I have been reading selected interviews from the Paris Review Interviews collection, edited by Philip Gourevitch.Volume II contains a great interview with Toni Morrison, and I wanted to share this excerpt from her 1993 interview, where she discusses her place in the canon of literature.
MORISSON: It’s important not to have a totalizing view. In American literature we have been so totalized—as though there is only one version. We are not one indistinguishable block of people who always behave the same way.
INTERVIEWER: Is that what you mean by totalized?
MORISSON: Yes. A definitive or an authoritative view from somebody else or someone speaking for us. No singularity and no diversity. I try to give some credibility to all sorts of voices, each of which is profoundly different. Because what strikes me about African-American culture is its variety…I would like to write novels that were unmistakably mine, but nevertheless fit first into African-American traditions and second of all, this whole thing called literature.
INTERVIEWER: First African-American?
INTERVIEWER: …rather than the whole of literature?
MORISSON: Oh yes.
MORISSON: It’s richer. It has more complex sources. It pulls from something that’s closer to the edge; its much more modern. It has a human future.
INTERVIEWER: Wouldn’t you rather be known as a great exponent of literature than as an African-American writer?
MORISSON: It’s very important to me that my work be African-American; if it assimilates into a different or larger pool, so much the better. But I shouldn’t be asked to do that. Joyce is not asked to do that. Tolstoy is not. I mean, they can all be Russian, French, Irish or Catholic, they write out of where they come from, and I do too. It just so happened that that space for me is African-American; it could be Catholic, it could be Midwestern. I’m those things too, and they are all important.
Toni Morisson won the Nobel Peace Prize in Literature in 1993. Read the entire interview in The Paris Review Interviews, Volume Two. Read Morrison's work.