The “PBS American Masters” Interview
with Kam Williams
Alice Walker has been defined as one of the key international writers of the 20th Century. She made history as the first African-American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction as well as the National Book Award in 1983 for her novelThe Color Purple —
one of the few literary books to capture the popular imagination and leave a permanent imprint. The award-winning novel served as the inspiration for Steven Spielberg’s 1985 film and was adapted for the stage, opening at New York City’s Broadway Theatre in 2005, and capturing a Tony Award for best leading actress in a musical in 2006.
An internationally celebrated author, poet and activist, Alice’s books include seven novels, four collections of short stories, four children’s books, and volumes of essays and poetry. She has written many other best sellers, too, among them, Possessing the Secret of Joy (1992), which detailed the devastating effects of female genital mutilation and led to the 1993 documentary Warrior Marks, a collaboration with the British-Indian filmmaker Pratibha Parmar, with Walker as executive producer.
In 2001, Alice was inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame and, in 2006, she was honored as one of the inaugural inductees into the California Hall of Fame. In 2007, her archives were opened to the public at Emory University.
In 2010, she presented the keynote address at The 11th Annual Steve Biko Lecture at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, and was awarded the Lennon/Ono Grant for Peace, in Reykjavik, Iceland. Alice donated the financial award to an orphanage for the children of AIDS victims in Kenya.
She has served as a jurist for two sessions of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine, and writes a regular blog on her website: www.alicewalkersgardens.com. Here, she talks about her career and about the documentary “Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth” which premieres on PBS’ American Masters series on Friday, February 7th at 9 p.m. ET/PT (check local listings)
Kam Williams: Hi Alice. I’m so honored to have this opportunity to interview you.
Alice Walker: Oh, I’m so glad to be talking with you, too, Kam.
KW: The only time I came close to meeting you before now was back in the Eighties one summer, when I was invited to a party out in the Hamptons that you were rumored to be attending.
AW: Oh, I did have a few friends near there, one in Montauk, another on Fire Island. But oh, that was a long time ago.
KW: I’ll be mixing in my questions with some from readers. Harriet Pakula-Teweles asks: how do you feel about having the biopic coming out about you?
AW: Well, it’s very interesting because I almost never do anything for Black History Month, because I feel it’s just another way to separate us. It’s amusing to me that it would be coming out as a Black History presentation on PBS. But on the level of the film, I like it. And I love the producer [Shaheen Haq] and the filmmaker [Pratibha Parmar]. I think they were incredibly devoted. They did it on a hope and a prayer, and at one point had to rely on crowd-sourcing because of the huge expenses.
KW: I learned so much about you from the film. For instance, I was surprised to hear that Howard Zinn had been a professor of yours in college.
AW: He was already teaching at Spelman when I arrived as a freshperson. Then, I took his class the following year, because I had gone to the Soviet Union and wanted to learn more about Russia, and I think he was the only person in all of Atlanta who knew anything about Russian literature, which I loved. He was teaching Russian literature, the language, and some of the politics. We became really good friend when I took his class, but then he was fired.
KW: For doing more than just teaching.
AW: He helped us desegregate Atlanta. That was moving because he took a lot of abuse for that. He and Staughton Lynd, a fellow professor who was also from the North, stood with us. They were certainly behind us. In fact, they often stood in front of us. This had a huge impact on me. But one of the reasons I was very careful about speaking about the relationship I had with him and Staughton was because, in a racist society, if you acknowledge a deep love for and a deep debt owed to white teachers, they tend to discredit your own parents and your own community. And I was very unhappy about that because I come from somewhere and from specific black people in the South, including my parents, who built our first school, and rebuilt it after it was burned to the ground. And they used to bake pies and cakes to raise money to keep it going. So, I learned to struggle from a very early way in a way that was truly indigenous to the South. You have to keep at it! [Chuckles]
KW: The film also left me with an appreciation of your deep connection to nature. I have that, too. I go for a walk in the woods every day. It’s very spiritual to me.
AW: The forest is the first cathedral. I felt that from the time I was a child. I credit my mother with that. I used to think it came from her Native-American side. Whichever it was, she instinctively connected with nature, and taught me that. Church just could not hold my spirit. It was a beautiful, little church, too. As sweet as could be. It was at a bend in the road, with a big, oak tree sheltering it. Still, I wandered right out the window, mentally and emotionally, got into the trees, and never left.
KW: Kate Newell says: I’m more than awestruck about this opportunity to ask you a question. How did you feel about the screen adaptation of The Color Purple?
