A Conversation with Alice Walker

The bestselling author discusses her role as a global citizen and her connection with nature, history, and activism

May 8, 2013

Alice Walker is a remarkably prolific and versatile writer of conscience. She will always be remembered for her indelible and life-changing masterpiece, The Color Purple, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize, becoming the first African American to do so. Walker has written six other groundbreaking novels as well as thought-provoking books for children and a collection of powerful poetry and essays, works that are deeply concerned with matters of justice, equality, politics, art, environmentalism, and spirituality.

Walker’s books have been translated into more than two dozen languages, and 15 million copies have been sold. A world-traveler and tireless and courageous activist as well as a bestselling author, she has been recognized with numerous honors, including a National Book Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Lennon/Ono Grant for Peace, which she donated to an orphanage in East Africa for children who lost parents to AIDS.

Walker has two new books out: an essay collection titled The Cushion in the Road: Meditation and Wandering as the Whole World Awakens to Being in Harm’s Way (The New Press, 2013), and The World Will Follow Joy: Turning Madness into Flowers (The New Press, 2013), a poetry collection.

Alice Walker will be appearing at the ALA Annual Conference in Chicago this June. On behalf of American Libraries, Booklist Senior Editor Donna Seaman reached Walker at her home in Mexico.

AMERICAN LIBRARIES: Can you describe how you work on the many forms of literature you create, from poetry and essays to fiction and books for children? 

ALICE WALKER: The main thing is that I wait until whatever is coming is ready. I don’t pursue anything. I’m looking now at a tree that’s full of green mangoes. I love mangoes, but I’m not going to start eating the green, unripe ones. So I steer clear of whatever it is until I have some sense of its form, its own desire to be manifested. And the need for it. Because sometimes people create things that there is no real need for. Something that has already been done a thousand times.

With poetry, I’m at its mercy because it’s itself. It wants to be written or thought about because it is poetry and poetry claims that sort of freedom. But for novels, it can take a couple of years. So I have to plan where I can be, how I can afford it. Essays build because I want to express or explore something.

When it comes to writing for children, well, there are certain areas in life that children are not exposed to well enough, in my opinion. For instance, war. Children see it all the time on television, or they might read about it when they’re older. But war is still very mysterious, and they’re misled. They’re taught that it’s okay. They’re given little toy guns and play tanks. But if people like me, who write, can produce works that explore, with the child, what war is really like, we can inform the child that any war on human beings is also a war on the frogs. It’s a war on the lakes; it’s a war on the mountains. These are things most children won’t think of themselves because they’ve been led to think that the earth’s not even alive, so it doesn’t feel war. So as a parent, a grandparent, as someone who really likes the children of the planet, I want to be on their side and present alternative views of reality.

Have you always perceived the wholeness of life, or is this vision of life’s interconnectivity something you’ve learned over the years?

I like to say that I was babysat by nature. My mother had to take me with her to the fields. I would sit at the edge of the field and fall asleep or wait for her to come back after she hoed a row all the way to what seemed like the end of the earth. And I connected very early with the feeling that the earth is alive. If you’re down there crawling around, you soon realized that it’s teeming with beings. And my mother loved beauty. She created gardens and grew our food, and all the magic of that went into my being. I was just basically nurtured by the sense of wonder for it all. So segregation in Georgia, our apartheid, was a real blow to me. It was a real shock to see that people would actually spend their time making horrible laws and killing people and tearing down our school when, instead, they could be admiring what was all around them.

You were not aware until you were 50 years old that there was a public library in your town because you were not allowed to enter it.

Yes, that is what happened. Even now we only think this is outrageous because we did manage to change the law in my generation. If we had not, black people in the South would still not know that they had a public library.

As you went to college and lived in other places, did libraries become part of your life? Did they become places that you felt welcome in?

No, they became places I supported, usually with money. I was a big supporter of the refurbished library in Berkeley, California, for instance. And also the one in San Francisco. But I’m imprinted with what, unfortunately, racism does to people, which is to make people feel unwanted because they truly are unwanted. So I want the experience of freedom in the library for all people. All people deserve to have access to information, and peace and quiet. But for me, I have managed to create my own libraries in my house.

To librarians, I would say hang on to your library, because that is the place where everyone can go and learn. And learning is the ultimate activity as far as I’m concerned. Learning is the key to liberation. I’ve never heard a story about a bad librarian. Librarians are held in high esteem for the helpfulness and kindness and patience they show to people, and that is wonderful.

Do you feel that literature helps inspire empathy and compassion?

Oh yes. If literature didn’t inspire empathy and compassion, it would be virtually useless. The reason I absolutely do love and treasure literature is that it has taken me out of myself. Out of the narrow self, the little self, in which I could easily be stuck, and it has opened up the world to me. It has opened up the emotions of other people and their own aspirations and cares. Without Charles Dickens, life would be so much poorer. Without Shakespeare, even Faulkner, who I fight with a lot. Doris Lessing. Albert Camus. All these people give us so much; they just keep opening window after window, door after door. It’s very exciting.

