The Salon Interview - Toni Morrison

Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison talks about her new book, "Paradise," what she learned from her marriage and why O.J. Simpson is innocent.


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Zia Jaffrey
February 3, 1998 12:29AM (UTC)

I met Toni Morrison at her apartment in SoHo. She hung up my coat and offered me a drink, and we settled in for a conversation. I was immediately aware of the gentleness in that room -- her listening presence. Morrison's seventh novel, "Paradise," had just been published by Knopf, and throughout our talk her phone rang continually with news -- from her son, her sister, a friend -- of the reviews the book was getting. An unhurried and thoughtful speaker, she took it all in stride. "Paradise" -- which opens with the startling sentence "They shoot the white girl first" -- involves the murder of several women in the 1970s by a group of black men, intent on preserving the honor of their small Oklahoma town; they see the women as bad, a wayward influence on their moral lives. It's an intense, deeply felt book that easily ranks with her best work.

Toni Morrison was born in Loraine, Ohio, in 1931. She attended Howard University, then received a master's degree in English at Cornell University, where she wrote a thesis on William Faulkner. Her first novel, "The Bluest Eye," was published in 1969, followed by "Sula" in 1973. Then came "Song of Solomon" (1977), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, "Tar Baby" (1981), the play "Dreaming Emmett" (1985) and "Beloved" (1987), which received the Pulitzer in 1988. Her novel "Jazz" appeared in 1992, and in 1993 Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. Last year she was the co-editor, along with Claudia Brodsky Lacour, of a volume called "Birth of a Nation'hood: Gaze, Script and Spectacle in the O.J. Simpson case." An editor at Random House for many years, Morrison now teaches fiction writing at Princeton University.

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Do you read your reviews?

Oh, yes.

What did you think of Michiko Kakutani's strongly negative review of "Paradise" in the New York Times?

Well, I would imagine there would be some difference of opinion on what the book is like or what it meant. Some people are maybe more invested in reading it from a certain point of view. The daily review in The New York Times was extremely unflattering about this book. And I thought, more to the point, it was not well written. The unflattering reviews are painful for short periods of time; the badly written ones are deeply, deeply insulting. That reviewer took no time to really read the book.

You don't feel you need to protect yourself from listening to critics?

You can't.

You need to know what's being said?

I know there are authors who find it healthier for them, in their creative process, to just not look at any reviews, or bad reviews, or they have them filtered, because sometimes they are toxic for them. I don't agree with that kind of isolation. I'm very much interested in how African-American literature is perceived in this country, and written about, and viewed. It's been a long, hard struggle, and there's a lot of work yet to be done. I'm especially interested in how women's fiction is reviewed and understood. And the best way to do that is to read my own reviews, for reasons that are not about how I write. I mean, it doesn't have anything to do with the work. I'm not entangled at all in shaping my work according to other people's views of how I should have done it, how I succeeded at doing it. So it doesn't have that kind of effect on me at all. But I'm very interested in the responses in general. And there have been some very curious and interesting things in the reviews so far.

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"Paradise" has been called a "feminist" novel. Would you agree with that?

Not at all. I would never write any "ist." I don't write "ist" novels.

Why distance oneself from feminism?

In order to be as free as I possibly can, in my own imagination, I can't take positions that are closed. Everything I've ever done, in the writing world, has been to expand articulation, rather than to close it, to open doors, sometimes, not even closing the book -- leaving the endings open for reinterpretation, revisitation, a little ambiguity. I detest and loathe [those categories]. I think it's off-putting to some readers, who may feel that I'm involved in writing some kind of feminist tract. I don't subscribe to patriarchy, and I don't think it should be substituted with matriarchy. I think it's a question of equitable access, and opening doors to all sorts of things.

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Because the book has so many women characters, it's easy to label.

Yes. That doesn't happen with white male writers. No one says Solzhenitsyn is writing only about those Russians, I mean, what is the matter with him? Why doesn't he write about Vermont? If you have a book full of men, and minor female characters --

No one even notices. No one blinks that Hemingway has this massive problem with women.

No one blinks at all.

Many of the male characters in "Paradise" have severe problems. I was wondering if you yourself identified with any of them as morally strong characters?

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I suppose the one that is closest to my own sensibility about moral problems would be the young minister, Rev. Maisner. He's struggling mightily with the tenets of his religion, the pressures of the civil rights, the dissolution of the civil rights.

And he's worried about the young.

And the young. He's very concerned that they're being cut off, at a time when, in fact, he probably was right, there was some high expectations laid out for them, and suddenly there was a silence, and they were cut off.

