'Fresh Air' Remembers Toni Morrison With 3 Conversations Over 4 Decades
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Today's show is devoted to Toni Morrison, one of the most celebrated writers of our time, who died Monday. She was 88 years old.
Morrison won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988 for her novel "Beloved," about a former slave looking back on her life after the Civil War. In 1993, she became the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize for literature. In 2012, President Obama awarded Morrison the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. And in 2015, she won the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Book Critics Circle.
Today we're going to feature three of Toni Morrison's conversations with Terry Gross, covering three different decades. The most recent is from 2015, when Toni Morrison published "God Help The Child." Another is from 1992, the year she wrote her novel called "Jazz." And we're going to start with the earliest of the three, an interview from 1987, when she had just written "Beloved," the novel for which she won the Pulitzer Prize.
"Beloved" is set in 1873, after the Civil War. It's about escaped and emancipated slaves who are trying to build new lives but are haunted by the past. The main character Sethe lives with the ghost of her 2-year-old baby girl. Sethe slit her baby's throat 18 years earlier, rather than let her be recaptured into slavery. Her ghost is known as Beloved, the one word that was printed on her tombstone. Toni Morrison told Terry how she prepared herself emotionally to write about slavery.
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TONI MORRISON: I always suspected that I didn't have the emotional stability to live in that world for the three or four years, however long it would take to examine it. So I did it, I suppose, the way they did it, which was a little bit at a time because if you start out to write a book about slavery, you are probably already lost because it's big, and it's long. And you discover how long 200 years is - not five years, not ten, but 200 - so that you have to have an anchor or a mooring. And the mooring is a group of characters you are caring about very deeply.
But you couldn't tell yourself - or I couldn't tell myself that I was writing a book about slavery because it would have - I would have drowned in that.
TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: I think there've been a lot of books and movies that have actually really trivialized slavery or where slavery becomes the backdrop for, you know, a romantic story or something like that. Did you feel in advance of sitting down to write this book that there were certain traps that you had to avoid in order to really get to the truth of the experience?
MORRISON: Yeah, I think that was part of a fear. Trying to avoid the routine treatment - and I'm included in this group - everybody thinks you sort of know all about it. But until you project into it, most of the information is so sensational, so exotic, so alien and so pathological that it's difficult to grasp. And the fact is that most slave stories that focus on the slaves focus on them as the pathological ones and never focus on the pathology in which they live and in which they are exercising everything they know about being human in order to maintain that position so that the trivial treatments of a slave story - sometimes it's written and sometimes it's filmed - is as though this was a kind of, as you say, scene in which other things of infinitely more interest than the lives of the slaves were going on.
GROSS: I think a lot of children who grew up in families of Holocaust survivors or families in which there was, you know, history in - a history of slavery some place get almost parables told to them about what could happen and why you have to live life a certain way to, you know, protect yourself against certain evils and how you have to rise above the horrors that were inflicted on your grandparents or whatever. Did you get lectures like that from your parents?
MORRISON: No, I didn't. I got other messages from them which were much more valuable because those are very negative, the ones you just recited. I mean, it's undue burdens as though I am somehow responsible for all of that. What they did, which I found really quite healthy, was they assumed without ever articulating it that we were capable and quite bright and in some way morally superior to those who had degraded themselves by trying to degrade us.
They seemed to feel that, you know, there were rich people or there were white people or they were wicked people who really had a lot of answering to do for themselves, and we were not like that. So I always felt very special. And I've always felt for purposes of - you know, xenophobia doesn't work, but I always thought that we were on a higher plane than other people, not because there was fear out there, not because white people could make me into something less because they never believed that was the case. What they could do would be to kill me or maim me, but they could never make me have - be without quality.
And that was so much a part of my upbringing and everybody else I knew in that town - and we were very, very poor people - that I - it took me years to be able to articulate what it was that made me feel like I belonged in this place. And it was this rather than giving me all these sort of - sermonizing about terror. In other words, I was not afraid.
GROSS: But you had a lot of self-respect.
MORRISON: Yeah, because...
