Alice Walker: On Finding Your Bliss
Interview by Evelyn C. White
(This conversation is reprinted from a interview originally printed in Ms. Magazine in September/October 1999.)
"You look like you're dressed for summer," says Alice Walker, skeptically, to a shorts-clad visitor who arrives at her majestic, 40-acre retreat in northern California. For Walker, who grew up in the blistering heat of rural Georgia, the mid-60s isn't anywhere close to her idea of warm. Indeed, bundled up in a black and gray striped shirt, crimson V-neck sweater, black pants and boots, Walker looks as if she's ready to curl up in front of a roaring fire. A friend from Hawaii, tanned and bright-eyed, is similarly attired except that her pants are a dazzling green; a green that mirrors the rolling, tree-blanketed vista that extends for miles outside the window of Walker's luxuriant kitchen--which is where she and I settle after her friend excuses herself.
Sipping cups of ginseng tea, we sit at a gleaming wooden table that is adorned with a vase of peach-colored lilies. The petals of the flowers are fully open, making them appear as if they're flirting with a tall, leafy banana tree in an adjacent corner. "I'm going to put it outside on the deck," says Walker, about the tree. "Maybe it'll coax some heat over here."
Heat? The woman wants heat? Well, she can count on fire. Because fiery emotions are sure to be evoked in readers of Walker's stunning new novel, By the Light of My Father's Smile (Random House). A passionate, richly detailed celebration of sexuality, By the Light... is by far Walker's most erotic novel. Moreover, the complex, multinarrated story, which is set in Mexico, features a ghost father who, from his spiritual perch, watches the rapturous lovemaking of his daughter.
As such, Walker knows that By the Light... is likely to provoke a riot of Bible-thumping outrage. But if anything's clear after examining the life of the Pulitzer prizewinning author of The Color Purple, it's that she's no shrinking violet.
In fact, readers and reviewers could have predicted what was to come by taking a close look at Walker's first book, Once, a collection of poetry published in 1968. The title poem features a stanza that reads:
One day in
the Negro section
My friend got a
"I hope you're
having a good
"Sweet." I winced.
Considering her literary beginnings as a black woman writer who came out of the block breaking taboos, is it any surprise that thirty years and twenty-two books later, Walker, one of the most censored writers in the U.S., still gets people upset? People like a reviewer of her 1989 novel, The Temple of My Familiar, who denounced the book, calling it a "pantheistic plea, lesbian propaganda, a hootchie-cootchie dance to castration."
On that note, here's a bit of advice for folks wishing to spare themselves grief: Alice Walker is never going to conform. You'd best get with the hootchie-cootchie.
The youngest of eight children, Walker was reared by struggling tenant farmers who, she says, themselves never uttered an off-color remark, despite the indignities they suffered in the Jim Crow South. She entered Spelman College in Atlanta on full scholarship in 1961 and later transferred up north to Sarah Lawrence in Bronxville, New York, graduating in January 1966.
Continuing the civil rights activism that marked her college years, Walker returned to the South, where she was involved in voter registration drives and campaigns for welfare rights and children's programs in Mississippi. While there, she met and later married a white civil rights lawyer. Upon taking their vows, they became the first legally married interracial couple in Mississippi--a union that brought them a steady stream of taunts, harassment, and murderous threats from the Ku Klux Klan.
Undeterred by burning crosses and firebombs, Walker continued to pen groundbreaking literature that chronicled the condition of black women--novels and books of poetry such as The Third Life of Grange Copeland, Meridian, and Revolutionary Petunias.
Divorced (amicably), and the mother of daughter Rebecca, Walker worked in New York as an editor for Ms. before moving to northern California in the late 1970s. Already a prolific and highly respected writer, she became internationally known in the 1980s with the publication of The Color Purple and its subsequent film release.
The calm, contemplative life Walker has created (typical days will find her tending the artichokes, strawberries, and collard greens in her magnificent garden) has given rise to an ever-expanding cornucopia of novels, stories, essays, and poems. In recent years, she has turned her eye to topics as varied as the Million Man March, Michael Jackson, female genital mutilation, Winnie Mandela, Native American rights, and the injustice of the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba. Indeed, speaking recently about her admiration for Cuban leader Fidel Castro, Walker proclaimed: "What's not to like about the man? If Fidel could dance, he'd be perfect!"
