Since her Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Color Purple” appeared in 1982, the novelist and poet Alice Walker has been one of best-known black women in American literature. Although none of her books has matched “The Color Purple” in cultural impact — though her later novels “The Temple of My Familiar” (1989) and “Possessing the Secret of Joy” (1992) were bestsellers — Walker has maintained a high profile in American life as a globe-trotting, fiercely outspoken human rights and political activist.
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In two new collections, “The Cushion in the Road” (essays) and “The World Will Follow Joy” (poems), Walker, now 69, recounts her far-flung travels and celebrates her heroes, including the Dalai Lama and former President Jimmy Carter. She also pursues several causes, including her opposition to the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba and what she regards as the government's uncritical support of Israel, which she has accused of practicing "apartheid" in its treatment of Palestinians.
Printers Row Journal caught up with Walker for a phone interview from her home in Berkeley, Calif., before her recent appearance in Chicago sponsored by Women & Children First Bookstore. Here's an edited transcript of our chat.
Q: You've always traveled a lot, but as you say in "The Cushion in the Road," when you reached the age of 60, you thought maybe it was time to stay put. But it didn't happen.
A: You know, my freshman year in college, in 1962, took me to the Soviet Union, and I've been traveling since then. But when I reached 60, I thought I'd seen about as much of the world that I wanted to see, and I just felt like staying on my meditation cushion. But there I was, on my cushion, and Gaza was bombed (in 2008), and Barack Obama was on the verge of possibly being elected president, and the world seemed to be calling.
Q: And it didn't seem right to sit still?
A: It was a feeling of duty, in some way, to be present at some of these events. After all, the U.S. government supports Israel to the tune of (millions of dollars) a day — money that comes right out of our schools and hospitals and universities. And I don't like the thought of people bombing people. ... So, yes, I thought, "The least I can do is go there, as soon as I can get myself up off my cushion."
Q: Your cushion is portable, fortunately.
A: Well, it has to be. Think about the Dalai Lama and how portable his cushion has to be, and how he travels the world teaching — I hate the way people say "tirelessly," because it's not that. People do get tired. It's more truthful to say "devotedly." And he's a good example of someone who has to have his cushion in the road also.
Q: One of your poems in "The World Will Follow Joy" is about the Dalai Lama, who you admire for his optimism. In both of your new books, you're also surprisingly optimistic about the future.
A: I have a lot of faith in us. I have a lot of faith in humanity. It's based, though, on my own life; I've come too far to be a pessimist. Four hundred years ago, Nostradamus, the French mystic, predicted that we would have a nuclear war that would wipe out the West and much of the rest of the planet. But we are awakening, I think, remarkably well to our situation as citizens of this world, and that should help bring us closer together.
Q: Much of "The Cushion in the Road" is devoted to President Obama, about whom you were very excited early on. More recently, some of his supporters have become disillusioned. Do you still fully support him?
A: Of course not. How could I support someone who conducts drone warfare? How could I support someone who continues to support the Israeli practice of apartheid? How could I overlook the surveillance apparatus or the legislation he's signed which means that none of us can feel secure in our homes or anywhere else, because we could be snatched from our kitchens and taken to some gulag and nobody would have to be told anything about it? Of course, the president is part of the system, which is a very bad system that has never worked for most of the people — certainly not for black people, not for women, not for poor people.
Q: The American government, you mean?
A: Yes. It was put in place for rich white men who had property, and at that time, as you recall, black people were property. And it has never served us well. Everything we got, we got by basically dying for it, literally.
Q: If you look at Obama's total time in office, however, aren't there credits on the ledger as well as debits?
A: I would say that in this system, the credits can be snatched away from you overnight. Look at what happened (last month) with the Voting Rights Act. With a system like that, you just don't feel that you have a secure system behind you, and with you, and loving you. We don't have a feeling of being loved by the people who manage to get into positions of leadership. They get in there, they make a lot of money, and then they play games with us.
Q: Now you live part of the year in Mexico, and feel very comfortable there. Why?
A: They have a culture that's been developed over many hundreds of years, and it's expressed in everything, including Mexican food, which we all love, and which is both nutritionally balanced and inexpensive. Of course the drug situation is dreadful, and there's a lot of poverty, but there's also a remarkable human kindness and human dignity there, a gentleness and a presentness that's lacking in our culture, for the most part. People meet your eyes on the street. There's a warmth in the people, and they're holding on to it as best they can.
