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The nature of love: novelist Diane McKinney-Whetstone talks with Toni Morrison about her new novel, the literary scene and what comes next - Interview


I've got Toni Morrison's voice in my ear, her voice so textured and nuanced, with an ageless quality though she's in her seventies now. She laughs easily and often during our conversation, speaking in rivers of sentences that flow and deepen and then converge in ideas that are startlingly precise. I'm realizing more than ever the importance of that voice, which has defined the beauty and brutality of the human condition, from The Bluest Eye to Paradise, earning a Pulitzer Prize for Beloved in 1988 and the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993. Now, in her eighth novel, Love, Toni Morrison locates us so sensually in the book's coastal setting that we actually feel the mist rise up from the sea as we become absorbed in the lives of the women who revolve around Bill Cosey, wealthy owner of Cosey's Hotel and Resort. Even after Cosey's death, the women struggle with having been obsessed with him, having been damaged and saved by him--having Loved him in some way. Following are portions of our conversation.

DIANE McKINNEY-WHETSTONE: You've said that in all your novels, you are answering a question. What question were you answering as you wrote Love?

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TONI MORRISON: I was interested in the way in which sexual love and other kinds of love lend themselves to betrayal. How do ordinary people end up ruining the thing they most want to protect? And obviously the heart of that is really the effort to love. The first thing I wrote was that gang-rape scene [see excerpt]. I had this kid in mind, Romen, who is unable to participate in this male rite of passage and is ashamed of the fact that he is unable to do it. And to the contempt of his friends, he releases the girl.

D.M.W.: You don't back off from the themes that some might find unsettling. Do you feel obligated as a novelist to disturb?

T.M.: Well, I get disturbed, I'm mindful of what disturbed means. I have some friends who tell me what they really think about what I write. One said, "You really take us to these terrible places, but the consequence of having been there and come out of it was a kind of cleansing." Another said, "Oh, my dear, I'm so glad that you're willing to talk about things that don't get talked about."

D.M.W.: What do you say to people who find your books complicated or challenging?

T.M.: I find that a good thing. We're a very complicated people. I take my cue from music. Nothing is more complicated than jazz, or even the nuances of the blues. We're accustomed to very complicated art forms, we really are. It's only in literature that we think we're supposed to skim, probably because of the way in which we've been educated. So much popular literature takes the more convenient route to arouse emotions and satisfy rather than what I think is the more interesting, which is the provocation.

D.M.W.: What's absorbing you these days?

T.M.: I've gotten myself into so much. I did some children's books with my son. We revised all of Aesop's tales, made them kind of hip. I was commissioned to write the libretto for an opera based on Margaret Garner, the woman whose life I sort of plundered for Beloved, and I finished that. Also some essays, and I'm still teaching at Princeton.

D.M.W.: As a former book editor, what do you think of the current literary scene?

T.M.: I've been very pleased by some contributions, particularly from younger women. Some are African-American, some are Indian, Native American, Asian. There's such a wide variety now--people in their twenties and thirties really making that effort. And I'm delighted because I had had the feeling that most creative people were going into other genres, into theater or moviemaking, which is fine, but I had thought that the novel wasn't as seductive a calling as it used be. There is an enormous Black readership and their hunger is bottomless, and it is being beautifully, beautifully fed. I'm very optimistic.

Diane Mckinney-Whetstone is the author of several novels, including the best-selling Tumbling. Her latest book, Leaving Cecil Street, will be published in the spring. She lives in Philadelphia.

When DIANE McKINNEY-WHETSTONE, author of the nationally acclaimed Tumbling, interviewed Toni Morrison, she learned that Morrison deliberately deleted the word love from the manuscript of her latest novel; in the final version the word appears only a few times. "I was blown away by her ability to express love, that most powerful human emotion, throughout the expanse of a novel without using the actual word," says McKinney-Whetstone, a native Philadelphian. What's love got to do with it? Check out McKinney-Whetstone's Q&A; with Morrison on page 202.

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