Alice Walker: “Go to the Places That Scare You”
The acclaimed novelist on why a life worth living is a life worth fighting for.
Alice Walker is a poet, essayist, and commentator, but she’s best known for her prodigious accomplishments as a writer of literary fiction. Her novel The Color Purple won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award in 1983 and quickly became a classic of world literature. Set in an African-American community in the rural South during the decades before World War II, the novel is told in letters written by Celie, a woman who survives oppression and abuse with her spirit not only intact, but transcendent.
Walker’s writing is characterized by an ever-present awareness of injustice and inequality. But whether describing political struggle—as in Meridian, which deals with the civil rights movement—or meditating on the human relationship to nature and animals, as in her latest book, The Chicken Chronicles, her work conveys the possibility of change. In Walker’s vision, grace is available through love and a deep connection to the beauty of the world.
“I think the foundation of everything in my life is wonder.”
Walker was born in the segregated South, the eighth child in a family who made their living as sharecroppers in Georgia. She came of age during the civil rights movement, and emerged early in her career as a defining voice in feminism and an advocate for African-American women writers. She is a prominent activist who has worked, marched, traveled, and spoken out to support the causes of justice, peace, and the welfare of the earth.
Alice Walker spoke to YES! about the challenges of working for change, and the possibility of living with awareness—and joy.
Valerie Schloredt: Over the past few days I’ve been immersed in your work, and I’ve been wondering how you do it. Being able to move someone to tears with a few words on a page is extraordinary to me.
Alice Walker : I want very much for you to feel for whoever I’m talking about, or whatever I’m talking about. Because it is only by empathy being aroused that we change. That is the power of writing. I’ve experienced exactly what you’re saying, reading other writers. I remember the book I first had that experience with was Jane Eyre, being right there with Jane, and understanding, yes, we have to change these horrible institutions where they abuse children. Today, I’m the supporter of an orphanage in Kenya. And one of the reasons comes from having been so moved by reading about Jane at Lowood.
Schloredt: It’s interesting to hear about what you read as a child, because some of your best-known work, like The Color Purple, draws on the stories of your ancestors and your family and aspects of the world you knew as a child.
Walker: I think the foundation of everything in my life is wonder. We were way out in the country, and why wouldn’t you just absolutely wonder at the splendor of nature? It’s true I had various sufferings, but nothing really compares to understanding that you live in a place that, moment by moment, is incredible. That your mother could say, “I think we’ll have tea tonight,” pull up a sassafras root, take it home, boil it, and you have sassafras tea. I mean, it’s such a miraculous universe. For a child, this magic is something that supports us, even through the hard times.
Schloredt: Do you go back to your childhood home?
Walker: It doesn’t exist.
Walker: No. And there were many of them. We lived in shacks. Each year the people who owned the land (that they had stolen from the Indians), after they had taken the labor for the year, forced us to another shack. How could people do that, to people that they recognized as people? They did this to babies, they did this to small children, they could look at the people they were exploiting and actually see that they were working them into ill health and early death. It didn’t stop them.
The most beautiful parts of the area that I lived in are now an enclave of upper-class white housing tracts with a huge golf course. They built a road that went right through the front yard of our church. Most of the people moved to cities, they moved to projects. So, it doesn’t exist.
Schloredt : Something I wanted to ask after listening to you talk last night [at the YES! celebration in Seattle], is the idea that some people don’t experience empathy, and don’t have a conscience that bothers them when they’re treating people extremely badly. Where can progressives go with that idea? How do we relate to knowing that?
Walker: You relate to it by being honest. We’re sitting back thinking that every single person has a conscience, if you could just reach it. Why should we believe that? I mean, what would make you actually believe that? Certainly not the history of the world as we know it. So it’s about trying to understand the history of the world, how it’s been shaped, and by whom, and for what purposes.
“You have to go to the places that scare you so that you can see: What do you really believe? Who are you really?”
Understanding trumps compassion at this point. When people are forcing you out of your home, starving your children, destroying your planet—you should bring understanding of them to bear. Not everybody is loving of children, not everybody cares about the ocean. I think if we collectively decide that we are going to confront this, we have a chance. Because humanity is very smart, and we’d like to survive. And we’re not going to survive the way we’re going. I think we know that.
Schloredt: Your novels are among those books that cause people to say, “This book changed my life,” or “This book changed my way of thinking.” For me the book of yours that really did something to my way of thinking was Meridian.
That is a very powerful book. One thing that really affected me was the description of the cost of racism to the psyche, what a struggle it is to fight such embedded injustice. I think I saw you as the character Meridian. Are you—have you got some Meridian in you?
Walker : I think all people who struggle at the risk of their lives have some Meridian in them. It’s an acceptance of a kind of suffering. You hope that something will come of it, but there’s no way of knowing. What I didn’t realize was so close to me was how Meridian gets really sick as she encounters various struggles. She’s using every ounce of her will, her intelligence, her heart, her soul. It often leaves her debilitated. And that has certainly been true in my life. And it’s something that I have to accept.