He's like Lev in "Anna Karenina."

Right.

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Struggling with the moral --

He's not positive about all of it, but he wants to open up the discussion. He wants to do this terrible thing, which is listen to the children. Twice it's been mentioned or suggested that "Paradise" will not be well studied, because it's about this unimportant intellectual topic, which is religion.

"Paradise" has also been called a "difficult" book.

That always strikes me -- it makes me breathless -- to be told that this is "difficult" writing. That nobody in the schools is going to want to talk about all of these issues that are not going on now.

Do they say that about Don DeLillo's "Mao II," because it involves cults?

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No, there's a different kind of slant, I think. Different expectations. Different yearnings, I think, for black literature.

You mean, they want you to step into what they've already heard?

And say, once again, "It's going to be all right, nobody was to blame." And I'm not casting blame. I'm just trying to look at something without blinking, to see what it was like, or it could have been like, and how that had something to do with the way we live now. Novels are always inquiries for me.

Did you have any relationship to the word "feminism" when you were growing up, or did you have a sense of yourself first as black and then as female?

I think I merged those two words, black and feminist, growing up, because I was surrounded by black women who were very tough and very aggressive and who always assumed they had to work and rear children and manage homes. They had enormously high expectations of their daughters, and cut no quarter with us; it never occurred to me that that was feminist activity. You know, my mother would walk down to a theater in that little town that had just opened, to make sure that they were not segregating the population -- black on this side, white on that. And as soon as it opened up, she would go in there first, and see where the usher put her, and look around and complain to someone. That was just daily activity for her, and the men as well. So it never occurred to me that she should withdraw from that kind of confrontation with the world at large. And the fact that she was a woman wouldn't deter her. She was interested in what was going to happen to the children who went to the movies -- the black children -- and her daughters, as well as her sons. So I was surrounded by people who took both of those roles seriously. Later, it was called "feminist" behavior. I had a lot of trouble with those definitions, early on. And I wrote some articles about that, and I wrote "Sula," really, based on this theoretically brand new idea, which was: Women should be friends with one another. And in the community in which I grew up, there were women who would choose the company of a female friend over a man, anytime. They were really "sisters," in that sense.

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Do you keep the company of female writers? Do you find a need for that?

I really have very few friends who are writers. I have some close friends who are writers, but that's because they're such extraordinary people. The writing is almost incidental to the friendship, I think. It was interesting to me that when books by black women first began to be popular, there was a non-articulated, undiscussed, umbrella rule that seemed to operate, which was: Never go into print damning one another. We were obviously free to loathe each other's work. But no one played into the "who is best." There was this marvelous absence of competition among us. And every now and then I'd see a review -- a black woman reviewer take another black woman writer, a critic usually, on -- but usually it's in that field of cultural criticism. Because it was always understood that this was a plateau that had a lot of space on it.

Have you noticed a change in the intelligence of the criticism of your books over the years?

I have. Over time, they've become much more intelligent, they've become much more sensitive, they've given up some of the laziness they had before. There was a time when my books, as well as everybody else's books, were viewed as sociological revelations. Is this the best view of the black family, or not? I remember once, in the New Yorker, being reviewed, I think it was "Beloved," and the reviewer began the review and spent a lot of time talking about Bill Cosby's television show -- the kind of black family to be compared with the family in "Beloved." It was so revolting. And that notion -- once I was reviewed in the New York Review of Books, with two other black writers. The three of us, who don't write anything alike, were lumped together by color, and then the reviewer ended by deciding which of the three books was the best. And she chose one, which could have been [the best], but the reason it was the best was because it was more like "real" black people. That's really discouraging. So if you have that kind of reduction to the absurd, you just have to keep on trying.

Do you see a place for gay literature, Indian literature, black literature, black women's literature -- in a positive way?

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Oh, absolutely. It's changing everything. They may take longer; the marketing shapes how we understand these books. Some Native American writers enjoy being called Native American writers. I had a student who was Native American and I told him, "You're going to have trouble getting this book accepted, because there are no moccasins, there are no tomahawks." And he did. He had enormous trouble. I mean, submissions, I don't even want to repeat the number, but he finally did have this book published, and you know, it's a first novel -- it got excellent reviews -- but the point was that the rejections, I know, were based on the inability to think of Native Americans, in this particular case, as Americans.

You teach writing at Princeton. Can writing can be taught?

I think some aspects of writing can be taught. Obviously, you can't expect to teach vision or talent. But you can help with comfort.

