Toni Morrison on her new book Home

Toni Morrison talks to Q about rejecting '50s nostalgia in her new book Home, her celebrity persona and how she negotiates the issue of race in publishing.
Author Toni Morrison's newest book Home draws on her recollections of the 1950s, a violent time for blacks in the U.S. (Alfred A. Knopf/Associated Press)

American writer Toni Morrison is puzzled by the nostalgic yearning for the 1950s that runs through U.S. culture.

The Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author's new book, Home, paints a portrait of the 1950s that is rough around the edges and occasionally violent.

It tells the story of Frank Money, an African-American Korean War veteran who wakes up dazed and bound in a hospital bed, but is compelled to make the journey back home to Georgia in order to save his sister. He must tiptoe through the racism of the North as well as the South, Morrison told Jian Ghomeshi, host of CBC's Q cultural affairs show.

"The world is going on, but there is this notion that it has left behind the golden age of the United States. After World War II, people were making money, soldiers came back and went to college, and the television shows were happy, ties were beautiful. People still think of it that way, apparently," Morrison said.

"I think we have erased the truth about the '50s, which was the Korean War — which was never called a war, we called it a police action," she added. "It was violent. There was a lot of slaughter of black people during the ‘50s."

Morrison, now 81, recalled being a student in the 1950s and trying to comprehend the racism she saw, including an incident in which a group of mothers tried to overturn a bus full of black schoolchildren.

Her fiction, including 1987's Pulitzer-winning Beloved, is often seen as representative of the African-American experience. But Morrison rejects that definition, saying she is simply telling the stories she knows.

"Writing is the only thing that's only mine. No one is whispering or sitting on my shoulder — except for this last book Home, where I let the character sit on my shoulder and talk to me."

Being identified simply as an African-American author, instead of a classical writer or literary innovator, has meant critics "see my work as not literary, but sociological," said Morrison, whose real name is Chloe Wofford.

For instance, she recalled the New York Times description of her Nobel Prize win in 1993 as "controversial."

"They decided to announce it as a problem instead of a pleasant thing for a U.S. citizen. They decided to announce it as controversial. To whom, I wondered? And they found two black men to say that it was," she said.