INTERVIEW: Toni Morrison on Craft, Inspiration, and the Time She Met Obama

Feb 9, 2023
Dimitris Passas

NOTE: This post is a republication- Source: Literary Hub (Sarah Ladipo Manyika and Mario Kaiser).

For weeks, I had been wondering what she would be like. It was one thing to have encountered Toni Morrison through her writing and to have watched her lectures and interviews, but another to meet her in person. Having just written a book about a seventy-four-year-old woman, I am curious to see what Ms. Morrison reveals about her experience of older age. I had heard that she is wheelchair-bound and often in pain. I hope she won’t be in too much pain (any pain) on this day.

The first thing that strikes me when I meet her is that she looks like one of my friends. You know that feeling when you see someone and think, “Wow, this person is just like so-and-so!” Ms Morrison has the same light complexion, wide-set eyes and thick hair as my friend, the documentary filmmaker Xoliswa Sithole. All but one of Ms Morrison’s silver-gray locks are hidden beneath her beret.

The lone lock pokes out, resting on the nape of her neck. But it’s her presence, more than the physical resemblances, that most reminds me of my friend, making her feel familiar. She exudes confidence from an erect and still posture, from her large stature. She is regal even when, as she occasionally does, dabbing at a watering eye.

I begin by asking how should we address her. Does she prefer Professor, Doctor, Mrs., or Ms.?

“I like Toni,” she says, smiling.

Her smile portends a playfulness and openness that will remain one of my lasting memories of our conversation. Twice during the interview, we are interrupted by friends or family, and on each occasion she introduces us as “friends.”

I’ve known of Toni’s sense of humor both from her books and from watching interviews, but I’m surprised by how much she will make us laugh. She frequently jokes about herself and sometimes about others. Occasionally, she does both simultaneously, such as when a friend drops by with Easter flowers and has to squeeze past us to give her a hug. “You’re too fat, you’re like me!” she exclaims. This ability to joke with others and laugh at herself not only reminds me of people I’m most fond of, but it’s a trait that I most associate with Nigerians. Toni is also prone to laughing at moments that are sometimes the opposite of funny, and this too feels familiar, as a mechanism for enduring what is otherwise traumatic.

To read the full interview click here

Join the Discussion