Or confidence?

Well, that I can't do much about. I'm very brutal about that. I just tell them: You have to do this, I don't want to hear whining about how it's so difficult. Oh, I don't tolerate any of that because most of the people who've ever written are under enormous duress, myself being one them. So whining about how they can't get it is ridiculous. What I can do very well is what I used to do, which is edit. I can follow their train of thought, see where their language is going, suggest other avenues. I can do that, and I can do that very well. I like to get in the manuscript.

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How did you juggle being an editor, being a writer and being a mother?

When I look back at those years, when I was going into an office every day, when my children were small, I don't really understand how all that came about. Why was I doing all these things at once? Partly, it was because I felt I was the breadwinner, so I had to do everything that would put me in a position of independence to take care of my family. But the writing was mine, so that I stole. I stole away from the world.

So when did you write?

Very, very early in the morning, before they got up. I'm not very good at night. I don't generate much. But I'm a very early riser, so I did that, and I did it on weekends. In the summers, the kids would go to my parents in Ohio, where my sister lives -- my whole family lives out there -- so the whole summer was devoted to writing. And that's how I got it done. It seems a little frenetic now, but when I think about the lives normal women live -- of doing several things -- it's the same. They do anything that they can. They organize it. And you learn how to use time. You don't have to learn how to wash the dishes every time you do that. You already know how to do that. So, while you're doing that, you're thinking. You know, it doesn't take up your whole mind. Or just on the subway. I would solve a lot of literary problems just thinking about a character in that packed train, where you can't do anything anyway. Well, you can read the paper, but you're sort of in there. And then I would think about, well, would she do this? And then sometimes I'd really get something good. By the time I'd arrived at work, I would jot it down so I wouldn't forget. It was a very strong interior life that I developed for the characters, and for myself, because something was always churning. There was no blank time. I don't have to do that anymore. But still, I'm involved in a lot of things, I mean, I don't go out very much.

Who is Lois? Your book is dedicated to Lois.

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My sister. The one who just called [laughter].

Who's your editor at Knopf?

I have two editors.

Erroll McDonald and Sonny Mehta?

Yes. You know, I had an editor, Bob Gottlieb, for all my books through "Beloved." Then he went to the New Yorker. I had to find an editor. And everybody said, "You don't need one, do you?" And I said, "Yes, because I used to be one. I know the value of a good editor." I mean, somebody just to talk to. Bob was very good at that. I learned a lot, just in the conversations. He's funny, he's literate and really able to tell you things -- it's not so much writing in the margins of the manuscript, but ...

Macro-thinking?

That's right. And so Sonny followed him at Knopf -- whom I like a lot, who is terrifically smart about books and publishing. But he was the president of Knopf. Bob Gottlieb was also the president, but he was the only president that also edited manuscripts, who line-edited. Sonny doesn't do that. I mean, he shouldn't do it. Most presidents don't do it. But I wanted someone who ...

Would have that capacity ...

That's right. So they said, "What combination do you want?" Even though Erroll McDonald works at Pantheon.

So Erroll is your actual editor?

He's my ... yes. My lines. I have no hesitancy about his abilities at all; he's extremely good, oh man, and he's read everything, he can make connections. And he monitors the book in-house, you know, to see what people are doing -- you know, the covers -- the fabric and paper and all of that really important stuff. "Jazz" was pretty much complete when I engaged this dual editorship, so he had less to do with that. With "Paradise," I was able to send him the manuscript, say, when I had 100 pages, and get some feedback on it. So the levels of intensity have been different because I've submitted the manuscript under different circumstances.

So did he actually line-edit the full manuscript, or is it hands off on the fiction?

What he does is write me long, interesting letters. And the letters contain information about what's strong, what's successful, what troubles him, what stands out as being really awful, that kind of thing. Which is what you want.

You have stated, I think it was in the Times, that there was still work to be done, you realized, on "Paradise."

I regard them all that way, all those books I've written. Years later, I read them, or read them in public, and say ...

"Should have done that ..."

Or "Should not have done this," or maybe, you know, this line. And it goes on forever.

In terms of "Paradise," what is your personal assessment of --

Of what I could have done? I wanted another kind of confrontation with Patricia, the one who kept the genealogies together.

Yes, which she burns at the end.

And some of those young women. You know, like Anna. She has a confrontation with Rev. Meisner -- but you know about her, what they think about her, but she has a very subjective view. She's the daughter of someone whom she felt they despised, so she has an ax to grind. So she's reevaluating everything, and has come to learn some terrible things, she thinks, about this town.

