When characters are talking to Starling, they often talk direct to camera, when she is talking to them, she is always looking slightly off-camera. Director Jonathan Demme explained that this was done so as the audience would directly experience her POV, but not theirs, hence encouraged the audience to more readily identify with her.
Charlie Rose: The idea of writing about race. Or the absence of race. Um, Bill Moyers once asked you the question, Can you imagine writing a novel that’s not centered about race? And you said, Absolutely.
Toni Morrison: Yes.
Charlie Rose: Will you?
Toni Morrison: That’s what he asked me. [laughter] See, I answered the question he didn’t pose. Tolstoy writes about race. All the time. So does Zola, so does James Joyce. Now, if anybody can go up to an imaginary James Joyce and say, You write about race, all the time, it’s central in your novels. When are you gonna write about—what? Because you see, the person who asks the question doesn’t understand that he is also, he or she is also raced.
So to ask me when am I gonna stop, or if I can, is to ask a question that, in a sense, is its own answer. Yes, I can write about white people. White people can write about black people. Anything can happen in art. There are no boundaries there. Having to do it, or having to prove that I can do it, is, what was embarrassing, or insulting. In this book I did.
Charlie Rose: It was insulting that people—help me understand—what was insulting? The idea that you felt like you had to prove that you could write without—
Toni Morrison: Yeah, the question was posed as though it were a desirable thing to do, to write about white people, or to write not about race—that’s what that means. And that it was difficult to do, a higher level of artistic endeavor, or it was more important, and that I was still writing about marginal people, and why don’t I come into the mainstream—
Charlie Rose: Aren’t you importing too much into the question?
Toni Morrison: Maybe.
Charlie Rose: I think so. [nervous tension-releasing laughter]
Toni Morrison: [laughs] But what else could it be, Charlie? What does that mean? What does that question mean? You tell me. If I’m making too much.
Charlie Rose: I don’t know—I mean—I don’t know that you—you—I don’t think it probably means—I didn’t ask the question, so I don’t think it probably means—but I don’t think it had to do—about—you were marginalizing—by not—writing—about—
Toni Morrison: It only works if I can go to William Styron, well maybe not William Styron because he has done it… somebody, major, white, and say, as a journalist—
Charlie Rose: ‘Can you write about black people?’
Toni Morrison: That’s right. Can I say that? What kind of question is that to put to Ed Doctorow? Who has done it, by the way. But if I can say, when are you going to write about black people, to a white writer, if that’s a legitimate question to a white writer, then it is a legitimate question to me. I just don’t think it is. The glove has to be pulled inside out. In other words, it’s not a literary question. It has nothing to do with the literary imagination. It’s a sociological question that should not be put to me. I couldn’t ask that, of any writer. I couldn’t ask another black writer, when are you gonna write about white people. Now maybe I’m wrong, you can tell me, now or later, if I’ve blown it up all out of proportion. I don’t think so. I just don’t know what the question means, except what I think it means. YOU think it may be just a little question, curious, you know, small incidental question.
Maybe I’m responding because I’ve had reviews in the past, that have accused me of not writing about white people. I remember a review of Sula, in which the reviewer said: This is all well and good, but one day she, meaning me, will have to face up to the real responsibilities and get mature, and write about the real confrontation for black people, which is white people.
As though our lives have no meaning, have no depth, without the white gaze. And I’ve spent my entire writing life trying to make sure that the white gaze was not the dominant one in any of my books. And the people who helped me most arrive at that kind of language were African writers. Chinua Achebe. Bessy Head. Those writers who could assume the centrality of their race. Because they were African. and they didn’t explain anything to white people. Those questions were incomprehensible to them. Those questions that I would have as a minority living in an all-white country like the united states. But when i read the poetry of Césaire, or the poetry of Senghor, or the novels particularly—Things Fall Apart was more important to me than anything. Only because there was a language. There was a posture. There were the parameters. I could step in now. And I didn’t have to be consumed by, or be concerned by, the white gaze. That was the liberation for me. It has nothing to do with who reads the books. everyone of any race, any gender, any country. But my sovereignty and my authority as a racialized person had to be struck immediately with the very first book. And it was strange. Because in this country, many books, particularly then, 40s, 50s, you could feel the address of the narrator, over my shoulder. Talking to somebody else. Talking to somebody white. I could tell because they’re explaining things, that they didn’t have to explain, if they were talking to me. It was that. It’s profound for me.
