In an exclusive interview with Natur & Kulturs Litterära Revy, Ms. Morrison talks with Nadifa Mohamed about literature, police brutality and Kanye West’s birthday presents. This is an excerpt from the first issue of Natur & Kultur’s literary magazine, published in November 2016. Among the other contributors are Ta-Nehisi Coates, Robin Coste Lewis, Valeria Luiselli and Bandi. John Freeman will be in conversation with Nadifa Mohamed in Stockholm, October 28th, as a part of the launch of Freeman’s Journal.
A light spray on the floor-to-ceiling windows masked the downpour that was crashing down on the busy Manhattan boulevard below. The tin sky filled the room with a shy light that made the green velvet of the sofa glow. Ms. Morrison held a hand to her left hip and walked slowly to her armchair, she’d had a late night in Brooklyn, discussing her new novel God Help the Child at an art deco Jewish temple in Park Slope and, apart from my visit, would have a quiet day checking emails, watching the news and smoking occasional cigarettes. Her poise revealed a trace of her time as a dancer in college, her eyes when they locked on me were an indeterminate color, as lucent and flecked as amber, and when she finally leaned back in her armchair, her body language fell open as if to say So, what you got?
Apart from the stiff joints, everything about Ms. Morrison belied those eight-plus decades of glorious life. The mischief, the humor, the candor and curiosity of her novels are all there in her flesh. Re-reading her work on the flight from London made me see her genius anew and I remembered the fear and despair I felt when I first her discovered her books. That disturbing alchemy of beauty and brutal veracity that take you into the cobwebbed corners of the human psyche; love that might lead a mother into setting her junkie son alight, unspoken guilt that becomes as dense as a bit in the mouth, madness as a comfort and refuge.
Nadifa Mohamed: In your essay The Ancestor as Foundation, you wrote that: “Parents don’t sit around and tell their children those classical, mythological, archetypal stories that we heard years ago.” In my case, I actually did. When I heard my father’s mythological story about his childhood and early youth in East Africa, it really did something to me. It made a writer out of me. My first novel is about him in the ages between 11 and 21, all of the things he did. He walked across the Red Sea, he was a child soldier, was put in jail with a tortoise. He did all of these incredible, ridiculous things, and something inside me shifted. I became obsessed with it, and I wrote this novel, Black Mamba Boy, about his early life. So I think for me, those mythological stories are a foundation of my writing. What do you think is the source of the power of these stories? Why are they so important?
Toni Morrison: They last in memory; they affect you in profound ways that you may not recognize for some time. There was a tradition in our house, telling stories, the same story, over and over again. Pretty much awful stories about death and destruction. They would say to us children: “Tell that story about…” and we would have to perform because sometimes the stories were old. You could edit them a little bit, emphasize things a little bit, but it was kind of a group thing, in addition to the substance of the story.
NM: Are the details changed each time, or do they stick to the same details?
TM: They embellished them a little bit. There were always the high notes. A man cuts his wife’s head off and says: “Cut my wife’s head off!” and then she says, the dead wife… “It’s cold out here, let me in”… And he says: “Go somewhere and warm yourself up!” When I think about it now, it’s hysterical… and they also told stories as your father did, about their own lives. What happened to them and how they felt about it but they shaped it in a way that was as interesting as the content.
NM: Absolutely, and I felt with my father that he was boasting, he was boasting about what he had survived.
TM: Yes, yes indeed.
NM: Researching his story, I found some things hard to believe. I didn’t believe that he had walked across the Red Sea; I thought that was a step too far. Then I found out that there is an area where they have saltpans, and the water is just shallow enough for you to walk across. So, he was telling the truth. He always told the truth, but the experiences were so extreme that you couldn’t believe them.
TM: Sort of like Jesus.
NM: Exactly. In that story you just described I can see the humor but also the kind of gothic-ness of the stories you write. How did you respond to them as a teenager? Did you see them as a potential source for your own writing? Were you interested in writing from an early age?
TM: No, I didn’t think about writing until I was 39. I read all the time. I could read when I was three years old and that’s what I did. At some point, I realized that there was a book I wanted to read, that nobody had written. I really wanted to read it, and the only way I could was to write it.
NM: Same with me.
TM: It was an area that nobody was talking about and that was the first book, The Bluest Eye, and then of course, that was a way of being in the world for me. This is how the world and I are. This is ours. This is mine. This is what I do, this is where I have control and nobody tells me what to do and I can invent forever and I can have real people that I can talk to, or fuss with…
NM: Do you feel maybe that, out of your siblings, you were the one struggling more with making sense of the world around you? The life you were living?