As evidenced by her new novel, Alice Walker, at age fifty-four, is a sassy, sensuous woman who maintains a passion and hopefulness about life that she seeks to impart to all who cross her path. Witness the neighbor who arrives midway through our conversation. A native of Alabama, the woman is also dressed in long pants and immediately launches into a lament about the "chill" in the air. Hoping to lift her spirits, Walker directs the woman to her kitchen window, from where they both gaze longingly at a huge swimming pond in the meadow below.
"Do you think it's going to get hot enough for us to go in?" asks the woman in a plaintive voice that belies her fifty-plus years. "Honey, yes," Walker replies assuredly, "we're going to be peeling off these pants soon."
By the Light of My Father's Smile is your first novel in six years. What prompted such an overtly sexual theme?
At the end of the novel there's a poem that says "When life descends into the pit / I must become my own candle / willingly burning myself / to light up the darkness around me." Because there's no sense of safety anywhere, no place we feel we can go that's not polluted or poisoned, for a lot of people life has pretty much fallen into the pit. When I was working on my last novel, Possessing the Secret of Joy, I realized that sexuality is the place where life has definitely fallen into the pit for women. The only way we'll ever change that is by affirming, celebrating, and acknowledging sexuality in our daily lives.
Women must begin to write more truthfully about the profound mystery of sex. I think that race is also a mystery. Which is to say that neither can be fully comprehended except as deeply mysterious expressions through which we can learn profound lessons about life. It is almost impossible not to learn something about yourself in the sexual act. So it's important for women to be alert to the spiritual growth and self-discovery they can attain by paying close attention to their sexuality.
I was also thinking about how organized religion has systematically undermined and destroyed the sexual and spiritual beliefs of millions of indigenous people. There have been people on earth who didn't think about sex the way white, Western men do. It is very painful to think that the "missionary position," which reinforces patriarchal, male dominance over women, was forced upon people who once loved having women freely express their sexuality, whether they were on the top or bottom.
Given the prevalence of patriarchal repression of female sexuality, what was the process you had to go through to get to the extremely erotic language in your book?
I think the process started with wanting myself. Women have to understand that regardless of who does not want us, we have to want ourselves. Then we can begin to see and appreciate other women and the amazing possibilities of self-love and acceptance we can find in our union with each other. We can sit back and wait for men to love us until we are blue in the face, but since I loved women already, I decided, why wait?
There is also a place of humility that comes from really understanding that we have all entered this plane through the legs of a woman. And that it is a holy place. My love of women intensified during all those years I researched female genital mutilation and thought about women holding down other women and girls to destroy that holy and profoundly sacred temple. I feel this novel is connected to Possessing the Secret of Joy because after writing about the debasement and sheer hatred of female sexuality, my spirit needed to write about the joy, the pleasure, promise, and growth. And I wanted to show how women can grow in a relationship with each other.
By no means am I saying that such a relationship is smooth sailing. It definitely isn't, but there are some incredible lessons that can be learned.
What did you learn about yourself while writing the novel?
That I am completely scandalous, rebellious, and stubborn! All my parts were telling me to write this book because it feels like a medicine for the times. Now, I could be terribly wrong. But with AIDS, we've reached a point where sex is scary for most people. We have lost the sexual spontaneity that most of us thought would be ours forever. That is a major loss. The youth are scared to make love and scared not to.
With all the taboos about speaking openly of the sexual experiences of black women, was there also immense satisfaction for you in crossing this boundary?
Yes, breaking out is probably what I do best. it seems to me that there is so much joy going on between women that is happening as we live, simultaneously, in a death-dealing culture. It is very joyful to write about this reality.
This novel will probably turn you into a sex guru. Are you prepared for that?
What is some of the advice you'd offer to women searching for sexual bliss?
Self-love is the first and hardest rule to stick by. Women need to not abandon themselves in their quest for bliss and love. You can love yourself spiritually, physically--in almost any way that anybody else can. I think that anatomically this is the reason we're constructed the way we are.
