Toni Morrison, whose new novel is out Tuesday, is also one of 13 recipients of this year's Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor.By Thibault Camus, AP
Toni Morrison, whose new novel is out Tuesday, is also one of 13 recipients of this year's Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor.Her 10th novel, Home (Knopf, $24), released Tuesday, features an angry and troubled black Korean War veteran in the 1950s. It's set mostly in Georgia, where Morrison has never lived. But it's brought her from her home in New York back to Ohio, where she was born and raised.In an interview during a three-day visit to Oberlin College, she says that despite a hip replacement, her back is "problematic." Her diagnosis: "Two little discs seem to be engaged or something." She gets around by wheelchair or supported on the arms of others.Her dreadlocked hair, tucked under a scarf, is gray, almost silver. But her voice remains strong. At Oberlin, where she previewed Home in March, Morrison has unconventional advice for the adoring and cheering students who fill all 1,200 seats in the college chapel:"People say to write about what you know," she says. "I'm here to tell you, no one wants to read that, 'cause you don't know anything."In 1989, Toni Morrison explained why she wrote Beloved, her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel inspired by a 19th-century black mother who killed her daughter rather than see her grow up enslaved:“There is no place you or I can go, to think about or not think about, to summon the presences of, or recollect the absences of slaves; nothing that reminds us of the ones who made the journey and of those who did not make it. There is no suitable memorial or plaque or wreath or wall or part of skyscraper lobby. There’s no 300-foot tower. There’s no small bench by the road...And because such a place doesn’t exist…the book had to.”Those words inspired The Toni Morrison Society, a group of scholars and fans, to begin The Bench by the Road Project. It places 6-foot-long metal benches with plaques quoting Morrison at sites important in African-American history.In 2008, the first bench was placed on Sullivan’s Island, S.C., a point of entry for slaves. In 2009, the second was installed in the town square in Oberlin, Ohio, a stop on the Underground Railroad and an abolitionist stronghold before the Civil War. There are now six benches, with more planned.“It’s never too late to honor the dead,” says Morrison. She loves the fact that even in an age of new museums about civil rights and slavery, “they are real, unpretentious benches. You can sit on them. And at my age (81), I’m always looking for a place to sit down.”The students laugh. Morrison smiles and adds, "So write about something you don't know. And don't be scared, ever."No contemporary novelist is more celebrated by both scholars and everyday readers. Her best-known work, Beloved, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988, was inspired by a real-life escaped slave who killed her daughter rather than return her to slavery. (Oprah Winfrey starred in the 1998 movie.)In 1993, Morrison became the first black woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. No American has won since, which she can't explain, although she asks, "Philip Roth is still alive, isn't he?" (He is; the Nobel is awarded only to the living.)She was born and raised in Lorain, an industrial city filled with immigrants from Poland or Czechoslovakia or, like her grandparents, from the South. It's 9 miles and a world away from the inviting college town of Oberlin.As an honors graduate of Lorain High School (class of 1949), she says she could have attended Oberlin, which boasts on road signs into town of being the first college "to welcome male and female students of all races," starting in 1835."But Oberlin would have been too close to home," Morrison says. "Someone would have been telling me what to do."Finding answersInstead, she attended Howard University, the historically black college in Washington, D.C., where for the first time, she saw signs downtown separating "colored" and "white." And at Howard, she learned of the divisions among blacks, between poor and rich, between dark- and light-skinned, which would become themes in her novels. Her own family was "poor," she says, "but we were never degraded." Her dad, who assumed "all whites were unredeemable," worked as a welder, among other jobs. Her mother, "the most non-racist person I knew," worked as a restroom attendant "so she could send me $5 a week when I was at Howard. Back then, that made a difference."Morrison, who worked as an editor at Random House from 1967 to 1983, says she has followed her own advice to write about what you don't know: "I write to find out something. I write with questions in mind. 