TM: Well, they had other things. My mother, by the way, was an extraordinary singer. She went to church constantly, well, regularly, but she was in the choir. People came from all over the state to hear her and she had the most beautiful voice. I have never heard anyone sing like that. She could sing anything. Opera, blues, everything.
NM: Could you compare her voice to anyone’s?
TM: She sang in so many styles. I think of Ella Fitzgerald with the popular stuff, or Marian Anderson with the classical stuff that she did. Also she sang all the time—you know, washing dishes, whatever, there was always this incredible music. And somebody asked me did I sing, and I said I’m not even going in that direction (laughs).
NM: Was your mother trained?
TM: No. She just did that. There was a lot of singing around, you know, in those days, but nothing like hers. She was special and I think they took pleasure… this was back in the 1930s that I’m talking about, I’m 84, so I’m remembering the satisfaction. There was a lot of misery because we were very, very poor, but I remember the satisfaction that they got from work well done. I remember my father, who during the Second World War, was hired to work on ships as a welder, which is highly skilled work.
NM: Your father was a ship welder?
TM: Yes. One day he came home and said to me: “Today I welded the perfect seam. It was so clean and so perfect that I welded my initials underneath.”
NM: Oh, wow, like a surgeon.
TM: Yeah, and I said, “daddy, nobody is going to see it” and he said, “but I know it’s there.” It was that… I think that there were a lot of people around who took pride in work. It wasn’t about money, it was something one had inside. Modest but definite triumphs over something.
NM: My father was a fireman on steam ships. That was one of his very first jobs. It was like staring into the gates of hell; you’d work there four hours off, four hours on, four hours off, and you were hunched over…You be covered in soot at the end of it, your lungs covered in ash, and you’d be surrounded by the cooling clinkers. So it was a hellish job, and they picked Somalis and Bengalis and other people for certain routes, because when you crossed the equator, the temperature was immense, and the British didn’t want to do it. The Somalis who had suffered so much already were willing to do it and he was proud, he was proud of that physical endurance. So, as an adult, thinking of why these ancestral stories are important… part of me wishes that they weren’t important, that we’d come into life and we could create ourselves to a large degree. Do you think that’s desirable?
TM: Well, it would be. We come into the world, as children, we don’t know anything, you know, because everything is about us. I was saying last night that nobody loves like children, they don’t know if you’re black, white, or poor. They just fall in love, which I was trying to say in that book, Love, about those women who just fall apart and then they realized how much they needed each other. Children, then, take on what’s around them, they learn good and bad things. I suppose it discredits something early on, but it’s very hard and you are vulnerable to the adults and your peers at that time.
NM: That vulnerability is terrifying.
TM: Yes, it is. It’s so scary. Scarier now than it ever was. I lived with all sorts of people in our neighborhood, all poor, no black neighborhood, they came from Poland and Italy. So none of that, I was sort of stunned when I grew up and went to college to see how important it was elsewhere. We didn’t have those kinds of struggles at that time, racial or, you know, the big thing was religion.
NM: Were you Catholic?
TM: Yes. When I turned 11 or something, part of my family is catholic, so I joined there because it was so beautiful.
NM: It is, they know theatre.
TM: They do, it really is fantastic theatre. I think that town had more churches than any small town I can think of and that was the only separation. That’s the only time that everybody went their own way.
NM: Was there hostility between the different sects?
TM: No, we had one high school, four junior high schools. They called it the melting pot. We read little books about how wonderful America was because it was a melting pot. I was a good reader and a fast reader, and because my last name began with a W, we always sat in alphabetical order and I always sat in the back with the kids from Italy, with last names like “Zanno,” because they didn’t speak English… I could teach them and they could talk to me.
NM: You kind of adopted them?
TM: Yes. That was sort of nice. I know everybody’s screaming about rights, now, “don’t be mean to this person or don’t be mean to that perso.” But when I was a kid, polio was a big thing, and there were lots of kids in that school who had polio and were on crutches but they were not separated from us, if they fell down the steps, we picked them up. I’m thinking more about those days because it’s so different now.
NM: Were they given callous names?
TM: No. It’s so different now.
NM: There was a kind of rough kindness to everyone?
TM: Everyone. Also, they could say what no parent can say today: ”Go outside and play,” because they’re so frightened. You could play all day but the other thing was somebody was always looking out for me in the neighborhood.
NM: My mother, my mother was that woman. Staring out of the window.
TM: You were never alone, vulnerable.
NM: Actually, talking about my mother, there’s a scene in The Bluest Eye, I’m going to call it the VapoRub-scene, when she’s rubbing the menthol ointment on really hard and cursing her at the same time. That reminded me of my own childhood. That rough, maternal, almost contemptuous love. “I’m going to cure you but I’m going to turn you up at the same time.”
TM: And the things they used! Enemas?