There are many years when women get caught up in reproductive sex. It's my experience that in their late forties and fifties, women aren't that crazy about reproductive sex because it's generally too late for us; it's not that easy to conceive. But there's something at that point that I've decided to call evolutionary sex. It's a sexuality that can be with women, men, or yourself. It's about exploring and expanding your bodily love and spiritual awareness. That's a form of sex that is within the reach of everybody.
You have an extraordinary reach and ability with characterization in your novels. Where did the characters in By the Light... come from?
I do a lot of spiritual preparation, so the characters evolve from what feels like a state of grace. I also have a home in Mexico, and being there had a lot to do with it. Going there and trying to learn the language and meeting dark-skinned Mexicans got me thinking about African Americans and American Indians who came to Mexico to find freedom.
I was really struck at one point that, while I don't live in Mexico all the time, I'd done the same thing. I had been chased to Mexico to find peace and freedom. I'd always wanted to go deeper into what it means to be black and Indian.
In the novel, I create a band of people, the Mundo, who are neither African nor Indian, but a blend. The spirit I had to go by in creating this culture is essentially mine. It's a reflection of how I think things should be rather than how they've been. Because when we look at the mess the patriarchy has made of the planet, it's clear that we're on the wrong path. We know that matriarchal societies existed before. It's important that we start thinking about ancient future ways, because this way is not working.
On the other hand, it may be that the whole world is gasping its last breath. As one of the characters in the novel says about black and Indian people, the dominant Western thought has been that we're all vanishing. And it seems as if millions of us are being wiped out every minute. But that doesn't mean that the white men are going to be happy by themselves. Because what they'll have left is a planet that they've ruined, with no idea of how to heal it.
In the novel, the ancestral spirit father witnesses and comments upon the sexual blossoming of his daughters. How did this narrative approach come to you?
Again, it's my belief, based on my own self, that what women want most is to be blessed in our sexuality by our parents. As women, I believe we'd especially like to be blessed by our fathers. In that blessing, we'd like the father to know everything about us, just like when we were born, and to love us still. We want them to love what we love and bless what we bless. The only way to show that clearly was to have him witness the sexuality of his children. In the culture of the Mundo, whatever mess you've made during life, you have to come back and deal with after you die. So in coming back, the father gets to witness his daughters' sexual behavior.
Don't you think a lot of people are going to think this is heresy, given the sexually abusive role some fathers have played in their daughters' lives?
Well, it's time for the fathers to deal with the hypocrisy of their own sexual behavior and to extend themselves to their daughters in a positive way. The worst fear many of these men have regarding their daughters' sexuality is that the young women are having a great time. And I'm here to tell you that many of them are. So get over it, and be there for them.
Any words for the forces that might want to continue the tradition of trying to ban your books?
Actually, I started to put a message in this one telling those people not to even let the children see it. It's O.K. with me. I know there are going to be people who will have a fit. But these are the selfsame people who every day for the last six months have been reading about the president's semen on this young girl's dress. The hypocrisy of it is astounding. When women get to be adults and elders, it's time for us to speak honestly about the issues that have been shrouded in hypocrisy and murkiness.
Is that how you see yourself now, as an elder?
In the ancient Cherokee tradition, you become an adult when you're fifty-two. I see myself as being between that point and the beginning of the elder state. I'm definitely in the place of speaking on these issues. There is nothing more important than looking at sexuality with honesty and open-heartedness. Our children are continuing to get pregnant when they're very young. They're having unsafe sex--we know this because they're having babies. The HIV rate among young black people is climbing rapidly. I feel that the heart of our dilemma as a culture and as a people is sex. I think that many fathers have not known that they could have a positive role in sanctioning their daughters' sexuality.
How do you think your novel will help such fathers?
They need to know how deeply their daughters are wounded by their apparent incomprehension that their daughters have sexual feelings. I think young girls are hurt when they come to understand that just because they are female, their fathers don't believe they have sexual passions or interests. Meanwhile, they get to watch their brothers be encouraged to go out and sow wild oats and be affirmed in their manhood. It's a painful place for young women to be.
Because we live in a patriarchal system, most men haven't thought much about what they can do to deal with this, other than to try to keep their daughters home; to make them feel really bad for going out and having a sexual life. I think they should be made aware of the tenderness that is required from fathers in raising daughters. They should embrace the whole female child in a way that makes her feel affirmed in her body.