GROSS: I mean, that's what this is about, about building self-respect.
MORRISON: Yeah, but it wasn't, you must have - I hear people say...
GROSS: That's right (laughter).
MORRISON: ...You are somebody. You really are good.
GROSS: Yeah, that helps.
MORRISON: I mean, you know...
MORRISON: ...And then people say, oh yeah, well, then maybe it's a possibility I'm not. But these - they were not surprised at superior work.
GROSS: Were you the first person in your family to go to college?
MORRISON: I had an uncle who went to Ohio State.
GROSS: So it wasn't a big symbolic thing for you to go.
MORRISON: Well, it was a big economic problem for me to go, and so shaky - money being so scarce that my mother took a job to help out. My father had two - and more often than not, three - jobs in order to take care of us. But I remember them saying look; we can guarantee you one year. After that, we'll see.
So I went away feeling very blessed about the fact that there was a year available to me but not ever believing that I would have a second year or be able to pay for a second year. And I also worked. But, you know, things were very different then.
BIANCULLI: Toni Morrison speaking to Terry Gross in 1987, the year her novel "Beloved" was published. It would win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. After a break, we'll hear Toni Morrison read from her novel "Jazz" from another conversation between her and Terry, this one from 1992. This is FRESH AIR.
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BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. We're remembering writer Toni Morrison, who died Monday at the age of 88. Terry Gross spoke with her again in 1992 about her novel "Jazz," her sixth novel and her first book since "Beloved." "Jazz" is set in Harlem in 1926 and is about African Americans who moved from the rural South to the urban North. It's also about love, jealousy, violence and aging.
A woman named Violet finds out her husband has been having an affair with a younger woman whom he has killed. At her funeral, Violet takes revenge on the corpse. Here's Toni Morrison reading from the opening.
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MORRISON: I know that woman. She used to live with a flock of birds on Lenox Avenue. I know her husband, too. He fell for an 18-year-old girl. With one of those deep down spooky loves that made him so sad and happy, he shot her just to keep the feeling going. When the woman - her name is Violet - went to the funeral to see the girl and to cut her dead face, they threw her to the floor and out of the church. She ran then through all that snow. And when she got back to her apartment, she took the birds from their cages and set them out the windows to freeze or fly, including the parrot that said I love you.
The snow she ran through was so windswept she left no footprints in it. So for a time, nobody knew exactly where on Lenox Avenue she lived. But like me, they knew who she was, who she had to be because they knew that her husband, Joe Trace, was the one who shot the girl. There was never any one to prosecute him because nobody actually saw him do it. And the dead girl's aunt didn't want to throw money to helpless lawyers or laughing cops when she knew the expense wouldn't improve anything. Besides, she found out that the man who killed her niece cried all day. And for him and for Violet, that is as bad as jail.
GROSS: That's Toni Morrison reading from her new novel "Jazz." You know, the woman who cuts the face of the dead woman, a character later says to the woman who does the cutting, I don't understand women like you, women with knives. Do you understand women with knives, kind of crimes of passion like that?
MORRISON: Not entirely. I think part of the reason I was interested in the story and in that period was some way to figure out the impulses for violence as a sort of notion of solution and how it plays into notions of license and freedom. So it was a quest, really, on my part. I'm not quite sure I understand that kind of excess.
GROSS: Was there a particular crime that you wanted to understand or a particular woman with a knife who you wanted to understand?
MORRISON: The woman I really wanted to understand was Dorcas, the young girl, who is based on a historical figure, actually, a young girl who died in Harlem at a red party shot by her lover with a silencer and who refused to let anybody help her because she wanted to give him time to get away and waited so long that she bled to death.
That was extremely provocative to me, that kind of romance that probably is representative of someone that young, her acceptance of his violence, the way in which a young girl or a woman deals with assault under certain circumstances in certain eras and periods.
GROSS: What's the closest you've seen to this in real life?
MORRISON: I've never seen any of it. I mean, I don't - if I had seen it or participated in it, I probably wouldn't be so interested in writing about it. But it was sort of outside one's own personal experience that is compulsive.
