The iconic writer and activist on the similarities between Tibet and Palestine, womanism versus feminism, and Carl Jung.
After a little over a year in office, fierce and often unfounded attacks, and the painstaking process that eventually led to a victory for health care reform, perhaps now is a good time for President Obama to revisit the words of the open letter Alice Walker published the day after he was elected. Along with respectfully telling the soon-to-be president that he will never know the profoundness of his being elected president for “black people of the Southern United States,” Walker offers him some advice: make sure to make time for rest and play with family because, “From your happy, relaxed state, you can model real success, which is only what so many people in the world really want,” and to “remember that you did not create the disaster that the world is experiencing” and not to take on other people’s enemies, offering the Dalai Lama’s model for coexisting. It is, perhaps, a look into the evolution of an American icon known nearly as well for her fierce opposition to all forms of oppression as for her award-winning writing.
Walker, the lauded poet, essayist, and Pulitzer Prize winner for The Color Purple, has led a life that rivals the creative intensity of any of her literary creations. From her birth in 1944 in Putnam County, Georgia, the youngest of eight siblings and the child of parents who made their living as sharecroppers, to her involvement with the civil rights, Black Arts, and feminist movements in the decades that followed, Walker has established herself as one of the most important and inspirational public intellectuals in America. She not only gave voice to the complex experience of African American women in what scholars term the renaissance in African American women’s writing of the nineteen seventies, but also made that voice heard in public conversations over issues as diverse as gender equality, racial and economic justice, and war and peace.
The conversation that follows, with Emory University Professor and Walker scholar Rudolph P. Byrd, offers us a window into Walker’s journey and all she’s seen along the way. From Martin Luther King to Barack Obama, from her civil rights work in the Jim Crow South to her recent wanderings and activism in Palestine, Burma, and India, from The Color Purple to her most recent book of verse, Hard Times Require Furious Dancing: A Year of Poems, it explores the vision underlying Walker’s body of work and the biographical events behind them. The interview is taken from Walker’s forthcoming book edited by Byrd entitled, The World Has Changed: Conversations with Alice Walker, a fascinating series with Walker and a diverse set of interlocutors (the late Howard Zinn and Pema Chodron among them).
While much has changed since Walker left Putnam County long ago, one thing has remained the same: her vision of the role of the artist in America and, therefore, her vision of herself. “What are your preoccupations at this stage in your life as a writer?” Byrd asks. To which Walker responds: “What could it be but to be of assistance to the world in its dire hour of need?”
Rudolph P. Byrd: For The World Has Changed: Conversations with Alice Walker, you have written a poem that marks the publication of your first collection of conversations and interviews. Tell us about the genesis of the poem and the questions you believe are central to it.
Alice Walker: With the election of a black man to the presidency of the United States, the world has changed. Such an event was unthinkable for many people until it actually occurred. For some, there is an unwillingness to believe this historic turn in North America’s affairs is real. They need a poem that reminds them that disbelieving in a new reality can mean missing it altogether; this would be a waste and a tragedy for those who could benefit from shifting their understanding of what America is or can become. I was asked by a newspaper, I don’t recall which or whether it was printed, to write a poem for the inauguration; my mind was very much on those who, from disbelief, could not rejoice. I was able to read the poem on Democracy Now! on the day of the inauguration. I co-hosted the program that day with its anchor, the most honorable Amy Goodman.
I also wanted to celebrate those of us who have withstood years of little hope and scant beauty coming to us from Washington. That we continued to believe in and then to work for change, in the person of Obama, was remarkable. We deserve a better world, and it will come, as we strengthen belief in our own power to create what we desire. Human beings must regain faith in ourselves and try to see more good in each other than bad.
Rudolph P. Byrd: You have devoted the last year or so to travel, to seeing the earth, and to meditation. Why have you restructured your life in this way? What have you learned about yourself and the world during this period? And what effect has this period of wandering and meditation had upon your writing?
Alice Walker: I wasn’t planning to travel beyond my writing and meditation retreat in Mexico. I settled in for the duration, thinking I would meditate on my cushion, which faces a fountain created by a local artist as an abstract sculpture of a mother holding her child/her heart, symbolized by a large reddish stone. I thought I would wander no farther than a local beach filled with Mexican families who strike me always as still knowing how to enjoy life. There are lots of moms and dads and children and the occasional dog, lots of thatched palapas for sitting out of the sun, lots of food. I started a Web site and a blog. This would take care of the very occasional writing I thought I might do. However, true to a pattern I’ve noticed over the years, I am like a spring that goes dry from overuse but then, with rest, fills up again. I began writing almost daily on my blog, often about my attempts to get collard greens to flourish in my garden or a neighbor’s field (where unfortunately ants ate them overnight), and to my surprise I soon found myself—within weeks of leaving Mexico—on my way to far-off destinations: Burma and Gaza.
