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.