GROSS: No family legends or neighborhood legends from when you were growing up.
MORRISON: Not about women. About men, yes, who were championed because of their endurance and their response to violence associated with them. But the women that I knew were, I suppose in a manner, verbally able to deflect violence.
There's a passage in "Jazz" about the kind of women who needed a certain kind of protection. There were those who had razors taped to their hands. There were those who were willing to boil, lie, and those who were willing to put ground glass in food. But there is a secondary passage which explains what a large majority of black women did in terms of trying to protect themselves - the church, the club movement, the acquisition of property. I think the line goes any black woman in 1926 who did not share some of those protective gestures was silent or crazy or dead.
GROSS: Toni Morrison is my guest. You have this sense in your novel "Jazz" of people coming to Harlem or coming to the city and feeling more like themselves. They are more like the people they always believed they were is the way you put it. That's obviously something you were really interested in developing in this story, just what it meant physically and emotionally for people move - to move to the city. You must have stories about that in your family history.
MORRISON: Oh, I do, yes. That move from the rural areas where I think in literature sometimes, we romanticize into the freedom of the countryside, you know, the sort of ability to commune with nature and be one's transcendent self. And there is that mythos in literature. And there is an accompanying one, which is the freedom of a city. On the one hand, there's a certain kind of anonymity. But more particularly, and especially for African Americans, it was moving into an area where there were so many of you. You could see yourself in your number. And there was a certain kind of protection in that, as well as some license.
Also, it was - I don't know - the idea of a city as being a place where there is a mix, where there are many classes, many kinds of people. And however eccentric you are, there are, you know, at least 100 other people who are eccentric in precisely the same way, so that one has solitude, solitariness, individuality and community in a city.
GROSS: Would you share with us one of your parents' migration stories?
MORRISON: Yes. I think one of the ones that I remember best was when my mother's parents left the South, left Alabama. My grandmother's husband, my grandfather, had gone to a large city to earn some money playing the violin, as a matter of fact. And she was alone on their farm with these children, who were very, very young. I think my mother was 5. And there was some danger about - it was the time when a woman alone with several children was a kind of a target. And her words were that when she noticed white boys beginning to circle that house, she had to leave immediately.
So she sent word to her husband, to my grandfather, by somebody who was en route to tell him that she would be on X train at X time and that if she wanted - if he wanted to see them again, he should be there. And so they left in the middle of the night, in the middle of the night because there's always debt in that sort of sharecropping situation that most post-Reconstruction black people found themselves in, and went to Birmingham and got on the train.
And as the train pulled out there, was no Papa. (Laughter) And the children all began to wail and cry. And a few miles outside the city, he appeared. But he hadn't felt that he could show himself at the station and get on with them because they were escaping that cycle of debt, you know, that round that you can never really escape because, you know, the commissary or the general store you need for the feed, and that takes the crops, et cetera.
So it was a happy event for them. And then the subsequent stops on that route to where they were headed looking for work - for mines that were asking for laborers, for mills for women who could work in service - is an interesting and very typical story. And they ended up on the shores of Lake Erie, where I was born.
GROSS: In Ohio.
GROSS: What was Lorain like when you were growing up? What kind of neighborhood were you growing up in?
MORRISON: It was an interesting place. I still think it's remarkable. In that part of Ohio, and I think in a large - in many of those states, I never lived in a black neighborhood because what we were living in were really just poor neighborhoods, so that I grew up with all of the other immigrants who were coming to this country. I'm thinking, as I speak to you now, of the house where my mother lives at this moment. And the people on the street are named Tershak and Galini (ph) and my mother and a black woman named Mrs. Ross (ph) and so on.
That's always been the case in that town because it was a steel town, and people were coming from Mexico, from Eastern Europe, from Scandinavia, from everywhere, as well as black people coming to these centers just after World War I and someone - in some instances, before, in order to find work. So we had a kind of town that was - I don't know - all the ideals that are probably purely rhetorical existed in that little town.