But the old way of living and writing—tied to schedules, book tours, and publicity concerns—has no attraction for me. This period I’m in now, with its surprise writing and travel, also feels transitional. There is a sense of sinking back, with gratitude, into the vegetation. A call from the soul that wants a quiet so deep, a mental space so clear and empty, that I can inhabit it almost solely as spirit. And surely this is part of what aging is for: to prepare us for the slow absorption into the all, which I perceive to be a radiant and positive destination.
Both peoples (Tibetan and Palestinian) have been invaded, their lands confiscated, and their culture suppressed and largely destroyed. The Chinese and Israeli governments have behaved with similar cruelty toward the indigenous people.
Rudolph P. Byrd: You will be traveling soon to Dharamshala and returning to Gaza. What draws you to these very different places? Is there a history that the people in both places share?
Alice Walker: It isn’t clear whether I will be able to have an audience with His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Dharamshala; I was forced to cancel an audience with him scheduled too close to the date I was to join a Freedom March in Gaza, December 31, 2009. We met many years ago, I think the first time he came to San Francisco. He came to speak to our youth, and I was also invited to speak. I admire him tremendously for his humble bearing of the huge responsibility life has given him as leader of the Tibetan people and, in a sense, leader of the rest of us who need a living example of how to maintain soul under nearly unbearable circumstances. When I travel to countries like Rwanda and the Congo and Palestine, I draw on his example of soul care and his dogged continuation of teaching that which he knows, having used it himself, to be effective: meditation and clear seeing. Also peace enhancement and anger management.
While in Kerala, India, I hope to spend time with the writer Arundhati Roy—and her mother! Roy’s work is marked by an intense, even fierce compassion for common people; I want to visit the Kerala that produced this sense of commitment and belief in possibility. I’ve heard little about the senior Mrs. Roy, but I’m sure she will be revealed as formidable.
While in New Delhi, I will want to pay my respects to Mahatma Gandhi. I believe I’m to give a talk at the Gandhi Institute there. What always struck me about Martin Luther King when I was a student in high school and he was just beginning his charge against the dictatorship of White Supremacy in our country was that he seemed to know us, people of color, so well. What we really, in our heart of hearts, were like. And he accepted us for what we were. I want to visit India to see what it was that Gandhi loved, understood, and accepted about Indians—so much so that he endangered his life to live among them and to teach and lead. That King thought us worthy of any sacrifice was clear to me as a student, and moved me to tears. How does he know? I wondered. How does he continue to believe in us? Who are we, after all? After four hundred years of slavery and post-enslavement degradation, we were, far too many of us, quite a wreck. But with those extraordinarily wise eyes of his, he saw us beyond our wreckage and with compassion held us dear. Knowing the divine within himself, he saw it in us. Namaste!
There are similarities between what has happened to the Tibetan and Palestinian people. Both peoples have been invaded, their lands confiscated, and their culture suppressed and largely destroyed. The Chinese and Israeli governments have behaved with similar cruelty toward the indigenous people. Both Palestinians and Tibetans have a strong history of resistance, and their cultures are deeply rooted in nature, in music, in religion/spirituality, and in art. They are also, very often, farming people, with a deep love of the land. This is one of the reasons I resonate with both of them. Whenever I encounter people who love their olive and fruit trees, their tomatoes, vegetables, and land, the farmer in me joins hands with them. I need no other, more political connection. But this is because of my paganism, no doubt. My belief that nature and we and “God/Goddess” are one and the same. My devotion to this intuitively arrived-at understanding.
Rudolph P. Byrd: At an earlier period in your career as a writer, you spoke of the importance of Jean Toomer’s Cane, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Flannery O’Connor’s Everything That Rises Must Converge, Ernest J. Gaines’s The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, Bessie Head’s When Rain Clouds Gather, and Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born. This is only a very slim sampling of the writers and their books you regard as important in your artistic development. What are those books in either fiction or nonfiction with which you are now in dialogue as writer and as earthling?
Alice Walker: Reading comes in layers: there’s the reading one does to understand the current crisis, whatever it is; the reading for pleasure; the reading for soul.