Why is it important to you to remind us of the past in your writing?

Well, we can see where amnesia has gotten us. I sometimes think Americans, not that this is limited to Americans, but certainly Americans are some of the most uninformed people on the planet. Because they’ve been forced to be that way. They’ve been encouraged to be racist; they’ve been encouraged to live in neighborhoods where there’s nobody who looks different. And so their curiosity has been thwarted. If curiosity is alive in us, it’s inevitable that we will want to know everything and everybody and relate. We’ve been laboring under a very poor system devised, basically, to keep us separated and easily managed as a workforce.

If we had a government that worked for us, which is what it’s supposed to be doing, they would not be closing schools in Chicago, they would be improving schools. They would truly deal with the drug problem. But we have no protection, really. I’m quoting Medgar Evers, who was assassinated shortly after he said that. But we don’t. And part of what we need to do is to realize that. We do not have representation. We really don’t have a government that cares about the education of our children or our health. So then what? What do we do? We have to take ourselves there. We made such an impact in the South. We can do it. It’s hard to make me feel daunted. I saw what people who had nothing accomplished during the civil rights movement. I know people who changed their world. People whose house had been firebombed the night before but somehow they managed to get up and be there. And the drug problem is such a horrible distraction because it scares everybody and makes people stay home and makes them fear one another. That has to be addressed.

You returned to your earlier communion with nature later in life, becoming a gardener and raising chickens. Why this renewed involvement?

I came back to them because I had to. I was in Bali many years ago, and, you know, Bali is an amazing place. Of course, they’ve been through all kinds of stuff, and they had to reorient themselves because for a minute they got too involved with tourism, but still, it is stunning. Anyway, I was coming home one day from a fire dance, and I saw a chicken and her little biddies crossing the road, and I had this kind of spiritual experience in which I realized that somehow I had lost connection to a whole area of life: animal life and my family’s relationship to that life when I was a child, which was really meaningful and deep. So that was the foundation of my talking my neighbors and my partner and everybody else into helping me raise chickens.

Hopefully more people will learn to live that way again because there’s no real future living in cities, in my opinion, because they’re not sustainable long-term. I look at New York City and I think you couldn’t pay me to live there. I know people love cities, and there are a few that I like, but my hope is that people will start once again to cherish the literal soil of our planet, to feed it every good thing that they can, and to ask it, with great devotion and meaning, to continue to sustain us.

You’ve witnessed the misuse of soil and the effort to restore it in Kenya, birthplace of the green belt movement.

The colonial powers cut down all the trees, and that’s why [the late Nobel Peace Prize–winning environmental activist] Wangari Maathai planted millions of trees to try to save the soil. But when I was there as a teenager, really, what struck me was how the corporations, even then, had taken the land to grow things like pineapples. So there we were, trying to build a school out of the only thing we had, which were sisal stalks, and there were hundreds of acres of pineapples that the indigenous people were not allowed to eat. And they had been forced into the corners, living in little shacks with thatched roofs, which looked like our shacks in Georgia, though ours had tin roofs. So I really got it, that the African people were horribly exploited, as laborers, as producers of food for Europe, and unfortunately that is still happening an awful lot as Europe buys up more and more African land. China is doing the same thing. It is dizzy-making to contemplate, and it’s frustrating. What can you do about it? Part of doing something is to know that it’s happening.

Do you feel that women worldwide have a better chance than men of calling attention to these forms of injustice and making some changes for the good of people and the entire living world?

Yes, I do. Because I think women have more empathy, typically speaking, than men, and this is demonstrated in everyday life by just looking around us. This is one of the reasons men have kept women away from decision-making in terms of things like war. Because they knew if enough women stood up and said, “I love my son, and I love her son, and I’m not going to watch them kill one another,” then war would end. Women would have that power, if they had a voice. So I think it’s really easy to see that part of the reason women have been kept so powerless for so long is because they are a danger in the eyes of the men who run the world. Women’s input and courage and wisdom, but mostly their empathy, endangers the world that the men of the ruling class have devised.

I was in Brazil recently, and I had a chance to go out and see scientist and environmental activist Vandana Shiva. It was so great to hear her talk about her battles with Monsanto. It is so good to know that on every continent there are women who have not been silenced and who refuse to be silenced. They are standing in their truth about the destruction of the planet by corporations.

I feel very close to Arundhati Roy, the Indian writer. I went to India to meet her and her mother, just because I knew that for someone like Arundhati to exist, she would have to have an incredible mom, and she does. And I admire and love Eve Ensler. She is so powerful and so brave and so beautiful and so present. That’s where you need to be, where she is. What is the alternative? You can stay locked in make-believe and lies and just go on down the tubes. Or try to face the truth, and you may go down the tubes anyway, but at least you’ll have your eyes open.