So that I may be—you may be right, maybe I’m overdramatizing the whole question, which was innocent enough, because the problem of being free to write the way you wish to without this other racialized gaze, is a serious one, for an African American writer.
Toni Morrison interviewed by Charlie Rose. Some classic examples of white derailment and the silencing tactic of gaslighting. Rose: “Aren’t you importing too much into the question?” And then bumbling and unable to get words out when Morrison turns the question back at him. Morrison just says, You tell me what it means. And Rose can’t, because he can’t figure out how to make it mean something other than what Morrison knows it means. Knowing that this, too, is a privilege: being able to be casual about such questions.
Also: “Help me understand”? How unsurprising that this, as always, takes the shape of a command. That’s how you know white supremacy is alive and well; real decentering requires humility, and that requires a relinquishing of power. Real decentering means saying: I don’t understand, what are the factors that are preventing someone like me from understanding, and how can I confront those things?
For example: writers are forever talking about unreliable narrators. I’ve often thought that was a feeble description of what really happens, in the act of reading. All narrators are unreliable, really, in the sense that all narrators are inventions, and inventions don’t perform like empirical data. What we really mean when we talk about unreliable narrators is: do I trust what this person is telling me? What we don’t talk about are the internalized prejudices that influence which narrators we find reliable, and why. Emotional men are often described as unreliable narrators. Mentally unstable women with traumatic histories are often described as unreliable narrators. Angry people of color are often described as unreliable narrators. What often happens in the unreliable narrator trope is that we transfer all of our socialized assumptions about who deserves to be marginalized and why, into our engagement with characters, and why we can’t or won’t believe what they say. None of that is new; but it remains a huge obstacle in any real engagement with the books that we read, because it’s all too easy to dismiss a work, or its words, by saying that a character is unreliable.
I’m more interested in thinking about reliable and unreliable readers. What are the things that we bring to bear in the reading process, that prevent us from engaging with the full humanity of a character? What are we unreliable about? Morrison knows that Rose, or Moyers, or any of the the people who accuse her of over-privileging black people in her books, are unreliable readers. They’re unreliable because they’re unable to decenter things like white supremacy, or heteropatriarchy, or class privilege, from their engagement with a work of art. As Jamaica Kincaid stated bluntly in a Callaloo interview with Brittnay Buckner:
You know, a lot of times my work is criticized as being angry. I will just describe, for instance, society in a place like Antigua, which is very dependent on tourism. And I describe that situation in a book I wrote about it—an “angry book.” I didn’t think it was angry. I was just describing something. But I think because I am a black woman, people have difficulties with people who are black, and people who are women, and sometimes when the two get together, they have double difficulties.
Because reading also involves an ethics, a politics, of reliability. Rely, early 14c., “to gather, assemble” (transitive and intransitive), from Old French relier “assemble, put together; fasten, attach, rally, oblige,” from Latin religare “fasten, bind fast,” from re-, intensive prefix (see re-), + ligare “to bind” (see ligament). Of course narrators and characters are unreliable, mostly because books are all about things that aren’t yet put back together: things that require deliberation and care; things that are yet to be worked out; things that have loose ends; things that are splintered apart. Things that require the act of reading in order to even begin to imagine the process of re-assembly; of re-membering. If books were finished objects unto themselves, they wouldn’t need readers.
And the only people who can begin that process are readers; readers who commit, readers who engage, readers who make themselves vulnerable to a work’s own vulnerabilities. Being a reliable reader means entering into the covenant of trust that happens when a work of art enters a community. It means, approaching these broken-apart pieces and asking: can I try?
Twenty-volume folios will never make a revolution. It’s the little pocket pamphlets that are to be feared.Voltaire