AW: I was worried about the film at first, because I’d never had a movie made of any of my work on a big scale like that. There had only been a couple of small, student efforts before that. The Color Purple was so overwhelming that I actually brought a magic wand to New York City for the premiere, and pointed it at the screen in the hope that movie didn’t embarrass all of us. Lo and behold, it turned out to be a beautiful picture. The audience was so into it, gracious and emotional, laughing when they should be laughing, crying when they should be crying. I got to feel it as a living work of art, as something useful. My interest in creating anything is that it be useful. People can love the beauty of it, but they should also use it to grow, to deepen.
KW: What was it like dealing with the blowback for the next several years coming from critics who said The Color Purple was anti-black men?
AW: It actually lasted for a decade. How could you imagine that people could be mad at you for so long? I felt a great deal of weariness. But because it wasn’t the first time that I had been heavily criticized, I learned that you just keep going and turn to other things. Which I did. I went on to write “The Temple of My Familiar” which may be my favorite of my novels, because it was a miraculous gift that I had no idea how I got it. I had a dream one night that I went down into a non-existent sub-basement of my little house in Brooklyn. There was a trap door and I went down further and found these indigenous South American people speaking Spanish and making all these incredible things. I didn’t speak a word of Spanish but I sensed that I was being guided to a new focus. And to make a long story short, I ended up going to Mexico, I learned one word, “leche,” which means milk, and I started writing this novel. So, the blowback, in a way, faced me in a new direction which was very interesting.
KW: Attorney Bernadette Beekman asks: What did you think of the stage version of The Color Purple?
AW: I so loved working with the musicians. It was just wonderful! It was great and I felt like it was such a tonic for people to see it.
KW: Dinesh Sharma says: In my new book, “The Global Obama,” Professor Ali Mazrui refers to the President as a “great man of history.” Professor Henry Louis Gates of Harvard agrees. You have written several essays about Barack Obama. How do you feel about his presidency thus far?
AW: I’m very disappointed in Obama. I was very much in support of him in the beginning, but I cannot support war. I cannot support droning. I cannot support capitulating to the banks. I cannot support his caving in to Netanyahu [Israeli Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu]. There’s a long list of this administration’s initiatives that I find unsupportable. I think many black people support him because they’re so happy to have handsome black man in the White House. But it doesn’t make me happy if that handsome black man in the White House is betraying all of our traditional values of peace, peoplehood, caring about strangers, feeding the hungry, and not bombing children. I’m very disappointed. More than disappointed, I think I’ve actually returned to a kind of realism about how the world works. That’s helpful. Because in a way, no matter who’s in charge of the corporation that the United States is, the direction in which it is taken seems to be inexorable. So, you just get the job of being the front man for four or eight years. Now, most people realize that’s what you are.
KW: Talking about being a good or bad president is like talking about being a good or bad rapist.
AW: [LOL] That’s a very good thought.
KW: I think the black community sort of got checkmated in terms of its own agenda. And very vocal folks who try to hold Obama accountable are having their blackness questioned or their blackness revoked, like Tavis Smiley.
AW: That’s okay. It’s better to have your blackness taken away than to stand there and lie about who you actually are. That’s the trap. In fact, Cynthia McKinney just sent me a piece by somebody about how, for the first time in history, black people are supporting the wars, the military strikes on Syria, and other awful things, as if they woke up and became entirely different people. It’s totally distressing! Look at the NDAA [The National Defense Authorization Act], look at the Patriot Act, look at the NSA, and the ruthless droning of civilians. I pretty much lost it when they droned the grandmother who was teaching her grandchildren how to pick okra. It seems to me the ones who are the real threat are the ones who are in power.
KW: Film director Rel Dowdell asks: Did Danny Glover fully personify the character Mister in The Color Purple?
AW: No. I love Danny, and he did a good job, but no. Mister is a small man. Danny is huge! And that matters, because what I was showing was how even a small man can be a terrorist in the home because of all the patriarchal weight that he brings to any situation. That would’ve been very powerful. In a way, making Mister so big undercut that message because we’re kind of afraid of big people anyway, because they take up so much room. I felt that at times there wasn’t enough subtlety in his abuse of Celie and her sister, Nettie, because what I’ve discovered and observed is that often it’s the subtle oppression that deeply wounds the soul. The parting for instance, which is so horrendous, where Nettie leaves, and is forced out by Mister. In the novel, that’s handled with a lot of restraint. Filmed with that restraint it would’ve been just as powerful, even with a little Mister, just by virtue of his being a man and having patriarchy as his backup.
KW: Are you interested in writing your own screenplay?
AW: At this point, no, because I have gone back to writing poetry, which I absolutely love. And I write on my blog, which I enjoy. And life being what it is, every once in a while I’ll have a book which will have developed without my actually having paid that much attention to that part of it. I’m really only interested in each day’s gift.
KW: I was struck by something you said in Beauty in Truth: “The pain we inflict on children is the pain we later endure as a society.”
AW: Boy, is that scary, when you consider what we’re doing to children all over the planet. They’re the ones who are truly being terrorized by all the madness adults are perpetrating.
