A “Conversation” With Toni Morrison About Aesthetics and Identity

Toni Morrison
I sit down and have an imaginary
conversation with Toni Morrison.
Photo by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders / via

I’ve struggled with pinpointing an aesthetic for my work that emerges from my experiences of being a queer Black woman, born and raised in the South, with a college education, from a working-class and/or middle-class household, who is also cisgender (sorta), able-bodied (for now) and relatively neurotypical. Part of this is, I believe, an attempt to validate the existence of my work in the eyes of those who may not see the value in it without someone creating a system of analysis centered around it. It’s hard to shake the desire to be seen as a Real Writer(TM) by men, by white folks, by straight people, and so on.

But there is a deeper part to it. There is the fact that I want to connect my work to a history of Black writers, women writers, LGBT writers and people who are all of the above.

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“Where do I fit in?” is something I’ve been asking myself my whole life. Sometimes, when I’m having trouble working something out in my head, I’ll invite someone into my imagination to talk to them in the hopes of expressing through conversation whatever ideas I’m having trouble verbalizing otherwise. One series of conversations became a full-length play in itself.

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This time, I sit down in my mindspace with Toni Morrison, whose words have been an inspiration to me ever since I read Beloved. Most people praise Morrison’s writing for its lyrical quality, but for me, it’s the clarity I find whenever I read or watch one of her interviews. Though our mediums and styles are different, I take comfort in knowing that there are other Black women writers who are thinking and talking about writing as Black women not only from a sociological point of view, but from an aesthetic one. For as much as we prize originality, there is something to be said about knowing that something you’re creating is part of a history and a culture, that its value is rooted in something substantial.

Here is a snippet of that imaginary conversation.

Shawn Harris (me): Hello, Ms. Morrison.

Toni Morrison: Hi. How are you?

SH: Great. Thank you so much for visiting my imagination. It’s a real pleasure to have you stop by.

TM: It’s great to be here. I’ve never had an interview in someone’s imagination before. It’s convenient, to say the least.

SH: I’m still in my pajamas.

TM: You look so cozy. So, what made you bring me here?

SH: There are some things I’ve been thinking about with my plays and how intersections of race, gender, sexuality and class influence what shows up in the things I write.

TM: What kinds of things do you write?

SH: It’s hard to nail down a genre, precisely, but all my plays have an element of the otherworldly. There’s witches, ghosts, demons, elves, talking animals, something that Western rationalism describes as supernatural or unreal. Does that seem odd or weird to you?

TM: Not at all. Black people believe in magic. That’s part of our heritage. Once a woman asked me, “Do you believe in ghosts?” I said, “Yes. Do you believe in germs?”

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SH: How is the magic Black people believe in different from dominant understandings of what magic is?

TM: There is a way of life among Black people that allows us the very practical, shrewd, day to day functioning we must do, while at the same time encompassing some great supernatural element. It doesn’t bother Black people to do something practical and have visions at the same time. All the parts of living are on equal footing. It’s not surprising or upsetting for birds to talk or butterflies to cry. These things make the world larger for us.

SH: So this isn’t something odd or out of the ordinary for us.

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TM: Right. It’s just the way the world is for me and Black people I knew. It’s another kind of knowledge and perception, always discredited but nevertheless there, which informs our sensibilities and clarified our activities. It formed a kind of cosmology that was perceptive as well as enchanting, and so it seemed impossible for me to write about Black people and eliminate that simply because it became “unbelievable.”

SH: That makes a lot of sense and parallels something I’ve noticed in my own work as well. Not when I’m writing about Black people specifically, but as a kind of worldview that informs what I create. I include magic and the otherworldly in a matter-of-fact way. There’s an exchange in my play Encanta where the main character is told that another character is a witch, and she just accepts it. She doesn’t spend most of the play needing to be convinced that magic is real.

TM: She just accepts it and lives with it.

SH: Exactly. With Song of Solomon, you said you did something different by moving away from feminine metaphors, and you mention things happening in a room or house as a feminine concept. It’s interesting to see you mention that because I believe that concept is such a big part of my plays. That sense of being enclosed — a room, an island, a castle — is something I didn’t know was part of my work.

TM: Is that deliberate?

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SH: In some ways. The practicalities of staging sometimes demand a more insular kind of worldbuilding. But at the same time I am drawn to settings that have an element of self-containment. I’m not quite sure what to make of it.

TM: Do you often think about how you writing as a Black woman influences your work?

SH: All the time!

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TM: There is something inside us that makes us different from other people. It is not like men and it is not like white women.

SH: What do you think that is?

TM: I think what’s more important for you is what you think it is.