NM: Somalis are experts at that, experts. I recently found out that my uncle, my mother’s brother, was a sickly child. My grandmother gave birth fourteen times; ten of them died in childhood. So this was the last child, and he looked like he was going to die so she tried lots of traditional treatments and went to different people and in the end they cut his skin and rubbed salt in.
TM: And that worked?
NM: It worked! (laughter) I think the mentality was: this child needs to be given… something!
TM: That will do it! Something powerful to shake him up.
NM: It really did. Then he became this tiny, angry man. That’s what he grew into but that rough love, that I see so often in Somali mothers, I was just reading Sula again last night and Hannah, Eva’s daughter, says: “Did you love us?”
TM: She said: “No! I stayed alive for you, what do you mean, love?”
NM: That’s a conversation I know intimately, because, my mother saying ”I love you” or showing it in these soft ways was alien. “What do you want me to do, I walked through the desert for you, why are you asking this?” and the anger that comes from that is very familiar. Do you think that rage is an unavoidable part of motherhood?
TM: Certainly, under certain circumstances. Only now it’s turning into an overwhelming insistence of perfection in children as though it’s part of you. It’s difficult for me to be around young parents and what they require of their children, which to me is cruel. I know they have, supposedly, their best interests at heart, but I don’t think so, I think it’s all narcissistic. You know, you can’t be different, you have to have those SAT-scores, you have to have… and I don’t mean it’s just for wealthy people, it’s everywhere.
NM: Their food, extra-curricular-activities, nowadays it’s overwhelming. It means that the mothers also can’t live an independent life; they have to be the managers of these children.
TM: I have two minds about it now, because my daughter-in-law is a professional woman at Princeton, where I used to teach, and my son works with plasma-physics at Princeton, they have two children and they do all kinds of things: they fence, they play cello, they ride horses, you name it.
NM: They’re like medieval princes.
TM: So I say: What are they doing? Can’t they just sit down? They can only watch TV for like one hour, or whatever.
NM: And it’s educational TV.
TM: But then I noticed something else amongst their peers and other children! When children are on the phone doing this (mimes tapping at a phone) or they’re out riding horses. Those are the choices. At least, riding is physical and it’s something they like, you know.
NM: The stress that they’re under, and the way they look at themselves, is different to the way that I looked at myself as a young girl. I wasn’t so interested in my body image, at all. They’re so interested, and it’s a kind of sexualized sense of being a young woman.
TM: It’s worse in this country, my dear.
NM: Yeah, this is where it comes from, this is the hub.
TM: They’re getting younger and younger. It’s all about money. It’s getting more and more bizarre, because all the entertainers are virtually naked. They have this thing, maybe you can explain it to me, where you have a little bathing suit on but you cannot expose a nipple.
NM: Yes, this is pretty American. Maybe an Anglo-American thing actually.
TM: I don’t understand what they’re talking about. It’s the first thing you put in your mouth when you’re born.
NM: I think it’s to maintain the sexuality of the nipple.
TM: Is the nipple sexy?
NM: They want to make it sexy. So, if it was ordinary, and part of your body, showed like the rest of the breast, which is always shown, it’s a way of desexualizing, the same way with male genitals, that’s also very guarded. That’s not allowed on social media or anything like that. It’s a way of keeping it a taboo and keeping it sexy, I think.
TM: It’s all reproductive in some way but you can show your behinds.
NM: You can show everything! And it’s shocking, the level of nakedness in popular music is unbelievable and you have people, wealthy women like the Kardashians, who only seem to be famous for revealing! Revealing more and more of their body and their own personal lives.
TM: I don’t understand that. I looked at that show once. Just to see what was going on.
NM: Me too.
TM: It was vaguely interesting, but all they did was shopping, picking out clothes, but it was nothing!
NM: [Laughter] It is nothing, but I think it’s for women at home. I’m a writer, I’m at home, so I get to watch a lot of nonsense, but for me this was too much nonsense, it was the extreme of nonsense. I watched the wedding. The first wedding…
TM: I heard a rumor that the husband, Kanye West, he gave her for Christmas… this is so tacky…I can’t really tell you… a 150 presents!
NM: It’s gross, it’s gross.
TM: It really is. He couldn’t pick…
NM: I don’t know how much more time we want to spend on the Kardashians? I could spend some time on them.
TM: That’s one level of outrage and horror and stupidity, but then there are others, more sophisticated ones, you know, not sophisticated but different. Semi-sophisticated, of the same thing. Wow, we’re going to be here all day, talking about what’s awful!
NM: I think I would put the Kardashians near the top of this awful. They’re close.
TM: No, no, have you seen those shows… Divas?
