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In Conversation with Alice Walker

The author of "The Color Purple" reads three of her poems and answers reader questions about her work, life, and views on society.

On February 9, 1944, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker was born in Georgia. Walker lived under Jim Crow laws that were present during that time in the South. But her parents resisted such segregation, refusing to subject their children to working in the fields for white plantation owners. Growing up listening to stories her grandfather would tell, Walker began writing when she was just eight years old. 

She published her first poetry collection, Once, in 1968, and her debut novel The Third Life of Grange Copeland in 1970. In 1982, she published her award-winning novel The Color Purple. The iconic book follows Celie, an African-American girl living in Georgia during the 1930s. 

The Color Purple Collection

By Alice Walker

Apart from her impressive writing career, Walker is also an activist. Her activism dates back to the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s. Though she left the South to finish college at Sarah Lawrence, Walker later returned to register black voters—a decision which she credits to Martin Luther King Jr., whom she met while in school. Walker continues to be an advocate for many marginalized groups today, and is credited with coining the term "womanism," which she defined in her 1983 collection In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Prose as a "a black feminist or feminist of color." According to Walker, womanism allows feminists of color to have a "word of our own."  

From her early days of writing poetry, to her Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winning masterpiece The Color Purple, to today, Alice Walker is an inspiration to us all. Below, the author answers questions from fans while reading some of her stirring poetry. 



Read a transcription of the conversation with Alice Walker below.

Alice Walker: This is Alice Walker, and I am visiting the Facebook campus in Menlo Park in California today, and I will be speaking with you for awhile. I’ll also be reading some poetry for you. The first poem I’m going to read to you is called “Every Revolution Needs Fresh Poems.” Because I think this is a time of revolution in our country and people are feeling the need for poetry because it is poetry that leads us in these times of change. 

Every revolution needs fresh poems

that is the reason

poetry cannot die.

It is the reason poets

go without sleep

and sometimes without lovers

without new cars

and without fine clothes

the reason we commit

to facing the dark

and

resign ourselves, regularly, to the possibility

of being wrong.

Poetry is leading us.

It never cares how we will

be held by lovers

or drive fast

or look good

in the moment;

but about how completely

we are committed

to movement

both inner and outer;

and devoted to transformation

and to change.

So that is a poem to help us think about being in a new place, a new landscape, politically and socially, in the country and in the world. For instance, there is a friend of mine who was arrested recently, and I was just listening to the radio I guess when I heard this, and so this is called “The Joyful News of Your Arrest.”

This Sunday morning everything

is bringing tears.

In church this morning

not a church anyone from my childhood

would

recognize

as church

a brother singing

ecstatic

about the bigness of love

and then this moment

news of your arrest

on the steps of the supreme court

a place of intrigue and distrust;

news of the illegal sign you carried

that you probably made yourself:

Poverty Is The Greatest Violence Of All.

Brother Cornel, Brother west.

what a joy it is

to hear this news of you.

That you have not forgotten

what our best people taught us

as they rose to meet their day:

not to be silent

not to fade into the shadows

not to live and die in vain.

But to glorify

the love that demands

we stand

in danger

shaking off

our chains.

This was a poem that I wrote for Cornel West, who always seems to be in the thick of the right battle.

This is a poem, if I can find it, about the Buddha’s disagreeable relative. Now, the thing is, we all, sometimes, well, most of us, have at least one disagreeable relative. And we wonder why, why do we have to have a disagreeable relative to basically make life really tough for us? And I’m saying in this poem that in a way it’s a good thing, and the Buddha, you know, had a disagreeable relative, and he found out that was a good thing for him.

Even Buddha, the Enlightened One, 

had a disagreeable relative.

I learned this while on retreat

in the homeland of

notable tough relatives:

in the state of Texas

U.S.A

Although it doesn’t really matter 

where we learn

the bit of news that helps us.

We are grateful!

I think I learned he was a cousin, maybe a nephew

of Gautama

but anyhow

he hated Buddha,

Lied about him, made up stories,

Stole Buddha’s stuff: one of his cloaks, his best begging bowl, maybe, 

or a couple of his walking sticks

How much stuff does a Buddha own 

after all?

Why should the Buddha of all people

even need a disagreeable relative?

our teacher asked.

He was from Harvard University

in new England

where there are

as many notable disagreeable relatives 

as in texas

and where one imagines

talk of the Buddha

must take an elegant academic twist and evasive turn.

but to the sufferer in the trenches

of familial acrimony

and abuse

the only answer

must be this:

no one is exempt

and certainly not a Buddha

from the need to balance 

enlightenment

with the head bowing despair

of daily practice.

So now we can spend some time together looking at your questions, and thinking about what you would like to ask, and what I would like to speak to you about.