'What would it feel like if …' Or, 'What would happen if…' "The plots are simple to construct, she says. "The characters are complex." She says they talk to her, like ghosts: "On a good day, they shut up and let me work."In Home, told from multiple viewpoints, she does something she's never done before.Her main character, Frank "Smart" Money, who harbors a terrible secret from Korea, talks back to the author, challenging what she knows and doesn't.Money is summoned home to Georgia, to a "no-count, not-even-a-town place," to save his naive sister, Cee, who's been abused by a white doctor. That part of her plot was inspired by Harriet Washington's 2007 book, Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans From Colonial Times to the Present.Morrison's novels, which often blend reality and myth, arise from her imagination and research. They are not autobiographical. One book she won't write is a memoir. She's canceled plans to do so after deciding, "A) I don't remember everything anymore, and B) as a subject to write about, I'm not that interesting to myself. I'm more interested in my imagination. Fiction is my place."On Lorain, Obama, OprahThat doesn't surprise Carolyn Denard, a dean at Emory University in Atlanta and president of the Toni Morrison Society, a group of 600 scholars and fans. "She has been so generous with her life story in appearances and in countless interviews," Denard says. "And she has now written 10 novels. She has always told me that everything we need to know about her is there — in the works."Morrison doesn't discuss her 1964 divorce from Harold Morrison, a Jamaican architect she met at Howard. (As a single mother, she raised two sons. Ford, 50, is an architect in Princeton, N.J., where his mother used to teach. Slade was an artist and illustrator, who collaborated with his mother on several children's books and died in 2010 at 45 from pancreatic cancer.)But in an interview, on a variety of topics, she's funny and biting:•Growing up in Lorain: "All those immigrants. I thought it was typical. It helped me feel comfortable in the world at large. There wasn't a ghetto sensibility."•Her mother: "Whenever a new place or store would open in Lorain, she would go just to check it out and see how we were treated. When the Dreamland movie theater opened, all the black kids sat on the left side. My mother deliberately made us sit on the right side. I was furious because my friends were on the other side. But my mother wanted to make a point."•President Obama: "As good as it gets … I think what drives some of his critics is not that he's black, but that he's such a smart, articulate black … and that causes all this vulgarity about his birth certificate or the Muslim thing." She's "thrilled" that she's one of 13 recipients of this year's Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor, and is eager to meet Obama for the first time at a White House ceremony to be scheduled soon.•E-books: She likes reading books on her iPad — to a degree. She recently found that Hilary Mantel's 2009 novel, Wolf Hall, set in Henry VIII's England, "was so good, I had to go buy the book book, or whatever it's called now. When I like a book, I want to add my notes. Exclamation points! And questions marks! I want to corrupt it with my responses."•Her friendship with Winfrey: "I adore her. She sends me flowers every year on my birthday. She did what they said was impossible: She used TV to get people to read books." (Morrison says Winfrey's embrace of three of her novels, Song of Solomon, Paradise and Sula, did more for her sales than the Nobel Prize ever did.)But no, Morrison hasn't urged Winfrey to revive her televised book club. "We stay friends because I don't ask her for anything. Everyone else does." (Winfrey likes to say that when she told Morrison she often has to reread parts of her novels to understand them, Morrison replied, "That, my dear, is reading.")•Home as a place: These days, it's mostly Morrison's riverfront house in Grand View-on-Hudson, N.Y., which lives up to its name, 20 miles north of Manhattan on the west bank of the Hudson. "I love the river. As a girl, I loved Lake Erie. There's something about water."•Home, her new novel, set in the '50s: "I wanted to rip the scab off that period. There's all this Leave It to Beaver nostalgia. That it was all comfortable and happy and everyone had a job. Oh, please. There was violent racism. There was (Joe) McCarthy. There was this horrible war we didn't call a war, where 58,000 people died."•The length of her new novel (just 147 pages): "Some reviewers say it's too short. They used to say my novels were too long. Someone called it a novella. What's the ella? It's a novel. The better I can do with less is more."The reviews have been generally good: Entertainment Weekly (A-) and People (four stars) loved it, but The Los Angeles Times called it a "thin book with some beautiful writing."The dedication page on Home reads simply "Slade," her son who died."Sometimes you just don't have any words," she says. "Sometimes, it's just clichés and tired old words, and there's nothing really to say."After a long pause, Morrison adds two words about her son: "He knows."For more information about reprints & permissions, visit our FAQ's. To report corrections and clarifications, contact Standards Editor Brent Jones. 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