She remembers the '50s when she and her friends, students at Howard University, came to the Willard knowing the hotel was so tired, so decrepit, even they were welcome. The Mayflower too -- there will always be a warm spot in her heart for the Mayflower and its bathroom that anyone, including a young black woman, could use.
Now she is shown to a table at the new Willard and, when offered a seat, sinks into the neo-Victorian red plush couch with an exaggerated delight. A waiter, determined to serve, brings food and yearned-for cigarettes. For breakfast, she plays with a muffin, denudes the croissants of their sugared almonds and sips on bitter grapefruit juice with sugar stirred through it.
"I have reverted to every bad habit I've ever had in my whole life on this tour," says novelist Toni Morrison, 56, the Howard student now grown, as she lights up.
For a week she has been away from her home in Grand-View-on-Hudson, N.Y., talking and answering questions and reading from her work. "124 was spiteful. Full of a baby's venom," she begins, her voice soft as a whisper, introducing the first two sentences of her new book, "Beloved." The novel, Morrison's fifth, has received almost exclusively exuberant reviews and as of yesterday had risen to the No. 2 spot on The Washington Post best-seller list. At a Smithsonian signing, readers -- most of them women -- hold the volume close to their chests like a treasured object. One fan tells her "Beloved" is so powerful she could not read it alone; the house had to be filled with people, with comforting presences, a comment that reminds the author of her own trepidations.
"I had forgotten that when I started the book, I was very frightened," Morrison says. "It was an unwillingness and a terror of going into an area for which you have no preparation. It's a commitment of three or four years to living inside -- because you do try to enter that life."
And the life was a terrible one even to glance at, let alone invite into your mind and house. A Kentucky plantation of the 1850s where the master charts his slaves' "animal characteristics." Families separated, runaways burned to death. Chain gangs, whippings, hangings, guilt, ghosts. And at the center of it all, infanticide: a mother who slits her daughter's throat with a handsaw and is about to kill her three other children, this to "save" them from the slavery she has just managed to escape.
But the true story at the heart of the book, the story of Margaret Garner, who escaped to Cincinnati and succeeded in killing only one daughter before they stopped her, had stayed with Morrison for 10 years after she first read contemporary accounts of the woman's trial for murder.
"I thought at first it couldn't be written," Morrison says, "but I was annoyed and worried that such a story was inaccessible to art. If I couldn't do it, I felt really sold. In the end, I had to rely on the resilience and power of the characters -- if they could live it all of their lives, I could write it.
"I recognize something is significant in a variety of ways, one of which is resistance. You stiffen," she says, pulling back in illustration, her full body growing hard and taut. "When you stiffen, you know that whatever you stiffen about is very important. The stuff is important, the fear itself is information. I don't mean I was frightened of some thing. I was frightened of an unknown."
As she explored the unknown, she came to think the story could be told only in fiction, in art.
"Historians can't do it -- they can't speculate," she says. "They've got to decide that they're going to talk about 'ages' and 'issues' and 'great men' and 'forces.' These people didn't know they were living in 'the age of ...' They just thought, 'What about tomorrow?' So history can't get the perspective. Also, it's very large. The cruelty was inventive; it was creative cruelty. To deal with the sort of surrounding pathological whatever -- historians may say 'historical this' and 'precedent for that,' they have rationales that are clear, but an artist can cut it down to size and see what these human beings were doing."
Howard University English professor Claudia Tate, who is currently on leave, thinks Morrison's book is another example of ways in which black artists are creating what she calls "reclamations of slavery."
"Slavery for so long was a dreaded topic which you only talked about with familiar people, or which you only probed to a limited level," says Tate. "There's a lot of serious pain -- you can say, 'Oh yes, that was terrible,' but when you start reliving it as empathy, it's very painful ... It seems the only way we can go forward is to go back far enough to establish a legacy of heroism and survival. It's as if the past has a text which we have to learn how to read, and the only way you can read it is to write it for yourself."
About her heroine, Morrison writes: "She could never close in, pin it down for anybody who had to ask ...
If they didn't get it right off -- she could never explain. Because the truth was simple, not a long-drawn-out record of flowered shifts, tree cages, selfishness, ankle ropes and wells. Simple: she was squatting in the garden and when she saw them coming and recognized schoolteacher's hat, she heard wings. Little hummingbirds stuck their needle beaks right through her headcloth into her hair and beat their wings. And if she thought anything, it was No. No. Nono. Nonono. Simple. She just flew. Collected every bit of life she had made, all the parts of her that were precious and fine and beautiful, and carried, pushed, dragged them through the veil, out, away, over there where no one could hurt them. Over there. Outside this place, where they would be safe. And the hummingbird wings beat on ..."