However, everybody, whether they were Polish people or what they used to call Slovenes (laughter) in those days, had their own halls, churches and, you know, family life. That was not mixed. You know, you didn't exchange on those areas in those days. But there's one high school, four junior high schools. And we all went to the same school.
GROSS: So what was the African American cultural center? Was it the church, or was it...
MORRISON: Oh, yes.
GROSS: ...Something else? The church?
MORRISON: Absolutely the church. Part of it was Sunday. Part of it was Sunday school. But a lot of it was taking care of each other. And what I remember most is the impetus and the necessity for my mother and her friends and for all of us to take food to people who needed it or to go clean somebody's house if they were bedridden. All sorts of chores were taken for granted. When people got old, they didn't have any place for them to go. And if their families were indigent or couldn't take care of them, that was the responsibility of the women of the church or of the neighborhood. It was just a constant, constant part of one's life.
I think in "The Bluest Eye," I recorded something similar that really happened, which is my sister and I would sleep in the same bed. And we might wake up, and there might be a child next to us, somebody who was in difficulty or the parent was sick or gone. And women in the neighborhood would take them in. And there might be some children living with us (laughter) for, you know, two or three weeks or a month or what have you.
You know, it was a kind of violation of what everybody seems to think is important now, which is intimacy and privacy. But at the same time, it was a kind of sharing of other - you know, of responsibilities. Social responsibilities was - we never - no one ever talked about it and said, you know, you ought to be a responsible member (laughter) of the society. But everything people did was like that.
BIANCULLI: Toni Morrison, speaking with Terry Gross in 1992. The celebrated writer died Monday. She was 88. We'll continue our salute to Toni Morrison after a break. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
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BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross, back with more of our salute to Toni Morrison, the respected and influential writer who died Monday at the age of 88. Let's get back to the interview Terry conducted with Toni Morrison in 1992, when her novel "Jazz" came out. She had also finished a set of essays based on lectures she had given at Harvard titled "Playing In The Dark: Whiteness And The Literary Imagination."
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GROSS: In your new book of literary criticism, "Playing In The Dark," you write about how, until recently, American readers were assumed to be white, and you wonder what that assumption has meant to the literary imagination in America. When you started reading, were you conscious of reading books in which there were few, if any, black characters?
MORRISON: No. I was conscious of there being a sort of disruption in some books when black people did occur, and there was a kind of embarrassment, a kind of need to skip over those parts in, say, being in the 10th grade and reading "Uncle Tom's Cabin" or seeing children's books in which - was it "Sambo"? I mean, you know, these kinds of things, you sort of politely erase them from your consciousness until you get older.
And then when I became a writer, I had to function in a language that was coded in a number of ways, and I had to work with those codes. I didn't have access to some of the metaphors and shortcuts that, say, a white writer has who feels he or she is unraced, and they can take for granted the centrality of their experience because it is white, and they think that's being without a race. Everybody else has race. White people don't.
They could take for granted that kind of centrality, and they could use, cleverly, brilliantly, effectively - or not, as the case might be - the presence of black people just as they frequently did the presence of women. It's sort of something you have in your kit.
GROSS: So when you say that the language was coded, let me get you to elaborate on the kind of code you felt you had to cut through or work around.
MORRISON: Using black women and men to appear in a scene for no reason other than to provide the tension that might suggest illegal sexuality or violence - they have no other function except to define and to suggest these, to be the association of. And you wonder, why are they there? And they may never be picked up again.
To have classical American literature to need to establish virtue, power and dominance over something and to need an obedient black person or someone who loves you irrationally - Mark Twain's Jim is irrational in that sense. His love is boundless, and he's a grown man talking to children. I could not do that, say, with a white man who was an ex-convict.
GROSS: I think it's fair to say that in most of your fiction, there's really been very few significant white characters.
MORRISON: Well, yes.
GROSS: Yeah, so how does that relate to what you're talking about now - you know, about the code and...
MORRISON: Oh, well, in a sense, having - it would be silly for me to write or to concentrate on major white characters because I wasn't interested in it, and also, it destabilizes the progress of the narrative in a way. For example, putting a young black girl center stage, it seemed to me a radical thing to do in 1965, when I first began writing "The Bluest Eye."