NM: Is it the Real Housewives of Atlanta? I’ve seen some of them. It’s hammy, hammy, hammy, hammy. [Laughter]
TM: And they fight. Oh, we’ve got some bad shows, bad shows.
NM: Okay! In the introduction that I read last night of Sula, an introduction that you’ve written for the new edition, you write about life as a single mother as being like an outlaw. [Laughter] I can show you if you like?
[We thumb among pages and then Ms. Morrison reads the passage]
TM: [Reading] Ah! Oh God. That’s right, that’s right. Nobody was paying us any attention so what the hell, let’s write a play.
NM: Do you often laugh when you read your writing?
TM: Yeah! Being alone and all, all you have is each other and you’re free to do all kinds of things as opposed to earlier when you did that, stepped out, people might look at you a little funny. We were without family, in a sense, we were away from our natural homes.
NM: You struck out and you have nothing to go back to because…
TM: There’s no back, back there.
NM: It’s very important to Somali life at the moment, this idea of single motherhood. Many, many female-headed households in both Somalia and Somaliland and also in the diaspora, who left as refugees, migrants. The fathers disappear, sometimes they died in the war, sometimes people took asylum wherever they could find it and the families were separated that way.
TM: I know, the two worst things you can do, the worst thing you can do is to abandon a child, if you’re a mother. The second worst thing you can do, or maybe the first, because I wrote the book God Help the Child, I had a woman in there whom was falsely accused of something and she went to prison. And I asked someone ”Is this true?” because I had heard… I asked the one person I could trust to absolutely tell me the truth, it was Angela Davis, as she has been in prison and she’s smart and trustworthy. That the worst thing that you can do, as far as the female population is concerned, is hurt a child. You know, the bottom of the order. No matter what they’ve done, murderers, they put on their walls pictures of children. I don’t know what men do, I should have asked.
NM: Isn’t it true that sexual offenders or child abusers are at the bottom of the male pecking order as well?
TM: Yes, you can easily understand why that is, because whatever else they have done, they remember when they were little and vulnerable. Like the group of friends I had when I was living in Queens and perhaps out of this necessity, women were taking control. There will be Amazons. You may get used to, you ought to get used to, making decisions. Not as a fugitive or refugee so much, but as a person making decisions about where to go to, this is under duress I understand, but it may trail off into a different kind of powerful position for women, ultimately. Something that happens generation after generation. If you grow up with a mother who’s that competent and not just surviving but capable, it’s hard if you’re a child, male or female, to not see that and know that that’s not possible for you.
NM: What about the resentment that can cause as well?
NM: From the children sometimes.
TM: Whom do they resent?
NM: The strong mother, the dominant mother.
TM: As opposed to?
NM: The soft mother, the weak mother.
TM: [Laughs] Too bad! They don’t mind it with a father.
NM: It is too bad and I would want to be a strong mother and a dominant mother but children can be strangely conservative sometimes. They like the very classic order of things sometimes. Somali children or children growing up in the diaspora in the US or UK or other places are attracted to a very patriarchal, conservative form of Islam. It’s often because both girls and boys have been raised in female-headed households where, I think, they’ve seen it be dysfunctional and the mother hasn’t coped.
TM: Ah, I see.
NM: So they’re thinking, what they think is a hyper-Islamic way of living is the ideal. The dad does what he’s meant to do, the mother does what she’s meant to do, the mother abides by what the father says, as do the children.
TM: It’s a kind of protection, all the rules are there.
TM: I can understand why it exists but it is self-mutilation, taking something away from yourself.
NM: And it’s dishonest. It doesn’t work.
TM: Well, we’ll fix the world or you will.
NM: We’ll try, we’ll try. When Sixo shouts “Seven-O” in Beloved when he’s about to die, I felt a charge inside, I felt recognition of myself as Seven-O. In the sense of being the child, that descendent, who bears the responsibility of hearing that death cry and of responding to it, avenging it. You clearly also heard that, you wrote it, you responded to it.
TM: [Laughing] I like the fact that he just won’t speak English, he refuses to even learn.
NM: Yes. My mum is the same. She doesn’t speak English after 30 years of living in England. 30 years. How do you respond to that death cry, to that heritage, without losing yourself to it?
TM: In other situations like that, that’s the future, that’s you. Out there. You’re dead and life is alive. He’s dying and he knows it and he knows his woman is pregnant so the last thing he has to say is that.
NM: So powerful.
TM: Yes. They call her the 30-mile woman, cause it’s 15 miles there and back, that’s a serious dude. That’s it, that’s you, that’s part of you, the genes, your ideas, your self is still there.
NM: It’s a victory.
TM: Of course.
