Thursday, November 17, 2011

Toni Morrison on Her Novel "Love"

The Denver Post

November 16, 2003

By Dylan Foley

In her eighth novel, "Love" (Knopf, $23.95), Nobel laureate Toni Morrison chronicles the life of African-American resort owner Bill Cosey and the women that surround him.

This ironic title is a reference to the repressed emotions and shattered relationships in the story.

Morrison has achieved an epic tale of African-American life from segregation in the 1930s, where Cosey's East Coast hotel thrived by catering to middle-class African-Americans, to the civil rights movement and revolutionary violence in the 1960s, and finally to a ruined hotel of the 1990s.

At the heart of the book is Cosey's horrific marriage to his granddaughter Christine's 11-year-old playmate, Heed. The marriage destroys the platonic love affair of the two girls and poisons the soul of Cosey's family.

Morrison has written a beautiful, dark story of the devastation that Cosey wreaked on the women in his life. With the new novel, the 72-year-old author of "Sula" and "The Bluest Eye" has proved that she is at the top of her literary game.

"The girls had a pure love, because it was presexual," said Morrison of her characters during an interview from her Manhattan co-op. "That kind of love has no baggage, but the adults had other agendas."

Morrison's apartment is a glorious one-bedroom duplex in the 98-year-old former New York Police Department headquarters on the edge of the city's Chinatown. For a writer who has numerous ghosts populating her novels, including a murdered child in "Beloved," the palatial building is the perfect residence for her, radiating the spirits of corrupt police chiefs and mob killers.

Despite her regal bearing and impeccable credentials as a Pulitzer Prize winner and Princeton professor, Morrison gave a down-to-earth interview. Looking 15 years younger than she is, Morrison had a ready, conspiratorial laugh, whether receiving gossip over which feminist leader has had a facelift or the battles she had with her painter son while writing their children's books.

For Morrison, the novel started with an act of violence. "I started with the gang-rape," she said, a grueling scene where Romen, a young man waiting his turn for rape winds up rescuing the teenage victim. "The instinct for loving someone for teenagers, and maybe for other people, is repressed for being weak," said Morrison. "Romen is embarrassed by his inability to repress his instincts" to help the girl.

The narrative moves back and forth in time during a 60-year period. Heed and Christine's friendship is obliterated when Heed becomes Cosey's child bride. As a young woman, Christine dabbles in prostitution and revolution. The two former friends wind up living together as bitter old enemies, plotting against each other.

"They were forced into a silent or not-so-silent hatred, which for them was kind of expression of love," said Morrison. "One of the major problems with Heed and Christine is they continue to develop the lies they had as children, and they don't have any language until one is about to leave the other.

"What Cosey did was an outrage," said Morrison. "I had hoped that the readers would be appalled, but at the same time they would wonder if they had the right to be appalled," noting how society treats children today.

"These days, people are getting married older and having sex younger," she said. "Look at how sexualized children are now. We are responsible for sexualizing them - their clothes, their manners. Of course, we infantalize ourselves. I was wondering yesterday what it must feel to be a 10-year-old girl, where your grandmother has the same tight skin you do."

Morrison's novels have received critical acclaim since "The Bluest Eye," a story of rape and racism, came out in 1970. Winning the Pulitzer in 1987 for "Beloved" and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993 cemented her stellar literary profile. It was Oprah Winfrey championing Morrison's novels on her talk show, however, that turned Morrison's literary novels into big best sellers.

"Love" opens with a ghost narrator, a cook who doesn't know she is dead. Other ghosts pick up the story. This storytelling of ghost and horror tales has its roots in Morrison's youth in Loraine, Ohio, where she grew up in a working-class household.

"They all told stories - my mother, father, grandmother," said Morrison. "The children were called to tell stories - to remember them, to perform them, to change them, even."

The purpose of ghost stories or fairytales was to toughen up children for the outside, racist world. "The storytelling were survival stories, to make us, and the race, confront the terrible things that were happening," said Morrison, "to know that something evil was out there, but you could protect yourself through cunning and wit, by strength."

Six decades after her childhood, Morrison is now revisiting another set of tales. She and her artist son, Slade, have written several children's books based on the ancient Greek Aesop's Fables. "The morals at the end of the stories infuriated me," said Morrison. "We wanted to open them up, make them much hipper."

Working with family turned out to be harder than Morrison thought. "It was rough at the beginning," said Morrison with a laugh. "Slade's a painter, not a writer. On one hand, I'm his mother. On the other hand, I'm some public thingy that he can't relate to. It may have been intimidating."

Besides the apartment in Manhattan, Morrison keeps a home in Princeton, N.J., and a converted boathouse in upstate New York. ``I love that house on the Hudson," she said. ``That's my place." Morrison suspects that the three residences might fill a subconscious need. ``My sister says that because we moved from place to place growing up because of the rent, that is still in my head. I have a Depression child's mentality. I am always moving and taking in a new environment."

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