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The Writing Life

A Conversation Between Michael Silverblatt and Toni Morrison

November 01, 1998

Editor's Note: Toni Morrison, author of, among other works, "Beloved," was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1993. What follows is an expanded version of her conversation with Michael Silverblatt, which recently aired on Bookworm, his weekly radio show about writing and books that is broadcast Thursdays at 2:30 p.m. on KCRW-FM (89.9).

Michael Silverblatt: I recently wrote Toni Morrison a letter knowing that the movie of "Beloved" would be coming out and wanting, not even having seen the film, to talk about the book. It's my sense that after a movie hits the public, a book is altered by it. There are things that we find in language, in the shaping and writing of literature, that a movie cannot touch, not because it doesn't want to or because it's inadequate but because they are different forms.

People don't usually talk about what's at the center of "Beloved." They talk instead about a story that actually occurred in the days of slavery, one in which a woman killed her children rather than see them brought back into slavery, back to the life she led on the plantation.

This is the background of the book, but you have also brought to it the question--which is also the question in your two recent books, "Jazz" and "Paradise"--what kind of love is too much? When does love of another eclipse the love of the self? It seems to me that this question--how much of the self can you give--is central to you as a writer.

Toni Morrison: Very much so. The question is: How are we able to love under duress and, when we can't, what distorts love for us? How can we negotiate the various claims and loves we choose in order to make them include ourselves--the love of the self that is not narcissistic, not simply selfish--and also something bigger than ourselves, something that is not martyrdom, something that does not mean setting one's self aside completely. I'm interested in negotiating between those two extremes, to get to someplace where the love is generous.

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Silverblatt: It seems that your books have been leading up to this question all along--in the same way that one finds one's self on a path without knowing where one's embarked. Your first book, "The Bluest Eye," is about the consequences of self-loathing. And the books that follow take the impaired self into the world where attempts at love are made, and it's not until "Beloved" that the question of a transfiguring love--one that might destroy the self in the process of being enacted--becomes the central subject of the book. All of the books have been a sequential path from the frightened self to the self that begins to risk in the world and then the self that is taking grand and possibly disastrous strides.

Morrison: Yes. There is a path from the frailty of the child in the first book, who is fairly doomed by things outside of her control and who is collapsing emotionally, to another kind of child in "Beloved," whose disrupted love, lack of love, abandoned love, matches the ferocity of mother love, which is, on the one hand, laudatory and, on the other, something that can actually condemn everybody--not just Sethe's child but herself, and her living child, and even make love impossible for her with a man.

It is an all-consuming love, an exaggeration of parental love, a love that expresses itself in a fierce, unhealthy distorted way under circumstances that make it ironically logical. The mother is not merely psychotic; she didn't just erupt into the world that way. I had to try very hard as a writer to put into language the theatricality and the meaning of these kinds of distortions, to reveal not only their consequences but to warn against what we should look out for, what we should be wary of.

I always thought the circumstances of "Beloved" are not limited in any way to 1873 or 1855. I think for those of us who live in 1998, male or female, the problems of trying to love one's self and another human being at the same time is a serious, late 20th century problem, a very serious problem. And I think, in particular, mother love is a very serious problem in the late 20th century because of the choices that women can make now. You don't really have to have children. Some women feel that not having children is the freedom they should seek, and some women feel that having children is the fulfillment they seek. But in both cases, things can go completely and terribly wrong, if you don't understand the potential difficulties, and no one instantly does.

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