NM: My father, he died just over a year ago, at the age of 89. But one of the reasons he was so eager to tell me about his childhood: he lived on the streets as a six-year-old in Aden, he was a child soldier in the Second World War for the Italian fascists, he was nearly shot on a hunting trip, just as a joke, by an Italian soldier, he deserted the army during the war and ran away to the borderland between Sudan and Eritrea. Kunama women, a matriarchal community of women, they picked up this handsome 16-year-old and said “come on, we’ll give you land” and he set up a farm and became very successful, he employed about 17 local village women, he had a shop, he had a good time, long hair. He was suddenly a success and then locusts came and wiped him out two years in a row until he was left with nothing. He told me all of these things, and some of the things he didn’t want to go into, there were a few things he said: “I don’t want to talk about that.” Most of it he wanted to express, though, and he wanted to express it because he had survived it. That sense of glorying in that, that sense of victory.
TM: And that victory is now yours, now you’re his Seven-O.
NM: I try to be. I find that a lot of people struggle with their heritage, they either reject it and say “it’s lousy, it’s poor,” there’s no dignity or pride in it. Or (instead) they revel in it, to the point where they think they can’t live an autonomous life, and it’s that balance, I guess, that’s difficult to navigate.
TM: It’s information, it’s not just data, it’s information, which if handled properly becomes knowledge, which is really the best you can hope for. Knowledge is the apex of human existence. Knowing leads really to goodness, which is very complicated. There are tiny little sparks of it. Everything is about good guys kill bad guys or bad guys get away or something. I have been looking at murder mysteries of old on the television, otherwise I would have to look at the political situation, and that to me is the worst, it’s even more depressing. [Laughing]
NM: Murder mysteries in terms of The Jinx and things like that?
TM: I don’t know, some old Law and Order stuff, some new ones.
NM: I can recommend The Jinx, if you haven’t seen it. It’s a six-part HBO documentary about this guy who was heir to this huge New York property family, Robert Durst.
TM: Oh yes, I forgot the name of it, but I’ve seen that [laughs]. I shouldn’t laugh.
NM: I know I shouldn’t, but he got away with three murders!
TM: One was so silly, was it the neighbor or something?
NM: Yes, he chopped up the body. He was living as a mute woman. So strange, so revealing of who can get away with crime. Anyone else who had dismembered someone, they’d be in jail. You could not kill someone and then say that you dismembered them in self-defense.
TM: Because what? He was going to slap me? [laughs] Where is he now?
NM: He’s in jail, on remand, for illegally carrying a gun but also because of The Jinx, he’s being investigated for the murder of his friend in LA.
TM: I don’t even know, how do you chop up someone?
NM: You know, it’s surprisingly common. All sorts of people are doing it. There was a woman in France, a nanny, just this week I think she was sentenced to 18 years in prison or something. She’s a tiny woman, her boyfriend is implicated but it sounds like she did most of the work. You know, I think that’s something I’m not capable of, but, surprisingly, many people are.
TM: Well, I’m trying to think, I used to chop up chickens, we had chickens in the backyard, and I would wring their necks.
NM: How old were you?
TM: Six, seven.
NM: That’s young.
TM: So maybe I could do it.
NM: Don’t tell me that when I’m alone with you. [Laughs] I don’t think you could. Okay. I read recently that in the 1950s and 60s, the CIA read black writing more avidly and seriously than the white literary establishment did at that time. They took the threat of black writing much more seriously and I found that kind of amazing, that it was the security services who were…
TM: Reading these…
NM: Exactly. Writing these incredible reports on black writers, engaging in the writing itself when the universities were not. So I was wondering what you think, do you think the threat that those writers were seen to pose is still posed by black writers, both in the US and beyond, and if it’s not, is that a positive change or a negative change?
TM: It’s better now; it’s much, much better now. It doesn’t mean that the literature has gotten softer or sweeter, it’s still James Baldwin, it’s still in that ferocious thing. This man who just wrote this book (Ta-Nehisi Coates) he writes these very strong things about it, gets a prize, etc. etc… that never used to happen. So the art for me, is very, very long, the notion of policemen casually and frequently killing innocent black men, unarmed in the street, and they are “Oh, thank god this is news” and “Something has to be done,” and some things are being done. I was telling my son, that it’s always happened but they didn’t put it in the newspapers.
NM: There’s always been scandals.
TM: And murders. My father left Georgia when he was about 15 years old, to go to California and live with a half-brother, because he had seen on his street, in Cartersville, Georgia, two black businessmen, lynched, he saw them hanging from a tree. That was ordinary. The first time it ever became national news was Emmett Till, but nothing really happened because Emmett Till was a boy and maybe he had said something flirtatious… it was Rosa Parks. She’s a woman, she looks nice, she works in civil rights, she’s respectable and they threw her off the bus. So you have to get these situations.
