(This is an excerpt from an interview that appeared on Guernicamag.com)
Rudolph P. Byrd interviews Alice Walker
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 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.
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.
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.