So someone is wanting to know if I always intended to write in a style that was approachable for the general reader. And I think they must mean The Color Purple because that is the book that most people have read, and it is written in what I consider folk speech. You know, regular country people speech. And I wrote it partly to remember what it sounds like because my grandparents spoke in that speech, but it was disappearing even when I was a child. They would die and that way of speaking would be lost, and I wanted to remember it, and so I wanted to write a novel in that speech so that I could enjoy it and anyone reading the book could enjoy it.

Someone else wants to know if I liked the film of The Color Purple, and I did not in the beginning. I thought it was terrible. It was like a big fat cartoon to me, and I think that was because Steven Spielberg, the director, who is so wonderful, had hired an entire theater for me to see it in, and I had only two other people to see it with me. So there we sat in this huge theater and the film just overwhelmed us. It was so huge. It wasn’t until I went to the opening in New York City with many people, a couple of thousand I think, and people were laughing and crying, and I could really feel the spirit and the magic of it, and then I started to like it a lot. 

in conversation with alice walker
  • Still from The Color Purple (1985)

  • Photo Credit: Warner Bros.

Reader Question: What can we do to promote the work of an established black woman writer and develop their careers?

Alice Walker: I think a lot of black women writers are established, and are doing very well. The best thing you can do for any writer or artist that you love is buy their work and promote it. Talk about it, discuss it, have circles where that’s what you do. We all need that kind of attention especially when we’re younger. We need people to recognize that we are coming along and that we have something to say that will help the entire culture.

Reader Question: How can we save our country from these crazy politics? 

Alice Walker: I have a feeling that the United States is about to get a big dose of its own karma. And with our history, it’s not surprising that we are where we are with these “crazy politicians” because we’ve had insane politicians for hundreds of years. And before that, just insane people generally killing Indians and enslaving Black people, abusing women, enslaving children. I mean, you know, this is America, so we are basically seeing in some of the politicians now the same people that actually, when I was growing up in the South, we thought that was all there were. We thought all the people who looked like those people were like that because that’s how they treated Black people. Terribly, with lynchings and beatings and all kinds of horrors. 

Reader Question: What does a woman’s future look like?

Alice Walker: A woman’s future, first of all, is really inclusive and it realizes that we have to have this incredible struggle to keep the masculine from forever trying to dominate the feminine, but it’s not necessarily about separation. You may have to take a break. There will always be men that you love, boys that you appreciate, but your loyalty which is very, very necessary for any kind of advancement, is with women and girl children primarily because we are so under attack anywhere in the world.

I’m reading a book now out of India called The Town of Love, which is really a place that, for as long as anyone can remember, the occupation there has been that the men literally kidnap and sell their daughters and their wives into prostitution. I have a friend who is fighting that, and it is an uphill battle because this is all they’ve known, and they just think it’s the way it should be. So we have endless work to do, and part of our work is to see what is happening and not be afraid of it, not run away from it and not pretend that it’s not happening.

"The best thing you can do for any writer or artist that you love is buy their work and promote it."

Reader: Question: What is your favorite book?

Alice Walker: Oh, goodness. My favorite book changes a lot. You know, I might say the I Ching. That’s what comes to mind at the moment because I think of the I Ching as being very much like a person - like a very old wise person that you can ask any question and you get a useable answer. But there are many, many more.

For instance, I just read When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, and it is fantastic. He was a neurosurgeon who became sick himself and eventually died, but he wrote about this passage from being a surgeon who healed to being himself sick. And what that was like from the other side. He discovered that once you are sick, and the caregivers and doctors recognize you as a sick person, often a lot of the civility you might have had from them as a surgeon, you no longer have. They treat you more like a thing, which is no surprise for some of us who have been through the system of medicine here. It is a wonderful book.

My favorite author–I don’t know if I have a favorite author. I mean, I love James Baldwin, and I love Ernest Hemingway. I just saw this incredible new film about Ernest Hemingway in Cuba which I highly recommend. He was someone who I knew that he had fought in Spain against Franco, who was the dictator at this time long ago, I mean I wasn’t even born I don’t think. But Ernest Hemingway was over there trying to help Americans understand what was going on, but he also, years later, lived in Cuba, and turned out to be a friend of the Cuban revolution which I had not know and it makes me really, really appreciate him so much more. He’s a writer that can really help you learn to write decent sentences. So if you ever want to write really well, I wouldn’t send you to his novels because they can be really long and complicated, but go to his short stories. He wrote the most exquisite short stories. Really beautiful short stories, and they will help you become a better writer. 

Reader Question: Who inspired Lissy from The Temple of My Familiar?