NM: These lightning rods.
TM: Yes, and when the time is right in the imagination of the other, the dominant culture.
NM: It seems to come in maybe 30 year cycles. A slow incremental change every 30 years and then pushed back again.
In Beloved, Sethe is told by Baby Suggs to put down her sword and shield. Have you put down your sword and shield?
TM: No, no, no. I’m less likely to do such things that I would normally do, have certain kinds of arguments.
NM: Because of fatigue?
TM: And they’re kind of worthless. What I do is I write and give lectures.
NM: You rarely write opinion pieces.
TM: Never. I used to have those attitudes, I think I still do but maybe it has to do with age, it’s as though the world is drifting away from me… I’m not drifting away from it. It’s in a way so fundamentally crude and simple and at the same time almost pointless. You know there are people in power who say there is no such thing as climate change. Everything’s crashed. It’s like somebody put this great cage of idiocy over the whole country. [Laughter] I have to deal with it the only way I can. I’m very happy, very enthusiastic, and very focused only on the work and, of course, friends and people. That’s the other thing, you get to my age and people die. When my father died I said “Oh well, if he can do it, I can do it.”
NM: When was that?
TM: He read my first book, so in the 70s.
NM: Does he still feel very present to you?
TM: Always, but then (you lose) close friends, lovers or ex-lovers, somebody’s child…
NM: That’s tough.
TM: It’s hard to get over. So I just keep up a running conversation with them in my mind. Like with the girls in the neighborhood, sharing recipes…
NM: Are they all gone? The friends in Queens?
TM: All gone apart from one.
NM: Do you see her?
NM: There’s a question that hasn’t been asked: How did people relate to your success?
TM: Badly, particularly black women. You know, incest.
NM: They didn’t like that?
TM: They wanted something uplifting, glorious and how we’re all wonderful. It was interesting to hear the women last night, young women, older women, all sorts, saying; “your book changed my life” and I was saying “thank you, thank you” and remembering if anyone reviewed it at all, they said “she writes well, but…” that’s the best I got, “It’s a horrible story, nobody is like that, incest.”
NM: It’s ridiculous.
TM: I think, well, Beloved was a breakout.
NM: That’s quite late on.
TM: That’s late. Song of Solomon gave me something… I remember being introduced, you know, at a literary event, by this really fine writer, he’s dead too, Doctorow. We were very close, I thought he was just a magnificent writer, anyway, he introduced me to the group and he said ”I don’t think of Toni as a black writer, I don’t think of her as a woman writer, I think of her as…” he paused, and I said “like a white male writer!”
NM: That’s the ultimate, that’s the terrifying thing; you’re saying it as it is. “You’re almost as good as us.” I don’t see where that’s coming from, because I find so many novels by great, white male authors are so narrow. So narrow and so obsessed with inadequacy of some sort that I don’t understand how, even if I were a white male, I would perceive those books as containing the expansiveness of life.
TM: I used to tell my students, when I was at Princeton, when I taught a course on creative writing, I would say “Don’t tell me about your boyfriend, you don’t know anything, so think of something you don’t know and expand” but the books now are very self-referential.
NM: It saddens me that people like Zora Neale Hurston and Samuel Selvon were both janitors towards the end of their lives. Their work has stood the test of time but what is it about this establishment that can’t nurture that?
TM: It’s so wispy; my impression of black culture in the world at large is related to music. When people think of America, from other countries, that’s what they think about. What is American? It’s jazz music, it’s sermons… that happens a lot with the culture that black people do, it takes a while, it might be in sports, music, dress, and I think that’s going to be true of the literature. Maybe not the reviewers, or the editors, but the younger generation, the really young generation who are really not interested in racism. So I’m optimistic about the changes. I think publishing is going to do what it does, forever, and you need new editors, you need new companies, you need new stuff. I think it’s going to have to, otherwise they’re going to die, they might die anyway, the big companies, they’re buying each other up. I used to work at Random House and be published at Knopf and now they’re all one big company. I noticed something else, kind of amazing to me, cause I taught his wife as a student, Jeff Bezos at Amazon, he is going to open, like, 400 bookstores.
NM: I saw that but if they’re going to sell them for a penny or whatever they sell them for, how is that going to work for writers?
TM: I don’t know but it was beautiful, the one I saw in New York, the look of it.
NM: Yes, cause they’ve got the space.
TM: Him, of all people, to start a bookstore chain.
