FEATURE TONI MORRISON _
Long denied proper recognition, Afro-American women authors are now at the forefront of US literature. Sue Wilson talks to the award-winning TONI MORRISON about jazz, racism and riots, and (below) to CAROLIVIA HERRON about her powerful debut novel.
espite its celebrated liberal tradition, American literature until recently was as guilty of race discrimination as so many other areas of US society. The canon was whiter than white until the 40s and 505, when Afro-American writers like Richard Wright, James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison began to be accorded the respect they deserved, and it is only during the last ten or fifteen years that black women authors have entered the literary mainstream. Among the current crop of female Afro-American writing talent — Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, Toni Cade Bambara, Angela Davis — it is Toni Morrison whose work seems most likely to stand the test of time, thanks to the lyrical artistry with which she weaves the strength, pain, bitterness and beauty of black American language and culture into glowing, richly-textured tapestries of words and images. Her third novel Song of Solomon won the 1978 National Book
Critics’ Circle Award and Beloved. her fifth. won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988.
Set in Harlem during the 205, Morrison’s latest novel, Jazz centres on the love triangle between salesman Joe Trace. his hairdresser wife Violet and his eighteen-year-old mistress Dorcas, who he loved ‘with one of those deepdown. spooky
‘You have to go into dangerous places
emotionally, to try to experience what
something lelt like-feel the desire to murdersomeone, for example.’
Like Toni Morrison, Carolivlatlerron uses a musical metaphor to describe
loves that made him so sad and happy he shot herjust to keep the feeling going’. At the funeral Violet tries to slash Dorcas’s dead face; these violent events trigger a spiralling search through the characters’ past and present. an attempt to comprehend and escape from their imprisoning grief and anger. Encompassing the devastation wrought by poverty and racism on Southern black families. the great migration of dispossessed sharecroppers to the Promised Land ofthe North and the vitality of Harlem community life, the narrative echoes with the music it takes as its name.
‘When I was working out how this story would be told I decided to use the central narrative as you would in the concept of jazz,’ explains Morrison. ‘Like a melody you play on, with various other narratives told by other people, other musicians as it were, giving their interpretation. And at the same time to have the principal voice of the book invent, contrive and manipulate, which is what jazz is about — improvisation. But there’s always the possibility with improvisation that you will be taken to a place you hadn’t planned on. It involves surrendering a certain kind of control in the imaginative process; initially you have to go into dangerous places emotionally, to try to experience what something felt like — feel the desire to murder someone, for example.’
black, middle-class Washington no family in which one at the three
Morrison’s core theme is the bloodstained history and legacy of slavery, the tragedy which has inﬂicted on America some of its deepest wounds, from the Civil War to the Los Angeles riots. What makes her writing so powerful is the passionate sensitivity with which she explores the insidious psychological effects of racism, how it undermines individuals from within. how they struggle to find the inner resources to resist. ‘You have to make sure your characters are not pitiable.’ she says. ‘To make sure that what is true and forceful in
. retrieving the past is the agency one allows
the characters; to wrest from the past the part that complicated human beings played in it. It’s a visceral response; it’s not enough simply to know what it looked like. it’s important to know how it felt, you need to understand what difference it makes in your day if you’re under siege, what it feels like when you escape.’
Even after Los Angeles, Morrison remains guardedly hopeful about the long-term future of the US. ‘At the moment politicians are running around building a kind of concrete crust over that explosion.’ she says. ‘They’re not talking about Rodney King any more, they’re talking about looting, saying it’s all the more reason for everyone to carry a gun, all the more reason not to give aid to poor black families — it’s a fairly successful effort to return to business as usual. But taking a longer view, I know human beings can do practically anything, there are enormous possibilities for change through individuals which can’t all be managed from some central place in government. Racism is a cul-de-sac, it can’t produce anything new, it can only reformulate itself in different language; it’s an incredible hobbling of the mind and the imagination. It’s truly a liberation to abandon it, and though I don’t think anybody has a strategy for abandoning it yet, I feel there is a place where it will happen}
Jazz ispublished by Charm & Windus at £14. 99.
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Carolivia tierron: “i wanted to implicate my audience as guilty’
12The List 5 — 181une i992
her writing. ‘lt has a lot in common with the term otthe splrltual,’ she says, ‘though there are blues elements as well'. The comparison rings true - centred on the appalling consequences of incest, a symbolic legacy oi the rape oi black women and the emasculation oi black men under slavery, and set partly during a devastating race war in the year 2000 between the us and the Third World. lienon’s debut novel. Thereetter Johnnie, is a work of resonant lyricism and poignant beauty. The rhythmic, circling. mum-voiced narrative is arranged into twenty-tour llladic chapters; the language is piled into layers, threaded into mythological patterns, stretched to its limits to yield unsettling, hallucinatory images.
The central strand is the story oi a
daughters, Patricia, becomes pregnant by the lather, giving birth to a coal-black, blue-eyed daughter, Johnnie, who appears at the ambiguous, apocalyptic end, in a tale told titty years later by an old Mexican woman, as a millennial tigers of salvation and redemption. The power oi Herron’s writing is at its most shocking in the intense, compelling eroticism oi the scenes between Patricia and her lather, especially the initial seduction/rape scene, in the midst otwhich we learn tor the ilrst time that she was abused by him at the age oi two, earlier than her earliest memory. ‘I wanted itto be extremely dangerous,’ says Herron. ‘i wanted to implicate my audience as guilty, I : wanted them to enioy it. Also, I think
knows immediately she’s a victim and that their victimiser is bad — that's not what happens. You take on the evil that’s ascribed to you, you decide it couldn't have happened unless you were bad.’
the novel is pervaded by echoes and elements oi myth and folk-tale, irom Tar Baby to the Odyssey, exploring their potential as a torce tor good or evil. ‘lt’s a warning to my audience and mysell,’ says tierron. ‘We’ve a tendency to ill our lives into myths, to play them out instead oi resisting them, making them our own. l’m insisting on human ireedom.’
Thereafter Johnnie is published by Virago at £14.99.