Q: You went there originally because —?
A: The characters in "The Temple of My Familiar" started speaking to me in Spanish, which I didn't know a word of. And that led me to go there and start leaning Spanish — which I'm still not at all very good at, but I can manage with people who are patient.
Q: I suppose you'd have to know some of the language if your characters were speaking it.
A: Well, I felt it would be disrespectful if I didn't at least make the effort.
Q: Another Spanish-speaking place you have a feeling for is Cuba. You've visited there and met Fidel Castro, I think.
A: Twice, yes. I like him a lot.
Q: Of course, many people have negative feelings about him. Is he just misunderstood?
A: Well, propaganda is amazing. People can be led to believe anything. But in Cuba, they had a revolution, so that the poor people would have a chance at education, at health care and so on. And the government of Cuba has always invited people to come and see what they were doing. Increasingly, people are doing just that. Even people in my own family, who misguidedly thought the way many Americans did, have started going to Cuba on vacation, and they love it. It's astonishing. All I can say, really, is that when you're feeling negative about people, go and see them.
Q: How was your visit with Castro?
A: Very nice. Of course, he's really old now, despite something like 648 attempts on his life.
When I met him in the 1990s, he was full of energy, very smart, well-versed in history, a great sense of humor. I remember coming back from one of those visits and writing to Bill Clinton, who was president at the time. He had invited me to the White House, and I had declined because of the government's treatment of Cuba. And I wrote to Clinton that they should meet. They would have had a great time. They both love to talk! (Laughs.) They would have learned so much from each other. I mean, why can't people be grown-up enough, and brave enough, to just talk to each other? We'll never get anywhere without leaders capable of that.
Q: Another hot spot that you have become associated with is Israel and Palestine. You've taken some stands that have gotten you in trouble with supporters of Israel, some of whom have gone so far as to describe your views as anti-Semitic.
A: Yes, and it's ridiculous, such a pathetic charge. It's pretty low to say that someone is anti-Semitic because they're against violence, they're against the abuse of children.
Q: Do you have any optimism about peace in that part of the world?
A: I think the idea of a two-state solution is not a solution, because there's nothing left, really, for the Palestinian people to make a state out of, and be autonomous in any way. I think the only thing that can make an optimistic future for the region is for them all to live in one state, one country, as they did years ago. Historically, you know, the Jewish people and the Palestinians lived side by side in that culture, and they were friends, often. The prevailing narrative is that they were always enemies, but that isn't true.
Q: In "The World Will Follow Joy," you have a tribute to President Jimmy Carter and his wife. Carter has also drawn criticism for his comments about Israel, and I'm guessing that's one of the reasons you admire him.
A: Well, yes. He showed some real courage there. In the poem, I attribute part of his ability to show courage in that way to the fact that he was partly raised by a black woman. I think he was honoring the values he was raised with, just by saying what he thought about what's going on in Israel.
Q: Like you, he used the word "apartheid."
A: Yes. I mean, it's not like it's a secret. I've been there, I've seen it. I've stood under that wall [between Israel and Palestinian territory], I've been through the checkpoints with the people. They can't hide it.
Q: I can't leave you without asking about "The Color Purple," the book for which you're best known. The fact that it blew up, as we say these days — it became a cultural phenomenon, an iconic book, an iconic film, and later a hit Broadway musical — was obviously a great thing for you and your career, but was there any downside to that as well?
A: Have you ever heard that expression, "What other people think of me is none of my business"?
Q: Oh yes.
A: Well, that applies here. There's nothing I can do about how people perceive, what they think, which book they remember. So I don't try. I just feel that "The Color Purple," which was my 10th book, was a true gift from my ancestors. I was trying in that book to be with my grandparents, who died as part of a history that had been kept so shrouded. And I created this with their help. I loved them fiercely the whole time, and still do. And they loved me, too. And that's why everything else that has come after "The Color Purple" has been, in a way, supported and taken care of by this gift from the ancestors. I probably didn't need to write any other books, but with their help, I've been able to write 20 more.
Q: It was the gift that kept on giving.
A: (Laughs.) You could say that.
Kevin Nance is a Chicago-based freelance writer whose work appears in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Poets & Writers Magazine and elsewhere.
"The Cushion in the Road"
By Alice Walker, The New Press, 362 pages, $26.95
"The World Will Follow Joy"
By Alice Walker, The New Press, 189 pages, $21.95Copyright © 2015, CT Now