Alice Walker: You know, I’m not really sure. That whole book was magical. It just a gift that I received after completing The Color Purple to the satisfaction to the people in the book. I woke up one day and decided I wasn’t going to write this novel because (A) I didn’t speak Spanish, and (B) I was just tired. And so I went to sleep and I dreamed this whole long dream in which everyone was speaking Spanish then I got a tutor to teach me Spanish. I was a terrible student. Anyhow, I ended up in Mexico where I live part of the year now, and I’ve been there for 20-something years. My Spanish is still terrible, but at least I got to write The Temple of My Familiar, and I think the Spanish that’s in there, which is very little Spanish, I hope is correct. 

This is a question about whether characters are related to people I know, and sometimes they are. But it’s more people who are no longer with us, you know, like my grandparents. I felt that they were totally okay with me trying to understand who they were. I lived with them for awhile when I was eight years old, and I loved them so much, but it’s hard to understand really old people when you’re really young. There are all these stories about them and so The Color Purple is my way of bringing them back to life and spending time with them when they were younger and I hadn’t been born. That’s one of the magical things about creativity. You can just bend time, you can bend it, and live in it and just have the most wonderful experiences in it. 

Reader Question: What is the meaning of The Temple of My Familiar?

Alice Walker: The Temple of My Familiar is that your freedom is the temple of your spirit. Your spirit is your familiar, and freedom is its temple. And that’s about as succinctly as I can put it because it is a very long novel, and it has a lot of complexity.

"Part of our work is to see what is happening and not be afraid of it, not run away from it and not pretend that it’s not happening."

Reader Question: Who in your life understands you the most?

Alice Walker: That’s a really good question. I have no idea. I’ve loved and lived with many people. We’ve had wonderful times and I’ve had a very rich life, but I can’t honestly say that I think even the people I’m related to, even very intimately, really know me at all, actually. I think that when you create a lot. I mean, I’ve written and published now 30 books, and that has meant a certain not-being-there-ness to my daughters for instance, my husband, my lovers. I don’t know. I mean, it’s the price you pay I think. 

in conversation with alice walker
  •  Alice and Melvyn with their daughter, Rebecca, who would also grow up to become a writer, in 1970. 

  • Photo Credit: Open Road Media

This is about including theology and religion, I think it’s really important. I think we have to really interrogate our theology and our religion. The inherited kind. In other words, I think it’s possible to figure out how you feel about life, how you feel, you know, about the creator, or the dao, or whatever. You don’t always have to freely follow the tradition of your parents and your grandparents, and their parents and their grandparents because suppose that’s not who you are. Suppose your spirit is from some other star even.

So I’m always in almost all of my work looking at revolution, looking at religion, I’m looking at theology. And I’m asking these questions about all of it - about love and relationships and about partnerships, about marriage. I mean, what’s the deal with marriage. I mean, really. You have to really think about these things or you might end up doing a lot of joining yourself to people and movements and stuff only to discover 30 years later that was really not you, and then you’ll be very sad and you would have lost a lot of time. 

Reader Question: Is there one story you have yet to write about? Maybe one you’re struggling with?

Alice Walker: I think so, but you know, I will have to keep struggling in silence. No so much in secret, but I don’t talk about things I haven’t done. I find that if you talk about the things you haven’t done, for me anyway, you make them much less likely to happen. Because I think the brain starts to think ‘oh, we’ve already covered that’ and you go on to something else. 

My favorite place to write. Do I have a special place? I like to write in bed. I have written so many long books in bed. I’ve stopped sleeping in it now because it was not that comfortable, but I found this incredibly beautiful old Edwardian bed with a high headboard, and I could put lots of pillows behind me and it was just heaven, you know, to sit in bed and write with a cup of tea on a rainy day. Ah, bliss. 

Does food ever inspire your work? What about animals? Animals, a lot. Not so much food I don’t think. I haven’t noticed. I’ll have to look.

What would I say to Zora Neale Hurston today is she were alive? I would say thank you. Thank you so much for being such a brilliant, alive, vibrant, giving, saucey, elegant adventurer. She was an adventurer in every cell of her body, and she was a free person, and I would thank her for leaving us that example. 

The biggest impact on my writing life. Howard Zinn had a big impact on my life. Not so much my writing life, I think, but more so my political life, my social life. Muriel Brookhiser at Sarah Lawrence was a big influence on my poetry. She helped my publish my first book. 

What do I think makes a great novel, a short story, a poem? Probably sincerity – beyond craft and beyond actually making the thing work. It is sincerity. Because if something is false, it’s useless. If you try to write something and you start then you start again and start again and it still doesn’t come to life, it’s better probably to retire it because it will probably not ever be the medicine. Good writing is medicine for you and that’s why you should always remember to read good books because, you know, it can not be medicine if you don’t take care. 

Reader Question: How does you writing encourage boys to read and be rounded individuals?