A friend said to me, "Why don't you ask Toni Morrison what makes her really angry?"

You know, I've lost it [the anger]. It's a very, very strange thing. I was telling someone this summer that I felt some [turning point], and I didn't know what it was, you know. It's because I've lost the anger now -- and I'm feeling really sad. And that seemed so sad to me. Really sad to me. Now, I did get angry recently, about this daughter [in the book]. And I hadn't felt that furious about someone who isn't in my personal life. Because I get angry about things, then go on and work. And today I was a little angry about Justina.

Justina?

Justina was that little girl whose mother helped the lover kill her.

Oh God. In the New York Post, yes.

And the part that reduced me to just smoldering anger was when she says she held her hands, as she was drowning.

That was just the most horrible detail.

And I dwelt on it, and dwelt on it, until I was in a state. Yes, I really wanted to write about her, the child. So I get enraged about something like that, but generally speaking, I guess it comes with being over 64, you just get sort of melancholy.

Melancholy -- meaning you're resigned, or passive, in your responses?

It's overload. You sort of struggle to do four good things when you're my age, and then not deal. I even tell my students that: four things. Make a difference about something other than yourselves.

What are those four things?

That I do?

Let's say, in the last year?

Well, I think the book is one, [my teaching] is another, and the other two, I don't want to talk about.

Can we talk about O.J. for a second?

[Morrison laughs.]

What about this notion of "black irrationality"?

The story of the case is a marketable story. And that story is made up of black irrationality, and black cunning, and black stupidity, and the black predator. That's what the story is about. So if you take black irrationality out of it, you don't have a story. Black men in particular, and black people in general, are supposed to be able to do opposite-ends-of-the-scale things, and we don't have to make sense. We've always been considered to be irrational, emotional, lunatic people. So if you have someone that was accepted in the mainstream world as exactly the opposite of that, the threat that one may fall back into chaos is always there. That's not just in this case. It was just played out theatrically, although it's true in almost everything -- narratives, stories, about black men in particular. So what concerned me was not even what my little hunches were ...

But your hunches, you have written, were that he was innocent.

Absolutely. I have never been more convinced of anything than that, precisely because of "motive" and "opportunity." Forty minutes.

Forty minutes. You mean, how could it be done in that short a time?

Well, I'm sure that, scientifically, it could be done, but it is truly irrational. Truly almost impossible.

Physically impossible?

It's not impossible.

You mean there had to have been two people, or something like that? What is your theory?

I have no theories.

He had these dream-team lawyers, and they never even bothered to --

No. They decided to just get him off, and not produce an alternate -- a television show would have found the guilty party. But that's not the way the legal system works. But the rest of it is, you know -- there was a lot of money involved in that case. People got jobs, whole industries started

up. Every issue surfaced in it. I think sometime we'll know a lot about it.

The kids -- I don't understand how they heard nothing.

They heard their mother crying.

But then they heard nothing afterwards, with this violent thing, and the dog barking ...

No, it's a very intricate, strange case. He's not very helpful himself either, in clarifying much. But my feeling about it was sort of like ... you know, like when prostitutes can't be raped in court, because, well, they're prostitutes. It's that kind of thing. If you're going to be specific, and try to find out if someone did this thing, that's what you ought to do. Part of the reason that the truth never emerged was not just the success of the defense team, but the media's layering on. All these other issues were layered into this.

Here's a different question: Whose work, among contemporary authors, do you rush out and read?

Hmm. I follow Márquez. I read anything by Márquez. Peter Carey is someone I've read off and on, but now I've become devoted to. I read Pynchon. I buy those books, list price. And who else? Jamaica Kincaid has a new book out that I haven't read. I love her work. I relish her work. It is incisive and beautiful at the same time.

Do you want to get remarried? I mean, did your marriage change your thinking about the notion of marriage?

No, I like marriage. The idea. I think it's better to have both parents totally there, and delivering something for the children. Where it's not preferable is if that's all there is, if it's just a mother and a father. That's an isolated horror. I would much rather have a large -- a connection -- with all of the members of the family, rather than ... Because, usually, marriage, you think, that little atomic family, which I deplore. But I learned a lot in marriage, in divorce. I think women do. They don't know that they do. I remember sitting around with some friends, all of them who had either been divorced, or separated, or on second or third marriages, had had that in their lives -- some collapsed affair. And I said, "You know, I suspect that we all talk about that as a failure. But I want you to tell me, 'What did you learn? Wasn't there something really valuable in the collapse of that relationship?'" And they began to think, and I did too; and they said extraordinary things. One woman said, "I learned how to talk. For the first time, I learned to talk." And another woman said, "I learned high organizational skills. See, I was a mess, as a young woman, you know, keeping house," and her husband was worse. So, to stay in the house together, she had to really get it together. The skills that she now uses all the time. So I said, you know, we should stop thinking about these encounters -- however long they are, because they do not last -- as failures. When they're just other things. You take something from it.