Once you begin to permit the reins of the narrative to be held by a major white person, you lose the agency, and you lose the terrain - the imaginative terrain - because you may be forced into responding to a white presence instead of examining what the interior lives of these people are without the constant need to explain, to editorialize and to fix.
So it was an enormous liberation for me and one that I find to be repeated a lot, particularly in the work of black women. Once you take those people out, then it's as though the whole world is available now for one's own creativity. In a sense, it's all a little bit more real than that. White people were not central to my life. They were out there sort of on the edge - sometimes wonderful and enabling, sometimes hostile and disabling. But the heart of the life, even in the town that I described, was in our household, in our family.
So that in the novels, I wanted to, in that sense, not have characters who were always required to consistently think about what white people were thinking. It makes you reduce them in some sort of stereotypical way that I would shy away from. But certainly I was interested and fascinated by and sort of thrilled by a number of minor figures - that is, secondary figures, enabling figures - who are white, such as Amy Denver in "Beloved," who is not required to be a white person in that scene because she's not around any other white people, so she can go ahead and be a person. And also, she does something, I think, that almost never happens, if ever, in American fiction, which is to have a white person touch a black person with some motive other than sex or violence.
BIANCULLI: Toni Morrison speaking with Terry Gross in 1992. After a break, we'll hear one more of Terry's conversations with the celebrated author, who died Monday at age 88. This one is from just four years ago in 2015, when Toni Morrison published what would be her last novel, "God Help The Child." This is FRESH AIR.
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BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. In 2015, at the age of 84, Toni Morrison wrote a new novel called "God Help The Child" which would be the last one published in her lifetime. She died Monday at the age of 88. "God Help The Child" begins with the line, it's not my fault. Those words are spoken by an African American woman explaining that she has no idea why she gave birth to such a dark-skinned baby. The mother is embarrassed by her daughter's darkness and wants to distance herself. The daughter is scarred by not having her mother's love. The novel is about those childhood wounds that leave a lasting mark even into adulthood.
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GROSS: Toni Morrison, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I'd like to start by asking you to do a reading from your new novel. So this is from very early in the novel, where Sweetness, the mother, who is light-skinned African American, is talking about how shocking and upsetting it was to give birth to a daughter with very dark skin - as she describes it, midnight black, Sudanese black. So would you pick up from there with the reading?
(Reading) I hate to say it, but from the very beginning in the maternity ward, the baby, Lula Ann, embarrassed me. Her birth skin was pale like all babies, even African ones, but it changed fast. I thought I was going crazy when she turned blue-black right before my eyes. I know I went crazy for a minute because once, just for a few seconds, I held a blanket over her face and pressed. But I couldn't do that no matter how much I wished she hadn't been born with that terrible color. I even thought of giving her away to an orphanage someplace, and I was scared to be one of those mothers who put their babies on church steps. Recently, I heard about a couple in Germany, white as snow, who had a dark-skinned baby nobody could explain - twins, I believe; one white, one colored - but I don't know if it's true. All I know is that for me, nursing her was like having a pickaninny sucking my teat. I went to bottle-feeding soon as I got home.
(Reading) My husband, Louis, is a porter, and when he got back off the rails, he looked at me like I was really crazy and looked at her like she was from the planet Jupiter. He wasn't a cussing man, so when he said, goddamn, what the hell is this? I knew we were in trouble. That's what did it - what caused the fight between me and him. It broke our marriage to pieces. We had three good years together, but when she was born, he blamed me and treated Lula Ann like she was a stranger - more than that, an enemy.
(Reading) He never touched her. I never did convince him that I ain't never, ever fooled around with another man. He was dead sure I was lying. We argued and argued till I told him her blackness must be from his own family, not mine.
GROSS: That's Toni Morrison reading from her new novel "God Help The Child." So the mother distances herself from the daughter because of the daughter's dark skin. The father leaves, thinking this child must not be his because he, too, is lighter-skinned. And that sets the whole story in motion, and I'm wondering why you chose color - you know, the level of blackness - as a central part of the story.
