Well, aren't you a parasite for sore eyes.
She is best-known as the Pulitzer-prize winning author who wrote “The Color Purple.” A quarter-century later, Alice Walker is still a prolific writer and activist. She chats with Kojo about her recent work, including a book of poetry, “Hard Times Require Furious Dancing,” a personal exploration of grief and unexpected joy.
- Alice Walker Writer, poet, activist, and author most recently of "Hard Times Require Furious Dancing" (New World Library, California)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIShe's the Pulitzer Prize winning author of "The Color Purple," one of the first novels to examine the life of a poor rural southern black family from the perspective of a woman. She's been writing powerful work for decades, more than two dozen works of fiction and non-fiction. Her books weave the personal and the political through literary examination of war, feminism, spirituality. Her most recent book of poems explores the powerful experience of grief and finding joy after loss. She joins us from studios at the University of California's Berkley School of Journalism. Alice Walker is a Pulitzer prize winning author, most recently of a book of poems, "Hard Times Require Furious Dancing." Alice Walker, thank you very much for joining us.
MS. ALICE WALKERI'm very happy to be here. Thank you for inviting me.
NNAMDIWe just finished speaking with Ben Jealous of the NAACP of the challenges -- about the challenges of keeping the organization relevant for a new generation. You have a long political history. You were active in the civil rights movements, still are in the women's movement and international human rights movements. It's reflected in your work. Your latest book is titled "Hard Times Require Furious Dancing." Are the hard times you write about personal, political or both?
WALKERWell, I think for everyone they're both actually and then more, you know. It's very hard time. The planet is pretty sick of us being ungrateful. But this particular book -- and I would like -- just like to say about Ben Jealous...
NNAMDIPlease do. I was going to ask you about that.
WALKER... (unintelligible) yeah, I'd never heard him speak before and I completely admire his clarity and his energy. And I think he's absolutely right. It is past time for Americans to understand that unless we become one nation, we will fall. So I wrote "Hard Times Require Furious Dancing" because I was having a lot of hard times and so was, you know, everybody in the planet, and the animals, but I had lost five of my siblings.
NNAMDIYou are one of eight siblings.
WALKERI'm one of eight. And five have gone. And I lost my daughter and my grandson actually by -- you know, they didn't die, but I had given myself at least a B-plus as a mother and my daughter decided that I really deserved a F-minus. So she took off and I haven't seen my grandson. And so these are some of the things -- I don't think of this as just, you know, my area.
WALKERI think these are the sufferings of people. And, in fact, there's an epidemic now of children deciding that their parents are not really worth having. But in any case, what happens when you feel so bruised and so much as if, you know, everything is slipping away. And I came to this realization that, for me -- because I don't believe in any kind of violence. I think violence is so obsolete and it's just so messy, that I would hire a dance hall and I would hire a band.
WALKERAnd I would invite all my friends and people, you know, not friends, but people who like to dance and we would just dance. And so I think that that is one of the ways of dealing with our despair. And ancient cultures have understood this and that is why they have so much dance and music in all of their rituals.
NNAMDIWhat was the response of your family members and others to your call to dance?
WALKEROh, delight because I do give very good parties and I do do a lot of dancing and people love it, you know. I mean, really, if you could just -- when people are having a really mean day or evening and they want to rob people and hit them over the head and shoot them and all those things, if you could just somehow get them all together, turn on the music and have them dance, just dance in the street, they would feel so much better.
NNAMDII knew the answer to that question before I asked it, but I thought that our audience should also know it because the response to it was clearly very enthusiastic. You mentioned your grandson. And I've gone over all of the poems in this book and there's one called "Meeting You," on page 92 that I wonder if you'd be interested in reading for our audience because I think that has to do with your grandson.
WALKEROh, yes. Here it is on page 92. "Meeting you, kept from your birth, still I realize we will someday meet. Hello, you might begin the conversation. Are you my grandmother? And I, being your cheeky monkey twin, may reply, maybe. Or I might begin, yo, cute boy, are you my grandchild? And you, cautious Capricorn, might reply, it's possible. You will see, living as you do in the Aquarian age, when it is at last possible for mere thought to quickly transform the world, nothing will ultimately separate us, not space, not time, not unanticipated turbulence and discord.