What, for you, was a lesson?

I learned an enormous amount of self-esteem. Even though the collapse of the relationship suggested the opposite. For me, I just had to stand up. When I wanted a raise, in my employment world. They would give me a little woman's raise, and I would say, "No. This is really low." And they would say, "But ..." And I would say, "No, you don't understand. You're the head of the household. You know what you want. That's what I want. I want that." I am on serious business now. This is not girl playing. This is not wife playing. This is serious business. I am the head of a household, and I must work to pay for my children.

You can't always explain [divorce] to the children. My children were, you know, accusatory. They were teenagers. Now, of course, they're delightful people, whom I would love even if they weren't my children. But when they were young, 5 and 6, they didn't understand what this was about. And I never, never, ever spoke ill of their father, ever, because that was their relationship. And I wouldn't do that. You know, maybe I was wrong. I didn't want to put that burden on them. I didn't want them to choose.

When raising your sons, did you try to protect them or guide them through the racial issues that they would encounter?

No, I failed at that. Miserably, in fact. One of my kids was born in 1968. I thought they were not going to ever have the experiences that I had. I mean, there were going to be political difficulties, obviously, the haves and the have-nots, and so on. But they were never going to have that level of hatred and contempt that my brothers and my sister and myself were exposed to. Or, worse, my mother. Or worse, her mother. That it was all getting better. Not perfect, and not even good, but that at some level they wouldn't have that. I was dead wrong.

Because the 1980s came along ...

And black boys became criminalized. So I was in constant dread for their lives, because they were targets everywhere. They still are. I mean, if you can find police still saying they thought a candy bar was a gun, or they thought whatever they thought -- things that would never be coherent if they had shot a white kid in the back. Could they tell those parents, "It looked like a gun to me, but it was a Mars bar"? It's just surreal. So that is what they are prey to. And I just couldn't fathom it, for years and years and years. That it was that bad. I knew it was really bad, but I didn't know it was that bad.

Did either of your sons go to Howard, where you went?

One did go to Howard. In architecture. Didn't like it. Thought it was not the best place for that. It was a personal decision about the school of architecture. But they were not averse to going to places like that ... Unlike me, they were focused on where's the best school for what they wanted to do, rather than on the sociological myths, and so on. I appreciated that. But a very close friend of mine, Angela Davis, has known them since they were children. The kinds of women that I had as very close friends were very independent women, very progressive, so they grew up amongst those kinds of women. So they have a different feeling; they're very sensitive about social change, and so on. But what I didn't know was just how, on a day-to-day basis -- step into an elevator, and everyone gets out ... I just couldn't have imagined. If I had raised them earlier or later, I would have said, "Now look, this is what you do." And I would say things like the things my father would always tell me, "You don't live in that neighborhood."

You don't live in that neighborhood?

No, you don't live in that imagination of theirs. That's not your home. What they think about you ...

The reality that they think you are, you are not.

That's right. You are not.

He told you that? That's amazing.

He was wonderful. He was very insightful. Go to work, get your money and come home.

He was a welder, right?

Yes. So ... That helped me, because I always looked upon the acts of racist exclusion, or insult, as pitiable, from the other person. I never absorbed that. I always thought that there was something deficient -- intellectual, emotional -- about such people. I still think so, but I didn't communicate it to my children enough. I think they have suffered. And being male, too. They're competitive, they feel it in a different way. Maybe as a woman you get so used to being abused and dissed, that ...

You just think, "I'll shut this out."

Right. I'm not even going to deal with that one. But they don't do that.

They deal with it.

They try. And it causes them, I think, more pain than it did me.

My stepfather, who is black, recently said he would advise young black men to go into therapy. It's helped him come to terms with prejudice. I thought it was interesting.