-- from "Beloved" Before Morrison began the story of the woman who soon ceased to be Margaret Garner and became Sethe ("I listen to the characters and ask what their names are. It's a process that is very respectful"), she had been preoccupied with "the ways in which women are able to love extremely well, nurture extremely well, and the ways that sometimes also destroys something."
"I was thinking about that in really very contemporary terms. And that led me to think about the ways in which we displace the individual self into the beloved. Sometimes it's children, sometimes it's husbands, sometimes it's careers or what have you. And we let the best part of us flourish in something other than ourselves and get completely erased. But no one would want to take that away, so that you're negotiating the tension.
"Margaret Garner had a very fierce and insistent love for her children when they were the best part of her, when they were the real part of her. She was not permitted to be a mother, and that is such an elemental desire. Mother hunger. You can understand those people who kidnap babies from supermarkets. It's a real hunger. She was saying, 'I claim my children's lives and I will decide for them whether they live or die.'
"I understood and empathized. I'm not sure how much of that I would have been able to do myself, and I realized the only person who is in a position to ask those questions and judge her was the dead child -- because you knew a woman like that would be haunted by what she had done."
Once Sethe has been released from jail, thanks to the influence of some white abolitionists, and has placed a stone over her daughter's grave carved with the word "Beloved," she settles with her three remaining children in the home of her mother-in-law on 124 Bluestone Rd. outside of Cincinnati. But 124 is spiteful; furniture flies and sad light plays across the floor and baby hand prints appear in cakes. Eighteen years after the act of maternal love and violence, Sethe and her family are still haunted by the 2-year-old girl whose throat she slit. When Paul D., a former slave from the same Kentucky farm, appears and exorcises the baby ghost, another presence takes her place, a 20-year-old woman with a raspy voice and a scar on her throat. She can not explain where she comes from, and she calls herself Beloved.
Sethe and her living daughter Denver know who this girl is. The black women of the town know, too. "I decided she would be two things," says Morrison. "For the characters in the book, she would indeed be the character returned. I decided for the reader she would be a real person, a real character with a life elsewhere. But their desires mesh. Her needs blend with theirs." Morrison never explains fully why those desires mesh so perfectly, merely hinting at a past for Beloved that may have included a sadistic imprisonment.
"I never describe characters very much ...," Morrison told Claudia Tate for her book, "Black Women Writers at Work." "My language has to have holes and spaces so the reader can come into it." At one point, the mysterious Beloved speaks, and the holes in Morrison's language are the holes memory cannot bear to fill, the spaces left by suffering and yearning.
I do not eat the men without skin bring us their morning water to drink
we have none
at night I cannot see the dead man on my face
daylight comes through the cracks and I can see his locked eyes
I am not big
small rats do not wait for us to sleep someone is thrashing but there is no room to do it in
if we had more to drink we could make tears
we cannot make sweat or morning water so the men without skin bring us theirs
one time they bring us sweet rocks to suck
we are all trying to leave our bodies behind the man on my face has done it ... the sun closes my eyes
when I open them I see the face I lost
Sethe's is the face that left me
Sethe sees me see her and I see the smile
her smiling face is the place for me it is the face I lost... "
-- from "Beloved" She was born Chloe Anthony Wofford in 1931 to parents who had migrated from sharecropping in Georgia and Alabama to Lorain, Ohio, and for whom pain, storytelling and magic were accepted elements of existence. The family lived "marginally," as she puts it. "We moved a lot." In "The Bluest Eye," "Sula," "Song of Solomon" and "Tar Baby," Morrison's youthful fascination with her family's tales remains. Butterflies and avocado trees express forceful opinions, a woman is born with no navel, a dead child returns, tales and lives are spun out in long, fluid sentences that move through history and even past the grave.
"There are more parents who tell their children stories now," she says, "who read to them as a way of educating their children. We didn't hear stories that way. The adults weren't telling us stories, they were talking to each other. We overheard. They were not patronizing us. Some people sometimes think listening is a passive, almost involuntary process. Hearing may be, but listening isn't. The attention and intellectual activity and participation that you have when you listen to music -- that's very complicated. That is what listening to good literature, or speeches or anything, is. You're really engaged. It's that quality of listening engagement I would like to return to the print world."
After graduating from Howard and receiving an MA from Cornell, she taught at Howard, and it was there she began to write. "I had nothing left but my imagination ...," she has said. "I had no will, no judgment, no perspective, no power, no authority, no self -- just this brutal sense of irony, melancholy, and a trembling respect for words. I wrote like someone with a dirty habit. Secretly -- compulsively -- slyly."
Finally, she joined a writers' group, and out of a story for the group grew "The Bluest Eye," a brief, searing novel about a young black girl's dream of having blue eyes, a story almost encyclopedic in its exploration of anger at whites and hatred of self among blacks in Lorain, Ohio.
