Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXII, No. 43
Wednesday, October 22, 2008
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“They Start Out as a Kind of Question:” Toni Morrison Reads From New Novel

Dilshanie Perera

“What might it be like to have slavery without race, without racism?” wondered Toni Morrison, the Robert F. Goheen Professor Emerita in the Humanities at Princeton University, who was reading last Tuesday from her new novel, A Mercy (Knopf), scheduled to be released next month.

Regarding her process, Ms. Morrison said, “I have never written a book that started out being about characters, or an environment, or a time,” instead “they start out as a kind of question.

“Some of those questions become ideas, and sometimes I am seriously nagged by those ideas.”

Though she characterized such a point of departure as an “unoriginal thought,” Ms. Morrison acknowledged, “even an unoriginal thought can lead to extraordinary and original places.”

In his introduction, Princeton University Chair of the Humanities Council Gideon Rosen remarked that “while the time of Ms. Morrison’s novels is set somewhere in the past,” her works remain “some of the most perceptive and searing political commentary of our time.”

Quoting the author’s open letter to Senator Barack Obama, which represents her first public endorsement of a presidential candidate, Mr. Rosen read, “Our future is ripe, outrageously rich in possibilities. Yet unleashing the glory of that future will require a difficult labor, and some may be so frightened of its birth they will refuse to abandon their nostalgia for the womb.”

Indeed, “mother hunger — to be one, or have one,” as it is described by a character in A Mercy, alongside absence and loss, all seem to be a key themes in the story.

Ms. Morrison’s reading gave listeners a tantalizing glimpse of three different sections of the novel, transporting them to the late 1600s and an America where the experience of slavery was narrated by multiple voices and guided by Ms. Morrison’s own.

In addition to confronting the practice of slavery, the story itself deals with the consequences of an abandonment. The main character, Florens, is given away by her mother when a man comes to collect a debt from their slave master.

“To be female in this place is to be an open wound that cannot heal,” says the mother. Her narrative enters at the end of the text and informs the rest of it.

As the mother addresses the absent Florens, she explains why she had insisted that her daughter be taken instead of her. Instead of being viewed as property, “I saw the tall man see you as a human child,” she says. The fact that he accepted her offer is remembered by her mother, “It was not a miracle bestowed by God; it was a mercy offered by a human.”According to Mr. Rosen, “We all live in Toni Morrison’s America,”which he described as being “permanently engaged in the slightly awkward process of giving birth to itself.”


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