NM: But I guess now, because of what they’ve done, they can afford to burn a little money…
TM: His wife MacKenzie, she was a student of mine, she was a really good writer and she graduated and she wrote me a letter saying “I got a nice job on Wall Street and I met this really good guy, he’s almost 32 and we’ve decided to move to Seattle” and I said “What?!” Then I found out who he was and I thought “Oh, OK.” She came in to New York a couple of months ago and she said “I’m coming to New York and I’m with my husband but I can park him if you don’t want to see him.” I said, “No, bring him along.” They’re lovely, one thing I noticed about them instantly, and I’m very good at this, is whether the couple belongs together and they love each other, in the way they don’t have to look at each other.
NM: They belong together.
TM: It’s up there. It’s amazing. I have this gift. You can test me whenever you decide to get married.
NM: [Laughter] I’ll bring them.
TM: Bring them and if you stand with them I will know. Marry that one and I’m always right.
NM: Are you? You can tell?
TM: I can tell. Look, I have people all over the country, Texas, New York, and I say “I know your happiness is due to me.”
NM: But what do you do if you know that it’s not right?
TM: I tell them.
NM: Do you? People don’t thank you for that.
TM: No, I say: “I don’t know.” I don’t say get rid of her.
NM: Right, so I just have to listen up for “you don’t know.”
TM: Exactly. I’ve been correct every single time.
NM: Really? Can you do it for yourself?
TM: No! Always wrong with the really intimate ones. Ah! I’ve got male friends for 50, 60 years but the lover types? All wrong.
NM: On that note actually, you write frequently of characters that are dangerously free. Are you dangerously free?
TM: Not anymore. I remember being aggressive. I remember being in a job before I started at Random House and I was a textbook editor, and they divvied out raises to themselves and I got less. So I went into the big guy’s office and I said: “You can’t do this, you have to give me the same amount of money that you’ve given everybody here.” He said but and I said but: “I’m the head of my household. That’s all you need to know” and he gave it. My mother used to do that a lot.
NM: Was she the head of the household? Your father was around?
TM: She was not the head, she did everything he wanted, but she would take responsibility for food, welfare. We used to call it relief, which I thought was a nicer word for it.
NM: Yes, I grew up on it as well.
TM: She got some cornmeal or something, not stamps or anything, she opened up a sack and she saw mites crawling in it, so she sewed up the sack and wrote a letter to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
TM: Yes, and told him what had happened to our meal. I don’t know what else she said, what I know is that in two weeks the woman who gave us that meal knocked on our door and apologized.
NM: That’s pretty impressive.
TM: She was like that. When we were sick one time, she wanted medicine and she went to a drugstore and said “I don’t have any money and I know you don’t want to give me credit but you have to because I have two children at home who are sick and I want you to open up a credit account,” I think the bill was a buck and a half or something. This guy says “Okay” and gave my mother the medicine and put her on the credit list. She shopped at the same shop for the rest of her life even when there were better or cheaper stores.
NM: He helped her when she needed it.
TM: That’s right and she never forgot. She’s the woman who goes and gives back the money because the teller gave her twenty dollars over. So she walks all the way back downtown and hands the money to the teller and the teller goes “What?!”
NM: I think it’s about your own dignity.
TM: And honesty, because I have this brother who’s some kind of a crook [laughter]. He said, “No one would ever dupe her, because she’s really completely honest.”
NM: Not gullible?
TM: You can’t offer her something as bait. She doesn’t want something for nothing.
NM: That’s the crucial thing, when you want something for nothing you’re very vulnerable. You need to know the price.
TM: I don’t think I would take that money back in those days. Do you think you would?
NM: Depends on how much it was! It’s a tough question, I like to be honest, I feel there’s a freedom to it.
TM: You’re right, that’s part of it, but then there’s the money!
NM: Especially when you need it.
TM: When you’re poor it’s a big thing. It’s nice having that lesson from mothers, particularly, and fathers. We had some good information from them. When I was a teenager, I remember boys when I would go visit my cousins, the catholic ones in Cleveland, smoked a lot of what they called reefer, and they would offer us, and I never took it. I didn’t make a big deal out of it, I just said no. What I knew at that time was that when they smoked it they felt joyful and so happy and I did not want to feel anything that wasn’t mine. If I feel bad, OK, I feel bad.
NM: I’m the same. No distortion.
TM: I think I’m the only human I know.
NM: Me too! Me too.
TM: I have never smoked it.
NM: [Laughs] Jazz tells the story of Harlem in the 1920s. What of that world do you think remains now? New York, like London, is where the world’s super rich live, they come, they play, and the city can be anonymous and bland. One of the few things that seem to have remained static is the violence aimed at African-Americans in New York.
TM: That’s everywhere. Some of the boroughs are a little more violent than others. The serious violence is in Ferguson… and Chicago is meant to be the worst place for black men shooting other black men.
NM: But New York is a richer city, and I’m not sure if the African-American community is wealthier for that, it’s a safer city, but I don’t know if the African-American community is safer.
