Our guest is Nobel laureate, Pulitzer Prize-winner, diva of divas, Toni Morrison. We are talking about her latest novel, "A Mercy."

We talked at the beginning of our conversation about the fact that this book takes place at a time that pre-racial is pre-racist, and a lot of people now call this a post-racial era. Do you buy that?

Ms. MORRISON: I certainly don't like that word. I don't know why. But it seems to indicate something that I don't think is quite true, which is that we have erased racism.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MORRISON: From the country, and that's a - or the world. Racism will disappear when it's, A, no longer profitable and no longer psychologically useful. And when that happens, it'll be gone. But at the moment, people make a lot of money off of it - pro and con.

And also, it protects people from a certain kind of pain. If you take racism away from certain people - I mean vitriolic racism as well as the sort of social racist - if you take that away, they may have to face something really terrible - misery, self-misery, and deep pain about who they are. It's just easier to say that one over there is the cause of all my problems.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: What do you make of Barack Obama's election? What do you think it means?

Ms. MORRISON: I was very, very pleased, exhilarated even with his election. And I also was proud of the country, that it chose not to be terrified all the time, not to be so cowardly, and not to always scream about who's going to get on.

Of course, there's danger in the world. We're in the worst position I think I have seen - I'm 77 - this country in. But they chose to work for the democracy that they have long loved, to actually put it on the line and not just succumb to hatred, and to actually look forward to what the promise of the country is. And that's brave under these circumstances.

MARTIN: Did you honestly think that this day would come in your lifetime?

Ms. MORRISON: No. I never thought that. I was very, very surprised.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MORRISON: Pleased and surprised, and it wasn't, you know, I keep saying, it wasn't an African-American who won the election. It was this particular man. This one, not another one, that I wouldn't vote for.

MARTIN: Fungible, yeah. Just interchangeable.

Ms. MORRISON: Yeah. On the television, it's like, oh, the African. No, no, no. This man is (unintelligible).

MARTIN: I understand he called you and asked for your support.

Ms. MORRISON: Oh, he did.

MARTIN: I'm sure he's called you more than once. I know I would if I had your phone number, but he asked you for your endorsement. You don't generally endorse people. I don't remember you ever endorsing anybody. Did you actually wind up endorsing him or whatever that means?

Ms. MORRISON: I actually wound up, which is simple, that I never endorse publicly any politician, you know. I'm very rabid about whom I support personally, but I never do. And he just asked, would I, if I thought well of his campaign. And so on, would I do it. And I told him that.

And he said he understood perfectly because if I did it once, then I might be constantly asked, and he said. think about it. I said I would think about it. And he mentioned some event, you know, a fundraiser or something that I was welcome to attend. And I sort of, you know, I was interested really in him because of his book, "Song of Solomon." It was quite extraordinary. I mean, he's a real writer type.

MARTIN: That's a compliment, coming from you.

Ms. MORRISON: Oh, man. Oh, really?

MARTIN: Did you tell him? Did you tell him you thought well of his book?

Ms. MORRISON: Yeah, well, we said a few little things about "Song of Solomon," and I sort of acknowledged that he was a writer, also, in my (unintelligible).

MARTIN: I'm surprised he can still fit his head through the door.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MORRISON: That's the thing about Obama. He can still fit his head through the door. And then I left it up in the air because I was very happy with Hillary Clinton in that campaign because I've been an admirer of hers for years and years.

So, I began to seriously evaluate, not in terms of who could win and not in terms of, oh, this one is a woman and this one is an African-American. I mean, you know, things are too tight for that. I couldn't settle on that. So I began to look at it what I thought was carefully, and then I decided that I would endorse him. And afterwards, he, you know, just called to thank me, although I've never met him.

MARTIN: You've never met him?

Ms. MORRISON: Mm-mm.

MARTIN: Well, what about the inauguration? Are you going to come?

Ms. MORRISON: No, I don't think so.

MARTIN: What?

Ms. MORRISON: Why not? I'd rather see it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MORRISON: I don't think so. Too many people. What am I going to do? Just, sort of - oh, I can't.

MARTIN: Be a diva.

Ms. MORRISON: No, no, no, no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: You wave at people. Let them come and line up to kiss your ring, the way they're doing here today.

Ms. MORRISON: No, no, no. No, no, no. No, no, no. That's not me. That's some other...

MARTIN: Are you going to do anything special to market?

Ms. MORRISON: I will think up something. I'll think up something.

MARTIN: OK. You mentioned that you were fascinated by his book, his life story. A lot of Americans are. Do you think there might be something in his story for you as a writer?

Ms. MORRISON: No. He's very different. I mean, his ability to reflect on this extraordinary mesh of experiences that he has had, some familiar and some not, and to really meditate on that the way he does and to set up scenes in a narrative structure type of conversation, all of these things that you don't often see, obviously, in the routine political memoir biography. But I think this was when he was much younger, like in his 30s or something. So that was impressive to me. But it's unique. It's his. There are no other ones like that.

MARTIN: Well, there are no other ones like you, either. So, what's next for you? Anything you have in mind?

Ms. MORRISON: Yeah. I have things on my mind that I wish I felt bold enough to tell you, but...

MARTIN: Perhaps we could entice you to come back and see us when you are ready to tell us.

Ms. MORRISON: That you can do. That you can do.

MARTIN: Toni Morrison is a winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize, among many other honors. Her latest novel, "A Mercy," is available now. And if you want to hear her reading from it, you can go to npr.org, where she has written a number of chapters of the book. Toni Morrison, I thank you so much for joining us today.

Ms. MORRISON: Oh, this was a delight, Michel.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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Toni Morrison: A Mother, A Stranger, 'A Mercy'

Toni Morrison

hide captionToni Morrison's A Mercy is set in the 1680s. "I wanted to separate race from slavery," she says. To do so, she moved as far as she could, "to when what we now call America was fluid, ad hoc."

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

This special presentation of A Mercy will run in four installments from Oct. 27 thru Oct. 30. "Book Tour" is a weekly Web feature and podcast that presents leading authors as they read from and discuss their work.

In this special edition of Book Tour, NPR is honored to be the first to present Pulitzer Prize-winner and Nobel laureate Toni Morrison reading from her new novel, A Mercy. A stunning return to form for Morrison, A Mercy deserves to be counted alongside some of her most acclaimed novels, such as Sula and Beloved.

The stories in A Mercy are as layered and contested as the barely mapped topology traversed by its characters. Set in the 1680s, when this country's reliance on slavery as an economic engine was just beginning, A Mercy explores the repercussions of an enslaved mother's desperate act: She offers her small daughter to a stranger in payment for her master's debt.

Four women are central to this narrative: a traumatized Native-American servant known as Lina; Florens, the coltish enslaved girl at the story's center; an enigmatic wild child named Sorrow; and Rebekka, their European mistress — kind, politically contrarian and reeling from the loss of one infant after another in her isolated homestead.

The book shifts dramatically in tone as it recounts the stories of these women and of the men who both stabilize and disrupt their worlds — mostly through love. Those men include Jacob Vaark, the farmer and reluctant slaveholder, and a formidable free black man known simply as "the blacksmith." Their ability to move through the world intoxicates these women, whose own travels — mostly under duress — have been vile and dangerous.

Readers familiar with Morrison's work will recognize its quietly chilling evocations of the supernatural and depictions of powerful relationships among women. A bride and her new husband's female servant eye each other with suspicion that mellows into genuine mutual affection. A motherless child clings painfully to a childless mother. Transformative maternity defines A Mercy, beginning and ending with the devil's bargain referred to in the title and explained in the novel's devastating conclusion.

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