Saturday, February 12, 2011

Our February Author: Toni Morrison

A Mercy (Vintage International)This month we are reading Toni Morrison's A Mercy.  Not surprisingly for such a rich and dense story, every interview and profile has a nugget or three that adds to your appreciation of the book and makes it worth it to take in numerous interviews even with the repetitive bits.  This Guardian profile may serve as a good introduction to the author, if this is your first encounter with her.

For starters, I like this clip in which Morrison explains her motivation for writing her first novel, The Bluest Eye, because you can see so clearly how this vision of the black girl and her relationship to society has stayed with her through Beloved to A Mercy:



Also from a Washington Post profile of Morrison and A Mercy,
And how did this particular narrative start?
"Well, I have this needy girl. She's going to go on a journey. By herself. Usually, guys go on journeys in narratives and the women stay home.
NPR introduces more of the book's themes in this short video:



I initially listened to the audiobook, read by Morrison herself, and while I don't recommend that you rely on it exclusively as it can be difficult to follow the varying perspectives, its worth listening to at least a few samples just to hear her voice purr.  Luckily, NPR offers some audio sections online.

If you have a bit more time, there is a Los Angeles Public Library talk, An Evening with Toni Morrison also available for free download from iTunes. Tavis Smiley and Charlie Rose, especially good on the historical context for the novel, also have informative interviews.

In this Nation interview,  Obama the writer, and Edwidge Danticat get a nod, and we get this insight into the language of Florens,
You've said that you need to hear your characters' voices before you start to write. In A Mercy there are several mesmerizing characters: the young slave, Florens; the Dutch farmer, Jacob Vaark; his wife, Rebekka, who has fled the poverty, filth, crime and sickness of London. Whose voice did you hear first?
I heard Florens's first, the girl. And she approaches language in a slanted way. She can read and write; she learned from a Catholic priest under scary circumstances. And she's taken someplace else; she doesn't know what they're talking about. When she was with her mother she spoke Portuguese. She knows Latin. So I just put all her language together and gave her an individual voice that was "I"--first person--and very visual. But also, once I realized that I could make her speak only in the present tense, it gave the narrative an immediacy, it made me disciplined in revealing what she thought, and it gave her a kind of innocence and, at the same time, a kind of sophistication.
Hubbub: Filth, Noise, and Stench in England, 1600-1770The Chicago Public Library chose A Mercy as their 'One City, One Book' selection in 2010 and assembled some useful resources including a timeline and suggestions for further reading. One of the books Morrison frequently mentions the book Hubbub: Filth, Noise, and Stench in England, 1600-1770 as one of the sources she used for creating the historical texture of the novel. I can imagine certain Loyal Readers wanting to investigate that one... For a little more insight into the history depicted in the novel try these two posts from an historian of the period.  Morrison also frequently mentions Bacon's Rebellion in interviews about the book. The website for the PBS series Africans in America may be useful to learn more about this event and about slavery in the colonial period.  You can watch the whole series here.  Slavery in New York is another site worth visiting. 

Burn This Book: PEN Writers Speak Out on the Power of the WordMorrison, whose books are among the most frequently challenged, advocates passionately against censorship.  The New York Public Library has an entertaining conversation between Angela and Davis and Toni Morrison, Literacy, Libraries and Liberation which explores this issue, the importance of activism and many others (also available on iTunes for free download).

Peeny Butter FudgeWith her son Slade, Morrison has written several children's books (Peeny Butter Fudge, Little Cloud and Lady Wind, Who's Got Game?: The Ant or the Grasshopper? and more). For more on what she aims to accomplish in her not uncontroversial writing for children, see this interview by Rob Capriciosso.

Finally from the past some optimism for the future from this recent Chicago Tribune interview,
Q: You're feeling hopeful?
Yes, because I have a history in my head. I remember the way it was. I remember going out in Loraine, Ohio and picking up coal from the railroad tracks and putting it in a bucket. Out there would be Mexican people, Italian people. We were all doing the same thing. Stealing coal was what it was. Poor people were what we were. But if someone had difficulties, they were helped. Children were taken in. It didn't matter where you came from. I know the fiber of the country.
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