TM: Well, a lot of people were upset about the changes in Harlem, rich people come and take over brownstones while other people are happy because money is involved and they get more money but it’s definitely changing. Everywhere you look there are new buildings.
NM: It’s the same in London. Expensive flats everywhere. There’s definitely aggression towards young black men in London but one case that shocked me recently was the Eric Garner case, where the police used an illegal chokehold and got away with it. I think from the UK there can be a slight sanctimoniousness regarding the violence in the US while ignoring…
TM: One thing is that for the first time in the history of the world is I have seen policemen arrested for that. Every now and again someone is held to account.
NM: But this is such an amazing, global city that I thought there would be more embarrassment about the Eric Garner case or even shame.
TM: New York? Embarrassed? [laughter] but on the bright side some of them are being held accountable. There’s alertness now.
NM: That’s an important change. Another thing I like about your work is that Native Americans appear, there are these brief interactions, in A Mercy particularly, I love that scene where the Native American boys on horseback surround her.
TM: I’m part Indian, my great grandmother, on my father’s side, maybe on my mother’s side.
NM: What was she?
TM: God, she was hateful! I think she was Cherokee but she was old by the time my mother knew her. I never knew her, but that’s the blood that runs through…
NM: Something attracts you to these characters in the novels?
TM: Maybe. I have to tell you this, my great grandmother, on the other side of the family was a very well-known and well-respected midwife. She was adored and worshipped by everybody in the family as the wise one, the one who knew everything, when she walked through the room the men stood up, I’d never seen that before in my life [laughter].
NM: All of them?
TM: Yes. She finally came to our house, we were kids, three and four years old, me and my sister. We were playing on the floor with my mother. She came in and she greeted my mother and then she looked at us, the kids, and she said: “these children have been tampered with.”
NM: Oh my God.
TM: Anyway, she was six feet tall, pitch black, and with a cane. We were not pure, we were sullied because of our skin color.
TM: That’s right! I was telling people, now you realize that every book I have ever written, almost, has been about that! I’ve already been estranged, foreignized and othered within the family. I was doing these lectures at Harvard on the literature of belonging and what it means to be othered. Imagine if you take that seriously, that you think you’re ugly because of the color of your skin? I had an incident in my childhood with a close friend of mine, Eunice. I remember walking home with her and she said: “God does not exist”, and I said: “Yes, he does.” She replied that she knew he didn’t because she had been praying for blue eyes for two years. The thing is, it was the first time I think I knew or felt something like beauty, she was very, very dark but very beautiful; she had these almond eyes and high cheekbones. So, that really happened, and at the same time, I thought she had this beautiful face, I also thought how awful she would look with blue eyes but she had already decided at that age that what she looked like was the wrong thing and blue eyes would fix it.
NM: I wonder where this is all coming from, because it’s obvious, the reason that people are willing to look more white, is obvious in America, because it could ensure your freedom, secure your safety, but it isn’t that different in Somalia, not so much blue eyes, but pale skin, straight hair. Skin bleaching is rife.
TM: Now, who’s this pretty girl everyone loves?
NM: Beyoncé? Rihanna? Which one?
TM: She played the…
NM: Oh… Lupita?
TM: Lupita! She knocked me out, man! She knocked everybody out and she’s smart and she’s nice, very nice. I have to think about that skin thing, because it’s not shallow, there’s something deeper going on. I was just reading a book by Ernest Hemingway and he’s making love to this girl and she’s getting blacker and blacker and she wants him to get blacker. They’re on this beach somewhere tanning and she says at some point “I wanna be your little black girl” cause the blackness for her is erotic, so all these people bleaching their skin are losing something. How old are you?
TM: They were laughing at me last night because somebody said, “What advice would you give to young writers?” and I said, “Start at 40”
NM: Really? I started too young (laughs). Why 40, why is that the right age?
TM: I don’t know, I just picked it.
NM: You had children when you started. I find it hard as it is now to find the time to write, how did you find the time?
TM: I was working two jobs, raising children, much of it by myself.
NM: Did you write in the middle of the night?
TM: Early in the morning, that’s when I’m really smart, now I’m getting little dumb but early in the morning I am on it. I get up before the sun, I do my work until about noon.
NM: You know, when I was growing up I thought you had to be at least 50 to write novels. I thought it wasn’t allowed, like it was against the law or something.
TM: I’ve read some fantastic ones who have written a lot but dropped dead at 50.
NM: Who do you admire now?
TM: There’s a woman I love, she’s really hostile, Flannery O’Connor, she’s really really good.
* * *
Nadifa Mohamed is a writer, born 1981. She has published two novels, Black Mamba Boy (2009) and The Orchard of Lost Souls (2013).
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