I destroyed white baby dolls.
But the dismembering of dolls was not the true horror. The truly horrifying thing was the transference of the same impulses to little white girls. The indifference with which I could have axed them was shaken only by my desire to do so. To discover what eluded me: the secret of the magic they weaved on others. What made people look at them and say, 'Awwwww,' but not for me? The eye slide of black women as they approached them on the street, and the possessive gentleness of their touch as they handled them.
If I pinched them, their eyes -- unlike the crazed glint of the baby doll's eyes -- would fold in pain, and their cry would not be the sound of an icebox door, but a fascinating cry of pain. When I learned how repulsive this disinterested violence was, that it was repulsive because it was disinterested, my shame floundered about for refuge. The best hiding place was love. Thus the conversion from pristine sadism to fabricated hatred, to fraudulent love. It was a small step to Shirley Temple. I learned much later to worship her, just as I learned to delight in cleanliness, knowing, even as I learned, that the change was adjustment without improvement."
-- from "The Bluest Eye," 1970 In 1974 came "Sula," a novel about friendship between women; once again Morrison was praised by critics and fellow black women writers not only for her prose but for exploring worlds few others entered in fiction. The 1977 "Song of Solomon" won the National Book Critics Circle Award.
"Beloved" began as the first part of a trio of tales that Morrison believed would make up a book. "I thought it would be 75 or 80 pages long," she says of what became "Beloved." "When I turned it in to the editor, I said, 'I'm very sorry that I'm two years late, but I'm not going to be able to finish.' " The editor read the "unfinished" 275 pages and recognized it as a whole book, and now Morrison is working on the next story, set in Harlem in the '20s. When she admits to this, she rolls her eyes, exhaling something between a laugh and a sigh, for after "Tar Baby" in 1981 she thought she was done.
"I told myself, 'I'm going to free myself, and if I never write another book, it's all right.' " After "The Bluest Eye," Morrison learned that books could be written only when she was ready. "The process and act of writing is too important to do it because I have the time. I prefer to do it when I am unable to avoid it." She kept writing because she was unable to avoid "Beloved."
For years she had worked double, if not triple, time: editing at Random House until 1983, teaching and writing whenever she could find the quiet to do it, all the while raising two sons on her own after her divorce. She now holds the Albert Schweitzer chair at the State University of New York in Albany, nurturing several young writers through two-year fellowships that allow them "to put their writing at the middle of their lives," as she describes it.
"I think she's of particular importance for women readers and for all readers because she's one of the few writers we have now who takes on all levels of issues at once," says Charlotte Nekola, who has just completed a fellowship in Albany. "She doesn't only talk about gender -- she talks about gender and race and class all at once."
Morrison made a choice not to know too much about Margaret Garner, so she could invent a Sethe of her own. But she and an assistant did extensive research into slavery, abolitionism, Cincinnati in the 1850s and '60s, how much things cost and where streets were, "so all that would be accurate since I was dealing with the supernatural and some very sensational material and didn't want it to be sensational in the bad sense."
Not all of the information she needed was easy to find. She had heard of masters putting a "bit" on slaves, but could find no artifacts or pictures of the device. "Slave museums here are upbeat. They have quilts and all the 'cute' things slaves did." Brazilian museums, she found, eschew "cute."
"They have the tools, the bits, the masks you would wear so you wouldn't eat the cane when you were harvesting it. There were little holes for you to breathe through," she says, and her hands begin to circle her face, her head, shaping the mask and closing in on her features as her voice gains speed and force like a memory that can't be stopped, "and when you cut cane you sweat and when you take that thing off the skin comes off with it. These were not restraining things, they expected you to work in them. They had huge cages they put around them with metal tongues in them that could be tightened in the back -- that was the bit. They cooked in that -- cooked in it. I looked at diaries of slave owners who were considered benevolent. You look in October, and among all the powerful, senatorial, gubernatorial things they were doing, you would see, 'Put the break on Jenny,' or 'My wife got upset and burned Martha's arm with the iron.' "
She laughs: Disbelief, weariness, amazement are all there.
"Which made me think, the story I had written was actually a happy story," she says. Her Sethe is merely haunted. Margaret Garner was not so lucky. "In reality, they sent her back. After the trial, she was sent back to the man who came to get her."
Morrison doesn't know what happened to Garner after that, but it is not impossible that she fell into the group to whom Morrison dedicated "Beloved." "Sixty Million and more," it reads.
"I asked some scholars to estimate for me the number of black people who died in 200 years of slavery," she says. "Those 60 million are people who didn't make it from there to here and through. Some people told me 40 million, but I also heard 60 million, and I didn't want to leave anybody out.