Do you think the reason more fathers don't relate to their daughters in this way is because of the fears of being accused of sexual impropriety, especially because there have been so many instances of that?
The fathers have to assume that these girl children, to whom they've given birth, inherit intelligence and can understand what is said to them. It then becomes imperative for fathers to talk to them about sexual matters and to be honest, loving, and patient. Fathers need to teach young women what is out there. The reason you see so many women become the victims of doggish men is because their fathers have not told them anything except that if you go out and do such and such, you're a slut and no daughter of mine. That is not helpful. At this late date, it also encourages disease and death.
My novel is really a call to fathers to stand with their daughters and help protect them in a world where they are vulnerable. If a child has a strong mother, she's very lucky. But barring that, she gets faulty information and easily becomes a victim.
What role should mothers or the female partners of men play in this?
Both parents should talk to both genders because what happens now simply upholds the patriarchy. The man gets to tell the boy to be the aggressor. The system has already told the woman that she is to submit. We need to break this. Parents need to understand that they made their children together. One is male, the other is female, but they are not that different spiritually.
All this talk about how a man can't talk to his daughter about menstruation...well, please. By the time men have slept with women for say, thirty years, they've seen as much menstrual blood as the women have. So again, get over it. Don't try to hide behind that one.
You recently made your fourth trip to Cuba. How was that?
I first went to Cuba in 1978 with a contingent of artists, writers, and musicians. Some of the older white Cubans retained racist feelings that were conveyed to us with a certain condescension and stiffness.
We asked about the treatment of gay people in Cuba and were told that they weren't allowed to teach or become doctors. This was very upsetting. It was as if you'd met this really beautiful person who had one aspect of them that wasn't, and it just made your heart ache. But these feelings were something we knew we could work with them on, and we have. Gay people in Cuba aren't subjected to that discrimination now.
I remember the people of color being full of life. I've since returned to bring medical aid. I could see at one point how the economic embargo had brought poverty to the people and made them down-hearted. It was the closest to defeat I'd ever seen the Cuban people and it wasn't clear that they'd survive. But it was clear that if they went down, they'd do so with their integrity and dignity intact.
Recently, since I've made a commitment to defend Cuba and educate people about the revolution and the country's culture, I felt it was important to go to places I hadn't visited before. I asked writer Margaret Randall, who lived in Cuba for many years, to act as a translator for my partner, Zelie, and me.
We were treated so sweetly by the people. Wherever we went there were performances. We visited Che Guevara's crypt and met his children and widow. I loved seeing the extensive organic farms the Cubans have cultivated. They are good models for small, developing countries that want to maintain an independent food supply. I'm so grateful to see a place on the planet where there are people whose hearts haven't been shriveled by hatred or greed.
The Cuban Revolution made great strides in creating equality for women. What are your feelings about what appears to be a reemergence of prostitution in the country?
I think the young women are extremely naive. They have been educated and protected by the revolution from such things. Consequently, many of them have an arrogance about their own bodies that perhaps makes them think that they are immune to and exempt from AIDS. I am very afraid for them.
When I see older white men with these primarily young, educated women of color, it is hard on the spirit. The women are too naive and inexperienced to know that they are engaging in an ancient system that oppresses women. They think of what they're doing as a lark because it enables them to get a new tube of lipstick or some shampoo. But it's very dangerous for them.
The governor of New Jersey has offered a huge reward for the return of Assata Shakur, who is in exile in Cuba. As you know, she was imprisoned in the U.S. in the 1970s for her alleged involvement in a shoot-out that left a state patrolman dead. What are your feelings about Assata?
I take her word that she didn't kill the man. Cuba permitted her to have a life, but she is still unable to be with her family and friends. To put a bounty on her head is evil. Assata Shakur is a great human being. She should be left in peace and happiness. Any attempt to make her suffer is utterly demonic.
What other passions do you have going on these days?