MORRISON: Well, I wanted to separate color from race. Distinguishing color - light, black, in-between - as the marker for race is really an error. It's socially constructed, it's culturally enforced, and it has some advantages for certain people. But this is really skin privilege, the ranking of color in terms of its closeness to white people or white-skinned people and its devaluation according to how dark one is and the impact that has on people who are dedicated to the privileges of certain levels of skin color.
GROSS: So were there times in your life when you've been exposed to that kind of hierarchy of color within the African American community?
MORRISON: I have. I didn't have it until I went away to college. I didn't know there was this kind of preference, but I noticed in addition to the outside world of Washington, D.C. - which, at that time, this is 1949, 1950 - there were very obvious stated written differences between what white people were able to do and what black people were able to do. But on the campus, where I felt safe and welcome, I began to realize that this idea of the lighter, the better, and the darker, the worse, was really - it had an impact on sororities, on friendships, on all sorts of things, and it was stunning to me.
GROSS: And you went to a traditionally African American college, Howard University.
GROSS: There was a New York Times Magazine cover story about you recently, and in that article, you described, when you were young, witnessing your father throw a white man down the stairs because your father thought this man was coming up the stairs after his daughters. Was your father afraid that this man was coming to abuse you and your sisters?
MORRISON: I think he thought so. I think his own experience in Georgia would have made him think that any white man bumbling up the stairs toward our apartment was not there for any good. And since we were little girls, he assumed that. I think he made a mistake. I mean, I really think the man was drunk. I don't think he was really trailing us. But the interesting thing was, A, the white man was - he survived. B, the real thing for me was I felt profoundly protected and defended. I was not happy because after my father threw him down the steps, all the way out into the street, he threw our tricycle after him. That was a little bit of a problem since we needed our tricycle.
But that made me think that there was some deviltry, something evil about white people, which is exactly what my father thought. He was very, very serious in his hatred of white people. What mitigated it was my mother, who was exactly the opposite, who never rejected or accepted anybody based on race or color or religion or any of that. Everybody was an individual whom she approved of or disapproved of based on her perception of them as individuals.
GROSS: You said that this incident made you feel protected. It sounds terrifying, though, for two reasons. One is that your father basically gave you the idea that this man was coming upstairs to do you harm. And two, watching your father not only throw him down the stairs but throwing your tricycle down the stairs after him. It sounds like that would be a little frightening to see, also.
MORRISON: Well, it was my father, who could do no wrong. So I didn't think of it as, oh, look. My father's a violent man. He never, you know, spanked us. He never quarreled with us. He never argued with us. He was dedicated, and he was sweet. So he did this thing to protect his children.
GROSS: I think it must've been hard for your father to hate white people and to live in a neighborhood in which there's a lot of white people.
MORRISON: Well, you know, my father saw two black men lynched on his street in Cartersville, Ga., as a child. And I think seeing two black businessmen, not vagrants, hanging from trees as a child was traumatic for him.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Toni Morrison. And she has a new novel called "God Help The Child." The main character's birth name is Lula Ann Bridewell. When she's 16, she changes it to Ann Bride. Two years later, she changes it to one name, Bride. And she's in the fashion world, in the cosmetics world. So it's a very, you know, signature kind of name to have. Names are very important in your fiction. There's often people - people often have nicknames. And I'm interested in hearing about why names have such real and symbolic importance in your stories.
MORRISON: Well, there's a whole history, I think, in naming. In the beginning of black people being in this country, they lost their names. And they were given names by their masters. And so they didn't have names. And they began to call one another, you know, decades later by nicknames. I don't think I knew any of my father's friends - male friends - by their real name. I remember them only by their nicknames. And also, there was an honesty. Sometimes, the names were humiliating, deliberately so. Somebody would pick out your flaw. If you were little, they would call you Shorty. And if you were angry, they would call you the devil. I remember a man in the neighborhood who was called Jim the Devil - always those three words. Have you seen Jim the Devil? No. (Laughter).
