Toni Morrison On Human 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 teenage 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:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Still to come, a conversation with writer, actor and producer John Leguizamo. But first, if you love books, perhaps among the gifts you gave or received this holiday season was "A Mercy." It's the latest from author Toni Morrison. She's the only living American winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, and she's been praised as one of America's greatest writers, one who's helped shape the narrative of black life in America.

But Toni Morrison's stories are so much more than history lessons. Her writing delves into the complexity and power of relationships, emotions and motives, and she challenges stereotypes about what it means to be a victim and what it means to be villain. Well, our gift to you today is a rebroadcast of our conversation with Toni Morrison, who spoke with us recently about her new novel. And I want to mention that a crowd of fans from across NPR managed to find their way to the studio to watch our interview. So, I asked her what it was like to inspire such a devoted following.

(Soundbite of interview)

Ms. TONI MORRISON (Author, "A Mercy"): It's not me. It's the books. If they make some connection, and they're involved in it, they transfer that to the author.

MARTIN: So, it's a gift, a compliment.

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 serfs or peons or peasants or what have you, but empires 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 maim 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: The story is told though from a variety of perspectives. It 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. But the other voices are Lina, who is a Native American woman, who is in essence a slave.

Ms. MORRISON: Yes.

MARTIN: I don't know if they really call her that. Rebekkah, the wife of Jacob, which is an interesting biblical, you know, who was sent to Jacob as a mail order bride essentially from - and 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 and the pamphlets at the time, everybody was for rent or for sale, and sometimes for hire but generally not, in 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, the institution that had run from persecutions, were themselves frequently persecutors when they got to this country.

MARTIN: 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, one of the monstrous things that slavery in this country caused was the breakup of families.

I mean, physical labor, 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 your children, none. They don't belong to you. 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. 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, is 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 their parents? Where were they? And you do feel that enormous abandonment, which she felt all her life.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. Our guest, Nobel laureate, Pulitzer Prize winner, diva of divas Toni Morrison, and we are talking about her latest novel, "A Mercy."

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: He gets 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 and 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.

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 sort of 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 is 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 them.

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 your ever endorsing anybody. Did you actually wind up endorsing him, 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, "Dreams of My Father." 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 high esteem.

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 for the letter. 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: Are you going to do anything special to mark it?

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

MARTIN: What's next for you? Anything you have on your mind?

Ms. MORRISON: Yeah. I have things on my mind none of which I feel 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 read 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.

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

Toni Morrison

Toni 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 hide caption

itoggle caption 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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