Cori Ellison: The story of Margaret Garner is such a compelling one, as well as such a landmark in our history. How and when did you first become acquainted with it?
Toni Morrison: I was editing a book at Random House and it was a kind of scrapbook of events, culture, art, crafts, songs, all sorts of things that emanated from African-American culture. And I came across [an old newspaper] from Cincinnati. And it had a drawing of this woman, of Margaret Garner. And the story was that this slave woman had killed her children, or had tried to kill them all.
The theme that struck me was that she was not crazy. They were stunned to find her a) articulate, b) sane, and c) interested in doing it again. She was not apologetic, she didn't say, "Oh my God, what have I done?" She was just steady as a rock, and I thought that was extraordinary.
In addition to which her case became a cause célèbre for the abolitionists all over the North. It all centered around the Fugitive Slave Law, a federal law that required officials to pick up fugitive slaves and take them back. Ironically, the abolitionists wanted Garner tried for murder, but the slave owners felt it was a lesser crime, destruction of property. Murder would have assumed her responsibility for those children. And slavery says she has no responsibility. She lost, of course.
CE: And how did you respond to this story?
TM: My first artistic response to the Garner story was the novel Beloved. And that didn't require that I do a lot of historical research. If I had wanted to write the story of her life, it would have been the story of her life. But I don't like to write about real people, because they're already done. There's no room for me to imagine their lives or enter into their motives or alter them: in other words, to fictionalize them.
Years after reading that Cincinnati newspaper clip, I was thinking about writing about contemporary responses to abortion and the huge problems and arguments and debates over the ownership of one's body. The women who were for legalized abortion said being forced, or required, to have children is a form of slavery or imprisonment, and to not have children was freeing, liberating. But I thought, there was a moment in history when having a child — not bearing it, but having it — was freedom. For slaves, anyway. If you had a child, and you were responsible for it, that was a huge claim of freedom, because in that system, your children did not belong to you. At all. They could be taken at any moment, and anything done with them. And you were not permitted to marry. I mean, you could imagine, 400 years of that and you've got marriage, then you've got family, you've got community, you've got connections. And when they break that up, you're sort of hopeless. You could nurse a child, but you could not determine its life. And they could sell it from you. Literally sell it. And did. And expected to.
So that was one class where the very opposite of that feminist argument was true: If I have this child, and I am its mother, and I can say how it lives and if it dies ... You're making claims that were forbidden in that institution. That interested me: The paradox of having children, being free, not being free, and so on. And then I remembered this story. I liked Margaret, because she was unrepentant and wrong at the same time. You could sort of say, "Oh yeah, she's a heroine," but at the same time, she's just terrible, outrageous. So that of course was interesting to me.
CE: I recall reading that you once said that Beloved was about forgetting and Margaret Garner was about remembering.
TM: Yes, it's true about Beloved. I felt that even in this story, in that period, nobody wants to read this. White people don't want to read about slavery because it raises all sorts of uncomfortable feelings. Black people don't want to read about slavery, because it raises so many uncomfortable things. No one wants to look at it this closely, it's all sort of veiled or ignored. And I understood that struggle to let it go. You can't go forward if you just dwell constantly.
But I felt at that time since nobody wants it — and I didn't want to go there either, by the way — I don't think the characters in the book want it either. So the problem of shutting out the past became structurally what held the book. She didn't want to remember, doesn't remember her mother who killed her sister. And even when she meets Paul D, a friend from the Plantation, they can't talk. And in order to break through that, I would bring in that dead child, who was someone I thought a) had the right to question her, and b) could force them not to avoid the past — she was the past. She was coming to the house and sitting down at the table and she was making herself a nuisance. And now they have to deal with it. So that was strategically useful.
But in the process of doing the libretto for Margaret Garner, you know, opera's so different. There is very little ambiguity and nuance and even the mood is up to the composer. So all the things I enjoy about writing novels are no use. I mean you can talk about them, but how do you show that? And the parts that are foreboding and foreshadowing become tools for the composer to imply, infer, or make it blatant. So for me I had to rely on historical fact a little bit more. Everything was bigger. So if you're going to make it bigger and theatrical, then you have to get your facts right.
CE: Yet in Margaret Garner, you did sometimes depart from actual historical fact. Can you tell us why, for example, you chose for Margaret to take her own life?
TM: I guess it felt better, dramatically. Margaret was very determined to die, even though she died later in Mississippi, of typhoid or something. After her owner won the case, she wasn't someone he wanted to keep on his property, so he sold her again, and her family and Robert as well. She was taken downriver when they sold her again, and she jumped off the boat with her baby, but they pulled her out. So she was constantly trying to get to the other side, to stop this and get somewhere else. So her impulse to kill herself was true, though it certainly was not the accurate detail of how she eventually died.
CE: You certainly do portray her as a very complex character.
TM: Yes, harkening back to Beloved, that question of who is this woman became mine for many years. So what you have to do, if you're going to be honest, is to hold your baby in your hands ... arms. Not a baby, yours. Mine. And come to the conclusion that if I cut his throat, that one, the one I know, it will be better. I could never get there. So I'm trying to invent, as actors and actresses do, what sort of situation would make me consider that a possibility?
So I thought, not to abandon a child, but to take its life ... assuming you're a moral and sane person. And I thought maybe if I knew for certain that my children were being whisked off into one of those porn things where they film children, you know, babies and two year-olds and stuff. If I knew they were going to be sold for that, and there was no other possibility of escape, maybe ... I couldn't get there then, either, because I couldn't answer the final question: How do you know death is better? And that's when I realized that no one could make that judgment except the dead children. Therefore, Beloved becomes the one who asks that question: How do you know about it? You haven't died, you haven't been murdered.
CE: Daring to put yourself there, that's what's so remarkable about being a creative artist.
TM: It's risky, you have to not blink. And just go there. And not just be overwhelmed by the there that's there, but take it back and shape it.
One thing I've learned from writing all these many years is that if you go close to your characters and really get to know them, they will take over. Because they have nothing to do but tell their story. So you have to shut them up — It's my book, right? And you really have to be willing to go inside, however difficult or painful it may be. Otherwise you only think about them from the outside. And I just want to bear witness and be able to say and repeat or just imagine what they would have said if ... How they would have felt if ... if I were the perfect confessor. You know, no judgment. Just say it, and then I will shape it. And then other people will know.
Cori Ellison is dramaturg at New York City Opera.