Because I’m engaged in bringing more U.S. awareness to the situation in Gaza, where the Israeli government uses American taxpayer money (including, to my shame, some of mine) to destroy Palestinians—a lot of them children, women, and old people—I have been reading books by Palestinian and Israeli writers: Ali Abunimah, Saree Makdisi, David Grossman, and Marcia Freedman, among others. I like what some Indian writers are writing. I loved The Mistress of Spices and will read anything by Arundhati Roy. I recently read a wonderful book called Leaving India—not a novel but one woman’s travels all over the earth to trace relatives and ancestors who’d left India to settle in odd places: Fiji, for instance. I wish I had a better memory and could recall all the novels I’ve loved and all the names of the writers. One novel, about Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas and their Vietnamese cook, that I never forget is The Book of Salt, by Vietnamese American writer Monique Truong. I am also a big fan of the Hawaiian writer Kiana Davenport, who wrote Shark Dialogues. No one should go to Hawaii without reading her novels about it.
On a day-to-day basis, I am happiest reading The Dhammapada, The Upanishads, 365 Tao by Deng Ming-Dao, and other books that teach spiritual lessons. I love the work of Jack Kornfield, especially his books on CD: The Roots of Buddhist Psychology and Buddhism for Beginners. Also A Path with Heart. I also love the work of Michael Meade, war resister, mythologist, and storyteller, also on CD. For decades I have been supported by the old stories collected and told by Clarissa Pinkola Estés. I think her two-volume set Theatre of the Imagination should be in the audio library of everyone. I have also benefited from reading Carl Jung and Laurens van der Post—van der Post because he lived in a time when Bushmen (Bushpeople) were still living their traditional lives close to the earth in Africa. We can learn a lot from their gentleness, compassion, and disinterest in gobbling up the world around them. I’ve studied Jane Goodall’s work admiringly, as well as Malidoma Somé’s. The Healing Wisdom of Africa and Of Water and the Spirit are strengthening gifts to human imagination and growth. The work of Pema Chödrön has meant a lot to me. I love books (books and houses—a decent house!—were what I most longed for as a child), but I’ve become very selective about what I read. I find I simply cannot read anything that lacks integrity or spiritual energy. Beside my bed are these: the I Ching (which I sometimes feel is my favorite book simply because I’ve used it for so long); the Motherpeace Tarot: Deck and Book, which I also use periodically; The New Astrology (Chinese and Western) by Suzanne White (a wonderful book and not only because she gets monkeys right); and The Essential Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks. Rumi and I belong, with millions of other enchanted readers it is heartening to realize, to the same star.
What many people don’t realize is that the soul can benefit from instruction just as the mind can, and that this instruction is readily available. We just have to look, sometimes vigorously. It is a good thing to have a nourishing church experience every Sunday, for instance, but that is like going to a dinner where only a certain kind of food is likely to appear on the table. The soul may take a nibble, but it’s quite likely that what it really wants isn’t there. Unfettering the soul and letting it roam after its own peculiar nourishment is part of what assures spiritual development. We live in a time rich in all kinds of soul food, not just chops and overcooked greens, but organic produce and pure water, one might say.
I am fundamentally animist (everything has spirit) and pagan (I worship nature and the spirit of nature), but I am enchanted with wisdom wherever it is found. Buddha and Jesus, the poet Rumi, Somé, Meade and Kornfield, Chödrön, Amma, and Fidel are all dear to me.
Rudolph P. Byrd: You have created beautiful and enduring works in the genres of the essay, poetry, the short story, and the novel. Could you elaborate upon the appeal and challenge of each genre? Given your obvious strengths as a writer of dialogue, will you ever write plays?
Alice Walker: I enjoyed writing the screenplay for The Color Purple once I actually started it. (Not used for the movie.) I can imagine writing plays. What gets in the way is the realization that I’d need actors. It is extremely satisfying to write in genres that don’t require more than I myself can give. I can imagine being distracted trying to find the right actors for the roles, or even having to think about this. Also, at this point in my life, I seem to be returning to poetry, my first love. Over the past year, I’ve written a book of poems, Hard Times Require Furious Dancing: A Year of Poems. These came at a rate of several a week. Sometimes several came on the same day, like surprise guests.
We’ve turned a scary corner, as humans. We may have ruined our nest.
Rudolph P. Byrd: Along with the stories themselves and the majesties of language, what is most memorable about your fiction are the characters. What are the several elements that for you lead to the creation of characters? Could you describe your process of creating characters and also for naming them?