In Jackson, Mississippi, during the civil rights movement, the mayor had a tank that the town bought just to use against us. So there’s the possibility of the tank running over you, and you have to stand there. So I understood that, well, this is probably going to mean a few weeks of just being immobilized. And then you figure out ways to recuperate.
It’s learning to accept that the cost is great. It would have to be, because we’re talking about emotional intelligence and growth and stretching yourself, reaching for the sun, kind of as if you were a plant. It’s a difficult thing to change the world, your neighborhood, your family, your self.
Schloredt : Not only is Meridian risking her life, like the other civil rights activists in the South, but there’s also internal oppression, an inner struggle the characters deal with.
Walker: The inner struggle is extremely difficult for all of us, because we all have faults, severe ones, that we will struggle with forever. One of the things that I like about Meridian is that it is about how we like to have almost a stereotype about leaders and revolutionaries and world-changers, that they are always whole. It’s wise to accept that [human faults] are inevitable. Factor that in and keep going.
Schloredt : I love the passage where Meridian visits a black church after the assassination of Martin Luther King and finds that they’ve incorporated his rhetoric into the sermon.
Walker : This is the segment where B.B. King is in the stained-glass window with a sword—where the people needed to incorporate, as far as I was concerned at the time, a bit more militancy. More awareness of what you’re up against, and confronting that with real clarity. In some ways it’s the same issue that we’re talking about. You have to go to the places that scare you so that you can see: What do you really believe? Who are you really? Are you prepared to take this all the way to wherever the truth leads you and accept that you have to figure out different ways of confronting reality?
Schloredt : I wanted to ask you about Occupy and uprisings in the Middle East. You’ve been politically active over your lifetime. Is there advice that you would give to people who are organizing now in the United States?
Walker : If you want to have a life that is worth living, a life that expresses your deepest feelings and emotions, and cares and dreams, you have to fight for it. You have to go wherever you need to go, and you have to be wherever you need to be, and place yourself there against the forces that would distort you and destroy you.
“If you want to have a life that is worth living, a life that expresses your deepest feelings and emotions, and cares and dreams, you have to fight for it.”
I love the uprisings, I love the Occupy movement, and I think the young people especially are doing something that is very natural. It is natural to want to have a future. It is very natural to want to live in peace and joy. What is lovely about this time is the awareness that is sweeping the planet. People are just waking up, every moment.
Schloredt: One thing that I worry about for progressives is that we are often distracted from effective direct action by the project of improving ourselves, of being good.
Walker : And also, “good” in that sense can sometimes be very facile. And a good cover, you know, “I’m doing good, so I don’t have to change very much.” But I think for most Americans, the change that’s required is huge.
Schloredt: How do we make that change happen?
Walker : Well, you know, you’re doing it. I think YES! Magazine is part of what’s changing people’s consciousness. And I think the spread of Buddhism—the retreat centers, the meditation practice—has had a huge impact on people’s consciousness. Americans learning Buddhist tradition has helped a lot of people understand that they actually have a power that is theirs. They have their own mind. It’s not somebody else’s mind, and it’s not controllable, unless you permit it. That’s a foundation for huge change.
Schloredt: Your writing has, I’m sure, also changed consciousnesses. How does it feel to know that your work has in some way changed the world?
Walker : Well, it’s a gift the universe has permitted you to achieve—but it’s not just dropped in your lap, you have to really work for it. For instance, years ago when I wrote Possessing the Secret of Joy, the campaign against female genital mutilation [FGM] was a dangerous subject. There was a great deal of flak about my wanting to address it.
I wrote the book, and then Pratibha Parmar and I made the film [ Warrior Marks, a documentary about FGM], and lugged it around Africa, and London, New York, all over. It allowed women who had no voice about FGM to speak. Progress is slow, and sometimes it’s discouraging. It’s like knocking on doors in the South asking people to vote, and they’re terrified of voting. And then seeing over the course of years that people started understanding that they had a right to reject the practice of FGM, that they had a voice. I feel grateful that I could be an instrument to stop any kind of suffering. I mean, what a joy.
Schloredt: In your novels you describe profound suffering and pain, but there is also often the potential for reconciliation and healing. If you could create healing and reconciliation for something that’s happening in our country today, what would it be?
Walker: I think the War on Terror is really absurd, especially coming from a country that is founded on terrorism. The hypocrisy of that is corrosive, and we should not accept it. There is no way to stop terrorism if you insist on making enemies of most of the people on the planet. Why should they care about you? All they feel is fear.
So I would stop the War on Terror, and I would start making peace with the peoples of the planet by trying to understand them. I would like us to be able to say, “If that happened to me, I would feel exactly the way you do. And what can we do from here, from this understanding? What can we do together?”