KW: Generational warfare. In the U.S., we even have it here between the prison industrial complex and the indentured servitude of the young via college loans they can never repay.
AW: They’re supposed to be slaves. And those that aren’t just slaves, can become drug addicts. And the drug addicts that are caught get put into the prison system to make a profit for the people who own the prisons. It’s all worked out.
KW: Novelist and short story writer Suzan Greenberg was wondering whether you had any idea that your short story “Everyday Use” would be so widely anthologized?
AW: I did not, and I’m puzzled that it is, because it’s not the story that I would’ve picked to be anthologized so widely. I think it’s chosen partly because it reinforces some people’s notions of the Deep South, Southerners and black people. That story has its own power, but it also permits a kind of distance, as if it happened in the far past. I think that’s why people use it opposed to more gritty stories like “Advancing Luna“ or “Laurel,” which come out of the struggle in the South in the Sixties but are very modern in terms of their sense of white and black people grappling with issues of interracial rape and interracial love. I think it’s hard for people to read those stories as dispassionately.
KW: Editor/Legist Patricia Turnier says: You have been a successful authoress for decades. Only about a dozen female laureates have won the literature Nobel Prize since its inception. Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin had to adopt the pseudonym George Sand to become a French novelist and memoirist. Historically, it has been difficult for women to thrive in the literary world and the word “writeress” has been excluded or erased from some dictionaries. How can we break the glass ceiling as authoresses and have our voices heard more?
AW: You can start by not tacking that “ess” onto the end of everything, because you’re either a poet or you’re not, and either a writer or not. You don’t have to accept someone else’s idea that you need to have a tail that shows that you’re wearing a dress. [LOL] You are what you are. If you’re an actor, you’re an actor. You don’t have to be an actress. As far as a glass ceiling, I feel that all you can do is give it your absolute best with whatever gifts the universe has given you. And if you make it in some way that other people can recognize, that’s fine. But even if you don’t quote-unquote make it, you’re fine, if you’ve given it your whole heart and soul. You’re totally in sync with your purpose and with the universe. And that’s fine.
KW: Patricia also says, you learned to read at a very young age. You were in the first grade when you were four years-old. Illiteracy is still an ongoing issue around the world. Do you think that exposing a child as early as possible to education can be a determinant in decreasing the level of illiteracy on a global scale?
AW: I know from having had a child, and from having been a child myself, that children will copy you. So, the best way to get them to read, is to read. The best way to get them to do anything is to do it yourself, and they will absolutely copy you. That way, you don’t have to worry about what’s supposedly age appropriate, a child will pick something up when the child is ready.
KW: It was heartbreaking in Beauty in Truth to hear you talk about being estranged from your daughter. It was very touching.
AW: Hmmm… I like hearing that it was moving, and provocative in a way, because these things do happen to us. The very thing you think will never happen to you, happens! And then you get to see, oh, that’s because life is alive! [LOL]
KW: Toni Banks says: Thanks for “Meridian.” It’s my favorite work of yours. She asks, was the novel biographical fiction?
AW: Not really. There was a young woman in SNCC [the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee] whose name was Ruby Doris [Smith-Robinson]. She was someone I didn’t really know, but I heard about how she was having such a really hard time with the men in the organization. That was one of my early introductions to patriarchal behavior which undermines progress. If the men are going to try to keep the women down, everybody’s going to be stuck back there somewhere. So, she was a person I was thinking about, and I also wanted to write about the sort of spiritual and inspirational work that a lot of people in the movement were doing.
KW: Reverend Florine Thompson says: Thank you for making the color purple the sacred. If there was no color purple, what other color might you drape yourself in?
AW: Well, I don’t really drape myself in purple, although people have sent me some of everything in purple. So, I get purple shawls and coats and hats and bathrobes and boots… You could pick any color, although purple is kind of rare. The point about the color purple is just that to really see a color is so remarkable! Anything that you can see that is beautiful is a gift. Blue… green… black… yellow… All these colors are amazing.
KW: Reverend Thompson also asks: What’s the most important thing you’ve found in your mother’s garden?
AW: Patience, because what gardening teaches us is that if you plant things, they’ll come up. But you have to be willing to wait for them to bear fruit because things are seasonal.
KW: Finally, Rev Thompson asks: What advice might you offer young adolescent females searching for positive self-identity?
AW: Love yourself. Just love yourself. In fact, the love of the self cures every kind of problem you have with yourself. For instance, if someone calls you nappy-headed, it rolls right off your body, if you love nappy hair.
Or if someone calls you buck-toothed or too black, that won’t be a problem if you love being buck-toothed or black. If you love it, then so what. The development of self-love cures many of the ills that people suffer from.
KW: Thanks again Alice, it’s been a privilege.
AW: Thank you, Kam