Alice Walker: I love creating characters! Because, like our children, they really create themselves. We get to sit back and watch something astonishing come into being that we had something to do with, but not everything. It’s magical. Naming characters is also. For some books, I try to keep alive names I heard as a child, the names of friends, relatives, family. People I loved or whose names struck me as poetic in some way. I did this in The Color Purple as a way to honor family who would have no way of being remembered or honored otherwise. It amused me too to mix up the names so that sometimes a character (based on a real person) is mistreating his wife, who has the name of the real person’s mother or daughter. I suppose this is a way I, posthumously for these people, attempt to teach them about each other. And to urge kindness. Similarly, Grange Copeland is not only named for the land itself—the grange—but also for the landowner, “Copeland,” who owned land my family lived on when I was a child. The connection between land, farmer, and landowner, is very strong, but to my knowledge it is rarely deliberately intertwined in literature. Mem Copeland’s name comes from the French la meme, which means “the same.” This was a signal to readers about the prevalence of domestic violence before it had a name. As a student in college, I adored French and lived in the French House on campus.
Writing The Temple of My Familiar was an absorbing joy; creating the many carefully considered names in it made it more so. Dickens loved naming his characters. A companion and I enjoy watching Dickens on DVD and just finished watching Bleak House. Fantastic names! Lady Dedlock, Mr. Guppy, Mr. Smallweed. Each of them funny and perfect. I think naming characters is a way we writers play with our work, amuse ourselves as we go over a paragraph or chapter the umpteenth time.
Rudolph P. Byrd: In an earlier period in your career, you stated that your preoccupations as a writer centered on two overlapping areas: “I am preoccupied with the spiritual survival, the survival whole of my people. But beyond that, I am committed to exploring the oppressions, the insanities, the loyalties, and the triumphs of black women.” What are your preoccupations at this stage in your life as a writer?
Alice Walker: What could it be but to be of assistance to the world in its dire hour of need? We’ve turned a scary corner, as humans. We may have ruined our nest. If I write about Palestinians being deprived of water and land, of Aung San Suu Kyi and the precious instruction she is capable of giving us—not only about democracy but also about morality—if I write about violence and war, collards and chickens, I can connect with others who care about these things. Hopefully, together we can move the discussion of survival, with grace and justice and dignity, forward. We will need to know many different kinds of things to survive as a species worth surviving.
Generally speaking, for instance, white feminists are dealing with the oppression they receive from white men, while women of color are oppressed by men of color as well as white men, as well as by many white women.
Rudolph P. Byrd: In 1976, you and your friend and fellow writer the late June Jordan established the Sisterhood. Could you recall the origins of this group? How often did you meet? Were the meetings structured in a particular way? Did you imagine at the time that the writers of the Sisterhood—June Jordan, Toni Morrison, Ntozake Shange—would have such a deep and wide impact upon American and world literature?
Alice Walker: June and I were rebels of the first order against ranking of any kind imposed from beyond ourselves. We thought we must create a space for black women writers to honor each other, to know each other, so that nothing from outside could make us fight over anything. Or even feel competitive. This was the sisterhood’s purpose. We met only a few times while I was still in New York. I moved to California, and later so did June. My connection with women’s circles continued. I have been a member of an African American women’s sangha for ten years and was part of a racially diverse Women’s Council (now on break) for about seven years. Circles are crucial for human advancement in the time we are now in. In a safe place, where people can express their sorrows and fears without worry, we can shift the world’s thinking, as these circles, millions of them, join together to usher in solid and useful thought that has emerged in the patience and safety of our homes.
Rudolph P. Byrd: In In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, you provide us with your widely cited definition of womanism, which has led to the creation of new fields of study in literature, religion, and black feminism. The final definition reads: “Womanist is to feminist as purple to lavender.” In this formulation, you suggest that womanism is more radical than feminism. What is your current thinking on womanism and its relationship to feminism?
Alice Walker: As long as the world is dominated by racial ideology that places whites above people of color, the angle of vision of the womanist, coming from a culture of color, will be of a deeper, more radical penetration. This is only logical. Generally speaking, for instance, white feminists are dealing with the oppression they receive from white men, while women of color are oppressed by men of color as well as white men, as well as by many white women. But on the joyful side, which we must insist on honoring, the womanist is, like the creator of the word, intent on connecting with the earth and cosmos, with dance and song. With roundness. With thankfulness and joy. Given a fighting chance at living her own life, under oppression that she resists, the womanist has no or few complaints. Her history has been so rough—captured from her home, centuries of enslavement, apartheid, etc.—she honors Harriet Tubman by daily choosing freedom over the fetters of any internalized slavery she might find still lurking within herself. Whatever women’s liberation is called, it is about freedom. This she knows. Having said this, I have no problem being called “feminist” or “womanist.” In coining the term, I was simply trying myself to see more clearly what sets women of color apart in the rainbow that is a world movement of women who’ve had enough of being second- and third-class citizens of the earth. One day, if earth and our species survive, we will again be called sacred and free. Our proper names.