I'm eager to learn more about the sovereignty movement in Hawaii. People should know that Hawaii is a country and should be respected as such. Because it was forcibly annexed to the United States does not mean that it is the U.S., except by conquest. A masterpiece on decolonization has been written by Haunani Trask, one of Hawaii's most famous and fierce Hawaii-loving poets. It is called From a Native Daughter. This book is so powerful, it will change the way you think about Hawaii, and all lands seized by force, forever.
Besides that, I'm beginning to be very passionate about being a homebody. I'm not going to be doing any more lectures or readings beyond the ones I've already agreed to do. I'm going to curtail my travel after this book tour.
I've also become very interested in heirloom seeds. These are seeds that are not artificial hybrids, but are open-pollinated, and that have been collected by people who are trying to preserve the seed pool. The seed companies are rapidly corralling all the seeds. By using heirloom seeds we make it possible for people to continue to grow fruits and vegetables without relying on the seed companies.
I'm also going to be initiating healing circles and women's and elders' councils on the land. These circles won't be designed to solve any problems, but for us to connect with each other and get grounded. Each circle will eventually connect with other circles around the globe so that, over time, we'll get a stronger sense of who we are, as just regular people, in the world. We're not going to do any conflict resolution. One of the things we may have to acknowledge at this point is that the earth could be entering its death struggle. We will have to try to be present as loving, compassionate earthlings.
I see the circles and councils as ways to share consciousness. This is an idea that many people are having at this time. It seems to be a spontaneous response to the situation we're in. Many people are aware that we are in peril and that there is no trustworthy leadership. It's important to comfort and be with each other during this time because so many people are alone. That really shouldn't be, but that's where this culture has brought us, to loneliness and isolation.
I see a lot of isolation among so-called successful people, especially among African American women. How do you think this came to pass?
We integrated into a system where loneliness is the norm. In the past, we became part of the industrial revolution, and now in the present, part of the corporate era, both of which put money and jobs first. We've sacrificed community. That's what the circles can give back to us. We can "be" rather than "do," because we can see now that all the "doing" doesn't bring happiness. It just makes for exhaustion, depletion, loneliness, and fear. So it's time to slow down, sit down, and meditate. And join with others from a place of centeredness and calm.
Does this come from your Buddhist practice?
For the last few years I've studied Tonglen. It is basically a practice of breathing in pain, fear, and darkness, and breathing out what you'd rather the world had. I'm concentrating on this one practice because it is useful in opening the heart. What's happening with all the heart disease is that people's emotions are getting locked in a tight heart. We need help from the ancient teachings to show us how to stretch and open our hearts.
Is it ever frightening to breathe in the fear and pain?
Yes, it gets very scary. One night I thought I was dying because I felt as if a herd of horses was running over my heart. I made the decision to just stay with it, and keep breathing and relaxing my heart. I also accepted that they might just run over me and that I wouldn't get up. I'd die. As it turned out, my heart was O.K. It opened wide.
There are many ancient practices that we should avail ourselves of so that we can address whatever constrictions we might have. Buddhism has been especially helpful to me because it affirms the necessity for quiet; compassion over anger; being over doing. It encourages people to accept life in its totality, not just the good parts.
I'm sure there are those who look at your life and your literary career and can't imagine that there are many bad parts.
The good parts are only really good because you have the bad parts. Otherwise, you wouldn't know the difference. You wouldn't be quite so appreciative of the good.
The bad times--and I've had my share--are almost invariably the places where I've learned crucial lessons. In fact, I'd say that the bad parts should be embraced more, even though you really don't feel like that when you're suffering.
After a while, you begin to see how the lessons come out of the bad, which makes you grateful for the pain you've endured. You learn to accept that one day you'll be famous, the next day infamous. One day you'll be rich, the next day poor. One day people will think you're great, the next day they'll think you're terrible. And this is just the stuff of life. Life is not bright, cheerful, and sunny all the time. The wise ones know this.
But this is the lesson that seems hardest for Westerners to understand. People think that when something goes "wrong," it's their fault. If only they had done something differently. But sometimes things go wrong to teach you what is right.
The way I see it, life is about growth, struggle, and trying to expand your love of self and of other people. Also to really try hard not to cause harm--to cultivate a way of life that is harmless. This is likely to take all your energy for your entire life. And if you harm some folks along the way, well, that's why the apology was born.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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