And then you think of the musicians - Satchmo, Louis Armstrong. What is Satchmo? That's Satchel Mouth. Or you think about them giving themselves royal names - duke and count and king. You know, it's a very personal identification, trying to move away maybe from the history of having no name and then personalizing it. On the one hand, to give you a name that's embarrassing in order to make you confront it, deal with it now. And then later on, more charming names, moving away from humiliating names like Satchmo.
GROSS: So your birth name is Chloe Wofford. Morrison was your married name when you were married. But you've been divorced a long time since 1974. And Toni was shortened from Anthony, which was the name when you were...
GROSS: Baptized. And so am I right in saying that you became a Catholic when you were 12? That's what I read.
MORRISON: Yeah, I did.
GROSS: So let's start with your name. Once you started being called Toni, did you feel different from being called Chloe?
MORRISON: I never felt like anything other than Chloe. You know, my name, Chloe - nobody could pronounce it properly outside my family. In school, the teachers called me Chlo (ph) or Chlovie (ph) or Chlorie (laughter) because it was spelled that way. It's much more common now. But I couldn't bear to have people mispronounce my name. But the person I was was this person who was called Chloe.
So then I go away, and the people in Washington, they don't know how to pronounce C-H-L-O-E. So somebody mistakenly called me Toni because she couldn't hear Chloe. So I said (laughter) - now, I said, I don't care. Call me Toni. It's easy. You don't have to mispronounce my name. And then I meant to put my maiden name in the first book I wrote. As a matter of fact, I called the publisher and said, oh, by the way, I don't want Toni Morrison to be on the book. And they said, it's too late. They've already sent it to the Library of Congress. But I really would have preferred Toni Wofford.
BIANCULLI: Toni Morrison speaking with Terry Gross in 2015 - more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's conclude our salute to author Toni Morrison, who died Monday at the age of 88, by returning to the interview she recorded with Terry Gross in 2015.
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GROSS: So just one more question - you didn't start writing till you were 39 or 40. Is that because you didn't have the time or didn't know you had it in you? Like, what was the point in which you said, I'm going to write a novel? What changed?
MORRISON: When I was teaching at Howard University after I got a masters at Cornell, and I was young - in my 20s - and I joined a group of faculty and writers who met, I think, once a month to read to each other and critique each other. And so I brought to these meetings little things I had written for classes as an undergrad. And they had really, really good lunches, really good food during these meetings. But they wouldn't let you continue to come if you were just reading old stuff, so I had to think up something new if I was going to continue to have this really good food and really good company.
So I started writing, and I remember very clearly - I was writing with a pencil. I was sitting on the couch, writing with a pencil, trying to think up something and remembering what I just described. The tablet was that legal pad - you know, yellow with the lines. And I had a baby. My older son was barely walking, and he spit up on the tablet. And I was doing something really interesting, I think, with the sentence because I wrote around the puke...
MORRISON: ...Because I figured I could always wipe that away, but I might not get that sentence again.
MORRISON: So I wrote a bit of that. I went to the meetings. They thought it was very interesting. It was just, you know, maybe five or six pages, and they were very encouraging. And then I left, and I went to Syracuse, et cetera, et cetera. And in the mornings, before my children were awake, I would go back and finish that. And then it took five years, by the way, to write that little book because I wasn't thinking about publishing. I was thinking about that narrative and what I wanted to say, so that's really how I got started.
GROSS: Toni Morrison, thank you so much for talking with us. I really appreciate it.
MORRISON: You're very welcome.
BIANCULLI: Toni Morrison speaking to Terry Gross in 2015. Today's show also featured Terry's interviews with the celebrated author from 1992 and from 1987. Toni Morrison died Monday. She was 88.
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BIANCULLI: On Monday's show, Terry's guest will be Sister Helen Prejean, who wrote about ministering to men on death row in the book "Dead Man Walking." At the age of 80, she has a new memoir about her spiritual life. She'll talk about entering the convent as a teenager, celibacy and her work in social justice. Hope you can join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
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