You’ve chronicled your experiences in Gaza, and you’ve described your travels in Burma in an open letter to Aung San Suu Kyi. How do feel about being an envoy for America?

I think I can do this because I live in the entire world. I don’t just live in America. I live everywhere. I mean, literally, I live several places. Today I’m in Mexico. I’ll be in Hawaii soon, which I don’t really consider America, and then I’ll be somewhere else. And I do feel at home pretty much wherever I am and with whomever I meet. I see that we’re the same. We’re the same people. Human beings are just not that different. The language barrier can be overcome to some extent by gestures. I just don’t see it as a problem. In fact, I often remind myself that all the land on the planet used to just be one continent.

You write that now too many Americans think of Mexico only as a place of drug cartels and murder and as the source of illegal aliens.

They are our neighbors, and they are really good neighbors. It breaks my heart that the US does everything it can to make Mexicans feel hurt and inferior and scared. I think the wall is an abomination. And I think it’s just tragic that people are going to miss out on knowing some of the greatest people on the planet. Mexicans are wonderful people, and they have a great culture.

Many people used to come to Mexico. Langston Hughes used to come to Mexico. He got sick of the racism in the United States. I met the artist Elizabeth Catlett in Mexico, and she gave me a very beautiful print. People have understood, especially African Americans, that Mexico has long offered shelter. In fact, during the days of enslavement, black people would come to Mexico and stay. If they could get here, they could live a free life. I wrote about this in my novel, By the Light of My Father’s Smile.

Do you feel that digital technologies are helping people? I know that in places where there has never been phone service before that a single cellphone can make an enormous difference to a community.

Absolutely. I think it’s a very good thing. I’ve seen it in Africa; I’ve been there a lot. And it is very moving to see women—some of whom have been sex slaves, some of whom have been brutalized more horribly than most people can imagine—with cellphones and in contact with one another. They use cellphones to help themselves be more safe, to plan together and build together. But there again, you could say that the coltan that’s used to make the phones is horrible, because companies are killing off the Congo in order to mine coltan for cellphones and laptops. But I still feel that without some communication, most of these women would be in terrible isolation.

You write a substantial blog on your website.

I do it because it’s free. If people can get their hands on a computer and if they’re interested, they can go and find something that might be sustaining, interesting, or useful.

It isn’t easy being both an artist and an activist. The title of your new essay collection, The Cushion in the Road, addresses the struggle to sustain your creative and politic selves.

Well, yes. I retreat a lot, though not nearly as much as I intend to. Something always comes along, hence the cushion in the road, instead of somewhere tucked away off the road. It has been a dream, to just drop out and meditate pretty much all the time. But being an artist, for me, actually encompasses activism. That is the fuel in a way, the passion of caring drives whatever I do. That is my guide.

You’re very generous with your personal life. You write candidly about yourself. Now there’s a new documentary about you, Beauty in Truth, directed by celebrated filmmaker Pratibha Parmar, who also worked with you on Warrior Marks. How do you feel about such public disclosure?

I feel that nothing is truly that personal. If I tell you about some dreadful or joyful thing that has happened to me—if I’m talking to, let us say, 10 people, eight of them will have experienced something similar, or someone in their family has, or someone they know. So I’ve never really felt that my life is so very personal that it’s without meaning to other people. I felt just the opposite. In fact, one of the wonderful teachers from my community years ago was Howard Thurman, the theologian. He said the deeper you go into your own idiom, the more likely it is that you’re going to come up in everybody else’s. I believe that. I think we see that every day.

You describe yourself as a “spiritual progressive.”

I got that from Michael Lerner who publishes Tikkun (along with Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister and Princeton University Professor Cornel West). Lerner calls himself a spiritual progressive; he also founded the Network of Spiritual Progressives. It means, I think, that you’re led by spirit. And therefore you’re trying to see the world in a way that spirit honors and protects. Naturally you want reach out to people who are threatened. You don’t have to be there, standing there, if that’s too much for you. But you can have some awareness of what is going on and you can find some way to offer some kind of solace to people who are suffering. That’s why we’re here.

Is writing a spiritual practice for you?

Oh, it is. It is totally that. I often say, I approach it as if I’m a priestess. I understand that all the forces are being called upon to help me deliver what is most useful and most nourishing for whoever is reading. Even though it’s difficult. I also like the idea of encouraging people to grow a bit more fiber in their spirit. Be a bit more strong. Be a bit more adventuresome. Have a bit more courage about encountering what scares you.

You’ve said, “Earth was meant for joy. Connect with that joy and you will be forever fed by it.”

Yes, and it helps to understand, at least for me, that it takes a good bit of suffering to get to the equal level of joy. And that is a little sobering. On the other hand, if you shy away from suffering, you will never get to the joy. So I encourage you to just step right on into your own suffering. It’s part of the journey, and it’s a good journey.

DONNA SEAMAN is a senior editor for Booklist.



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