ext week the world’s “pre-eminent African-American writer” will publish a novel that imagines an America before racial categories jelled, said Susanna Rustin in the London Guardian. “My books are always questions for me,” says Toni Morrison, now 77 and 15 years removed from winning the Nobel Prize in literature. “You ask a question, put it in a time when it would be theatrical to ask, and find the people who can articulate it for you.” In A Mercy, Morrison’s first novel in five years, the question is what slavery would have looked like if racism were removed from the equation. She had to look back to the 17th century to find out.
Morrison’s portrait of an era when many American slaves actually were white will attract familiar lines of criticism, said Kevin Nance in Poets & Writers. One of the knocks against her novels is that they’re too political. Morrison just shrugs off such attacks. “Are you really telling me that Shakespeare and Aeschylus weren’t writing about kings?” she says. “All good art is political.” The other box she has difficulty escaping is the assumption that all of her writing is about race. A Mercy won’t change the minds of anyone who thinks that. But they may, Morrison says, be surprised by the historical truths the novel illuminates. “Many white people in the United States,” she notes, “are descendants of slaves.”
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