Alice Walker: Well, in everything I write, there is that factor. Not that I’m trying to single out the masculine or the boys, but I want to pay attention to boys and men because it’s important to me to show that there can be a range of emotions in men like tenderness, kindness, patience, solidarity with the feminine in women and in themselves.

So you see this a lot in Possessing the Secret of Joy which is about a practice that is very difficult to even think about, female genital mutilation, but there is a character in that book. Two boys who grew up to be incredible thoughtful and sensitive men who care about women, and by extension, care about world culture because these atrocities that are done to people don’t stay in the tribe, whatever the tribe is. They travel and so they end up affecting all of us.

in conversation with alice walker
  • Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston during her days in New York City. Hurston, who fell into obscurity after her death, had a profound influence on Walker. Indeed, Walker’s 1975 essay, “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston,” played a crucial role in resurrecting Hurston’s reputation as a major figure in American literature.  

  • Photo Credit: Open Road Media
"The Color Purple is my way of bringing [my grandparents] back to life..."

Reader Question: Will you write about today’s challenges in the world? What do you think they are? 

Alice Walker: Militarism. The challenges are nuclear, a disaster. I don’t know how we bear it actually. I mean, we pretend, I think, that’s it’s not there, but it really is there and there’s a feeling of being held hostage. With the way that our country is unfortunately a very militaristic one. It sends us all, a lot of us anyways, into the streets to demonstrate or to write about how we disagree with the policies of our country. I, myself, travel a bit. I go to Gaza, or I go to places where people are being treated more abominably than you can even imagine. Just sometimes to say ‘I know what is happening’ is not, even if I believe that I can’t change very much because I’m only one person even if I’m in a group. Just to let people know that you see them and you stand with them–this is important. 

How often do I write? Sometimes I write everyday, kind of, but not like I used to. Now I write mostly on my website, Alice Walker’s Garden. And the reason it’s called Alice Walker’s Garden is because it comes from In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens. The idea there is that when you really look for the passion that your mother pursued, you often can find your own because the main thing is that you can identify what passion is, and the fulfillment you get from a creative passion. 

My mother’s passion was her garden. It was a literal garden. She worked very hard for someone else for all of her days, but in the evening she would come and she would work in her own garden. And I saw this passion that she had, and I wanted that. But my garden, Alice Walker’s Garden, is a different kind of garden. My garden is political, my garden is social, my garden is literature, is poetry. It’s this kind of work that I do.

But it was because I saw and went in search of my mother’s garden which just transformed her from this tired, beaten-down person to this woman who was this great creative genius. Her gardens were spectacular. That’s what I wanted, I wanted to know how to do that. So while I was searching for what her garden was, I found mine. Mine is to connect with people through my writing. 

Why did I write Now is the Time to Open Your Heart? Because now is the time to open your heart by any means necessary. So the people in this book are doing all kinds of things. They go on a journey around the world, to different parts in the world, and the woman goes to do plant medicine, a plant medicine called ayahuasca [or iowaska], in the jungles of Peru. And the man goes to Hawaii, and he thinks he’s going on a vacation to Hawaii, but as many people know Hawaii is the last place you should really be going for a vacation because of what has been done to it by the United States, and the Dole company and all the people planting the pineapples, and destroying the dirt. I mean, it’s a long colonial story. 

Reader Question: Do you remember the first book you read?

Alice Walker: No, I don’t. An early book was Gulliver’s Travels, though, and Jane Eyre, and I think Charles Dickens and I actually struggled through some Shakespeare in high school. Because my father found some books somewhere and every book he found, he brought home and we tried to read it. I am so grateful to him for knowing that we really were people that could connect to other worlds. 

Is there anything that I would like to see taught to children or college students that is missing from the curriculum today?

I haven’t looked at the curriculum, but I have a feeling there’s a lot missing. I really do. And you are responsible, I mean all of us, really, for making sure that the curriculum that we want is at least in our bookshelves. That we have learned from each other the nourishment that we need in our minds and in our hearts and in our spirits and we have to provide that for ourselves and for our children. We can do that. That’s one of the wonderful things about Facebook and all these other ways of connecting – that you can learn from each other ways to make yourself grow and to be a lot stronger and healthier than we have been in the world.

Do I think reading books can solve the problem of the age of distraction? Do I think people are so busy with their phones they’re not seeing what’s around them?

Well, there again, on my watch and on my website part of what I do is I mention great books and I mention great films because that is part of our responsibility. If you see someone around you who can’t seem to stop playing games on their computer or whatever they have, then try to give them something that will distract them long enough to connect them to a real world that is of real use to them. 

So, I really loved this conversation, and I’m really glad that we spent this time together. I hope that it has been really useful to you. Take care. 

This post is sponsored by Open Road Media. Thank you for supporting our partners, who make it possible for Early Bird Books to continue publishing the book stories you love.

Featured image: Alchetron 

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