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Literary giant Toni Morrison empowers 'Voices' of past at 92nd Street Y

JEANETTE TOOMER | 4/12/2011, 4:34 p.m.
Toni Morrison

"America's most honored living author," Nobel Prize winner and novelist Toni Morrison spoke to a sold-out crowd at the 92nd Street Y "Voice of Literature" reading series on Monday, Dec.8.This fascinating evening began with Morrison ("Song of Solomon," "The Bluest Eye," "Beloved," "Paradise") reading a long passage from her latest, best-selling work of fiction, "A Mercy."

This evocative, lyrical story, set in 1690, gives voice and flesh to enslaved African women who worked in homes and on plantations before the American Revolution. They suffered rape, abandonment, and sickness, and survived in one fashion or another. These women, Lina, Sorrow and Florens, cut off from everything they knew, pioneered a new land and served without compensation or any real acknowledgement. She read from a passage where the young Florens, fatigued and starved, has sought shelter from a kindly widow only to be interrogated and humiliated by a group of self-righteous white elders who suspect her of witchcraft.

Yes, there were plenty of suspicions to go around in the wilderness of early colonial America. There were distinct rifts and dislikes between Protestants and Catholics. White indentured servants, brides for sale, and prostitutes were part of the goods available for purchase, and Morrison brilliantly weaved in these stories as well. In her interview, she revealed much of her research and writing process that realized this colorful and sordid tapestry.

New York Timeswriter Sam Tanenhaus interviewed Morrison after her reading. The author noted, "It's not so hard to enter into a character...Usually, the voice of the character is immediate, instant and absolutely correct." As for Florens in "A Mercy," "Everything is now with her. She is needy. She only speaks in the present tense."

Tanenhaus asked the esteemed writer why she chose this period in American history to set her story. "It was raw, ad hoc. Everybody was here--the Spanish, the Dutch, the French, the British. It was rich and untampered with." She pointed out that no American novel had the perception of now. Even Hawthorne was writing 100 years later.

"What was interesting," continued Morrison, "was the amount of diversity that was here. We forget that every empire was built on the backs of slaves. We may call them serfs, peons, indentured servants or Black slaves."

Morrison explained that before sitting to write the book, she spent some years conducting research for the novel by reviewing changes in the landscape, census data, bills of sale, a 17th century book titled "Families, Sex and Marriage," and records of laws like, "You may not beat your wife after 7 p.m. except for cause." In ship manifests, she found "80 percent of them were servants." She was interested in looking at this period before there was "racial stratification." She even found an ad for "Dutch woman with children for rent."

Afterwards, she said it took her 18 months to write the novel. She wanted it to be "lean and deep."

Morrison added, "Some books that I write seem to want to be fuller. I want to insert my imagination and African-Americans into that history." Tanenhaus asked about her writing craft and style. The Nobel winner answered, "The second book, I wrote 30 pages one summer. I know how to get to the real writing faster. I know when the writing has arrived. Now, I am much better." Morrison's latest work, "A Mercy," begins when an enslaved mother abandons her daughter. Why? The novelist said, "She knew that the situation she was in was intolerable. She recognized that Jacob saw a child in her. The mother knew that she could not protect her...During slavery, the big, big trauma is the separation of family...This abandonment made her, Florens, this very vulnerable and needy girl." Later, on Jacob's farm, Florens falls hopelessly in love with a free Negro, a blacksmith. It is her journey to find him after he leaves Jacob's plantation that is desperate and deeply moving. In his introductory remarks, Tanenhaus reported that The New York Times had chosen Morrison's "Beloved" as the best novel since 1980. He said that her books often combined aspects of anthropology, sociology, mystery and a mythic universe.

"A Mercy" is the latest of Morrison's fictional treatments on history, imagination and African-Americans. In the words of her main character, Florens, this brilliant literary genius takes a monumental first step when she says, "I see a path, and enter."