Nobel prize-winning author Toni Morrison talks to Emma Brockes about being a single mother, the death of her son and why love doesn’t last
It is hard to believe Morrison is 81. She started late, her first novel, The Bluest Eye, written when she was 39 and a senior editor at Random House. As a result, she is not pegged particularly to any generation of writers and since her subject matter is largely historical, or rather, concerned with the handprint of history on the present day, it gives her a kind of timelessness. Her characters are heroic and flawed, mythic and real, “unavailable to pity” she has said – vehicles for remembering, even, as Morrison wrote in Beloved, when “remembering seemed unwise”. Chance would be a fine thing, these days, she says.
“There’s nothing inside that’s 81. It’s just the changes in the body. And the memory. I don’t remember where the keys are. Or as my son says, ‘Ma, it’s not that you don’t remember where you put the keys, it’s when you pick up your keys and you don’t know what they’re for.’ Thank you, son.” She laughs long and loud. “Everything that happened in the first 50 years of my life is dazzling and memorable. It’s amazing, how the past is so clear. And the present is…” She bats a hand in the air.
Her latest novel, Home, is set in the aftermath of the Korean war and coincides with that sentimentalised period of American history that Morrison remembers rather differently. “I was trying to take the scab off the 50s, the general idea of it as very comfortable, happy, nostalgic. Mad Men. Oh, please. There was a horrible war you didn’t call a war where 58,000 people died. There was McCarthy.”