Toni Morrison talks to Peter Florence

Toni Morrison

She arrived on stage, this grand dame of literature, smiling and waving to a rapturous reception. ‘Now I know why I came back’ she laughed.

I’ve never read her novels, despite her being such an important writer, but was pleased to find out that Peter Florence was talking to her about one of her early novels, Beloved – coincidentally the one I bought just the other day. She began writing this in the early eighties, after being made redundant, an act that set her free to write seriously. She confessed to feeling a jittery kind of nervous feeling at the time, something she realised was pure happiness ‘a new state for me’ she said.

Morrison tells a fantastic story, she captured the audience in the palm of her hand whilst telling us how she was inspired to write Beloved after reading newspaper cuttings about the story of Margaret Garner, a young mother who having escaped slavery was arrested for killing one of her children (and attempting to kill her other two) rather than return to the slave plantation.

Peter Florence asked how the slave stories came to her, and she admitted this was rather problematic – books written by former slaves pleaded to the absolutionists rather than actually speaking out in protest. She was told stories, or snippets of them by her grandfather, and her mother who passed them down from older members of the family, but they were metaphorical in nature, almost in code.

It was shocking to hear about the existence of ‘the bit’ – a cruel device designed to control and silence female slaves – something she identifies as both personal and intimate, but restraining and controlling at the same time “it’s hard to find the right language to describe it”, she confessed.  She explained that it does not seem that there are any of the ‘bits’ left in America, they all seem to have been destroyed.

Morrison tells us that the actual sound of language is very important to her, sound and colours manipulate and seduce the reader – it is just as important to hear as well as read words. This reader is adding all of her novels to her ‘must read’ list.

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