That is interesting. Because I used to complain bitterly that psychiatry never considered race. I remember saying that, you know, in the moment when you first realize you're a boy or a girl or your toilet training is this or whatever -- all these little things that happen in your childhood -- no one ever talks about the moment you found that you were white. Or the moment you found out you were black. That's a profound revelation. The minute you find that out, something happens. You have to renegotiate everything. And it's a profound psychological moment. And it's never talked about, except as paranoia, or some moment of enlightenment. It's just as devastating on white children, I read in those novels all the time. Those moments when you found out you were white. In Lillian Hellman -- any of those Southern writers -- the moment when black and white children play together, and then there's a moment when that's all over, because they can't socialize together. And then the white child, sometimes it happens with their nurses.

It's like: I love this person, and then, boom, she's gone.

And now this person is gone. Then you don't trust your instincts. You mean, I loved something unlovable? I loved something that's not really among us? I mean, the trauma of that is interesting to me. And I mentioned it in a lecture once, and some psychiatrists asked me to lecture further on the subject. And I said, "No, you ought to be thinking about it."

I read recently that you once suffered a terrible house fire. Did you lose manuscripts? What happened?

Oh, I remember that. It was my house up in Rockland County. It was just a routine, stupid Christmas fire, in the fireplace, with the coals and the pines smoldering. The wreaths, you know -- the detritus, the dried needles were around on the floor and not swept up. And the fire leaped to one of those and leaped to the couch, where it smoldered, and no one knew. I wasn't there. One of my kids was there. And by the time he got downstairs, it was shooting through the roof. So he called the fire department, but it was a terrible winter, and the water was frozen in the pipes. And I lost ... I write by hand ... I was able to save some books, but I had all my manuscripts, notes from old books, in my bedroom on the second floor, in a little trundle underneath the bed, where there was some storage space. It went up first. I said to somebody later, "Why did I think that having those things near me was safer than having them in the basement?"

My manuscripts, I didn't care, I mean, I'm never going to look at that stuff again, so that wasn't the hurtful part to me. They had a value, I think, to my children. As an inheritance. But I know I would never look at that stuff again. I would never look at "The Bluest Eye" -- seven versions, in hand, of it -- again. So I was not that upset about that. Other people might be interested in that. For me, it was the pictures of my children and of myself. Family. And I have nothing. Everything's gone. So, I'm sorry about my children's report cards, I'm sorry about my jade plants, certain clothes.

I also had first editions of Emily Dickinson, first editions of Faulkner -- I mean, all the stuff that you just hang on to. Only about 30 or 40 books, but they were all marked up. I had a Frederick Douglass -- not the first edition, but a second edition, done in England. And letters, over the years. Whatever there was is gone. It's just the wrong place to store stuff. No excuses. The house burned. I lost a lot of stuff.

Have you ever been to Africa?

No.

Do you have an urge?

A big urge, yes.

Do you think it's an important journey for black Americans, in general, to make?

I don't know. We romanticize it so much. But maybe so, for that reason. Because we're so easily drawn, you know, into the myth of -- whatever -- a history -- a useful little test story. And I want to go to Senegal, because I've been invited there by Ousmane Sembene, and I'm desperate to go. And now, South Africa, I've gotten a number of invitations there.

Right at this moment, it's like watching 1776, but with black people deciding.

That's something I'm determined to do, because now, I'm hoping I can really make the trips, you know, that are not research trips or whatever else I've been doing all my life. But you just go, sit there and watch, and look, and talk.

I was there writing a piece on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I was there for the Winnie Mandela hearing. Do you think it's finally shifted so that people can acknowledge that, look, things went horribly wrong with Winnie Mandela, and maybe we ought not to embrace her?

A South African woman, who was very close to Mandela, asked me, "Why do black Americans feel close to her?" And I was quite taken aback by her question, because she was very enabling and ennobling to black women in this country when she came, and she has endured things that are unspeakable. And it was only after that that I began to wonder whether there was some clouding over the eyes -- deliberate and willful. It's very difficult among many women here, professionally, to say anything derogatory about Winnie Mandela. Anything. I don't know what I think about her. I have enormous -- frankly, enormous -- admiration for Winnie Mandela, but it's based on her legendary past. And when she came here and I saw her, she's terrific, she's just magnetic. And then when I hear other kinds of things from Africans, or South Africans in particular, I have to fold that into my equation. So now I am curious, very curious, about what is the truth. I mean, what is the real person?

Of course, Nelson Mandela is, for me, the single statesman in the world. The single statesman, in that literal sense, who is not solving all his problems with guns. It's truly unbelievable. Truly.


Zia Jaffrey

Zia Jaffrey is the author of "The Invisibles: A Tale of the Eunuchs of India," published in 1996. She lives in New York City.

MORE FROM Zia Jaffrey

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