Rudolph P. Byrd: As you argue in We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For, we live in a world that is increasingly interdependent, and also a world in which fragmentation and isolation remain predominant. What are the practices that have been most helpful to you in maintaining a sense of purpose and balance in this changing world?
Alice Walker: Meditation has been a mainstay in my life. It has helped me more than I could have imagined prior to learning how to meditate. I don’t meditate the same way I did earlier in my life, when the pressure to write, to mother, to travel, to be an activist, and to pay the bills was intense. Now I just live more meditatively, and it is very helpful that, understanding my nature and its needs for flourishing, I’ve created retreat spaces that help me keep my sanity and, quite often, my serenity. I discovered Mexico while I was pregnant with my daughter; we went there during my second trimester. I loved it and have gone there to rest in the sweetness of the Mexican people, in the kindness and courtesy of friends, every year for over twenty-five years. I also fell in love years ago with a Hawaiian musician who had the most delightful house on a beach in Molokai. The relationship ended, but we share the house still. I can go there when I’m dragging in spirit and sit and look at the moonlight on the water until I know all is well. That whether this small being is at peace or not, the tides will still do their thing: rise and fall and bring some boats to shore and refuse to let others land. With a complete and splendid indifference.
Rudolph P. Byrd: You are an admirer of Carl Jung. We can see the imprint of Jung’s psychological system in your novel Possessing the Secret of Joy. You joined Jungians and other writers in New York City to offer commentary on The Red Book, Jung’s recently published record of his dream life spanning more than four decades. What were some of the revelations of The Red Book for you?
Alice Walker: That it is exquisite! This is what the soul needs from us; that we investigate it using all of our tools created out of beauty. And out of dreams. Jung was not stingy about giving his spirit and soul what it needed to fully expand. He was not afraid of himself, a lucky reality. So many people are afraid of themselves, as if they were, to themselves, completely unknown quantities, and of course some folks may be. But part of our work as humans, if we wish to live in peace on earth and not project our fears and errors onto others, is to get to know who we are. The drawings are lovely and patiently exacted; the paintings are vibrant and intense. I have always felt with Jung, since first reading his work, that he is a kindred spirit. That is why I incorporated him as a character in Possessing the Secret of Joy.
Rudolph P. Byrd: You have just completed the audio recording of The Color Purple. It will be wonderful for readers to hear your voice as they read or listen to the most celebrated novel in your corpus, and unquestionably one of the most important novels written in the twentieth century. What was it like to engage the written word in this manner? You have stated that you felt supported by the ancestors in the writing of a novel that possesses elements of family history. Did you feel supported by the ancestors as you translated their stories into this new medium?
Alice Walker: I did this recording with one of the worst colds I’ve had in my life! Ever so much coughing and sneezing. But, having waited twenty-five years to record The Color Purple, I was not willing to wait until I was better. The people in the book: ancestors, characters, spirits, whatever I’ve called them at different times, came through wonderfully. They are people who show up! And hold up! It was truly magical. I worked for four hours a day for four days and they were as present as when they first appeared to me in the early nineteen eighties.
Rudolph P. Byrd: How did you come to decide to raise chickens at your country home in California? Aside from fresh eggs, what are the benefits that have come to you from reconnecting with nature and your rural Georgia background in this way?
Alice Walker: With Proust, who lived in Paris, it was the Madeleine cookie that carried him back to Remembrance of Things Past. With me, with my rural background in Georgia, it’s chickens. As I write about my chickens frequently on my blog, I find myself being led into a part of my memory that was suppressed when, as a child, I was injured. Like most children with injuries, I was so intensely involved with the change I had experienced—and continued to experience in the way other people now responded to me—that my mind couldn’t pay attention to anything else. Years of my memory were erased or, rather, submerged. On a visit to Bali, in my forties, I was strolling along a dirt road in Ubud, and a hen and her chicks appeared in front of me; for no reason that I then understood, I was transfixed by this sight. Years later, I realize they were grace-launched messengers with ties to the unconscious sent to awaken me to the possibility of regaining some of what I had lost: my memory of many, many years of my childhood that I had completely forgotten.
What is fascinating is that now I see that writing fiction has been a way for me to have a memory, though it is largely, well, fictional.
Shoot for the Legs, an interview with Robert Thurman.
Different Ways of Laughing, an interview with Coleman Barks.
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© 2010 by Alice Walker, excerpted from The World Has Changed: Conversations with Alice Walker, edited and with an introduction by Rudolph P. Byrd, forthcoming from The New Press in April.