WALKERLife keeps us apart now for a reason only it knows. Understanding this, we have only to endure a separation that instantly disappears whenever you or I smell a flower. Perhaps, like all gods in whom we must have trust, life, grandmother's god of choice, is simply testing us."
NNAMDIAlice Walker, reading the poem "Meeting You" from her latest book of poetry. It's called "Hard Times Require Furious Dancing." She joins us from studios at the University of California's Berkeley School of Journalism. She's a Pulitzer Prize winning author. And we're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. You can go to our website, kojoshow.org, if you have a question or comment for Alice Walker and raise it there or send us a tweet at kojoshow or an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
NNAMDIThe first time I interviewed you, Alice Walker, was many years ago and I was a single parent raising sons. And you advised me to make sure they had contact with the earth. I look again at "Hard Times Require Furious Dancing" and I see where you seem to have a strong affinity for farmers and anyone tied to the land. Is it tied to your spirituality?
WALKEROh, absolutely. How can you have -- well, for me, how could I have spirituality without being rooted in the earth and respecting it as the only goddess god that I actually feel I need. So I'm very happy I gave you that advice. And your son, I hope is healthy and well.
NNAMDIYes, they were. They are adult, 38 years old. They are twin sons and they are both doing very well.
NNAMDIBut one of my favorites is the poem about farmers. There's a metaphor that describes how you, yourself, are a farmer, one who, quoting here, "was born to grow alongside my garden of plants." Poems like this one.
WALKERYes. Would you like me to read that one?
NNAMDII would love it.
WALKEROkay. This is because I'm a farmer. But because I, you know, do other things, my little farm is little. And so people often say to me, well, you're not really a farmer. You're more like a gardener. But my history is farming. "Yes. I know. I am not a farmer. And you are not a gypsy or a king. Have you ever heard of poetic license? It is when, for instance, the poet writes buffaloes instead of buffalo, because their numbers are now so tiny and she does not want the remaining tiny herds to feel lonely. I claim farming ancestry, generations going back sometimes farther than I wish to look. All those Africans in their yam and cassava fields, the Indians and their corn and beans.
WALKERThe English and their collard plants. The Scotts, their what, crabgrass? Maybe oats. The Irish, their potatoes. The Elves their herbs. All killing themselves now by the thousands. Farmers killing themselves by their own calloused hands. Not just in India, where suicide among farmers is a leading cause of death, but in America, too, they are doing it. How can this be? And how can we bear the loss? So I claim them in myself. I am that. I, too, run after the earth as it disappears beneath my feet. I, too, mourn machines moving over her face without empathy or love of her. Even so, you are quite right. I am not a farmer, as most would think of it.
WALKERTilling my tiny plots of corn and beans, collards and squash, strawberries. Leaning more and more on the strength and youth of others as time moves on. No. I was born to grow alongside my garden of plants, poems like this one." And then, there follows a poem, which I can read if you wish, but it turns it in a completely different way.
NNAMDIYes. It's a non-metaphorical reference to the issues that farmers are facing. Yes. Please go ahead and read it, but that's going to be the last one. We have to keep something for our listeners to read after they get the book.
WALKEROh, no. No. No. Then let us leave this and talk.
NNAMDIOkay. Yes. Because the non-metaphorical reference to the issues farmers are facing is, in part, a result of the travels you have been taking around the world and what you have observed there, how difficult it is for farmers around the world because of how the world is changing.
WALKERWell, and they've been sold a bill of goods. They've been told that they can, you know, make their very tired soil perk up with, you know, chemical fertilizer, which basically ends up burning the soil and making it poorer. They've also been told to use really lethal amounts of chemical pesticide, which they can't afford. So the farmers become indebted and in huge debt and they often end up actually drinking the pesticide as a way to kill themselves. And I find -- I find this almost unbearable. Because of all the people on the planet, farmers are the ones at the root of life, in terms of feeding the world.
WALKERAnd I know that there is a discussion to be had about agriculture itself being so deadly for the planet. And that's a discussion that, you know, everyone should join because pretty soon all of us will be worried about what we're going to eat. Not just the people that we consider now, you know, the poor, like in Pakistan and Africa and India, but everywhere because the land that is tillable and is really able to feed us, is finite and it's running out.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Alice Walker. Her latest book of poems is called "Hard Times Require Furious Dancing." If you have questions or comments for Alice Walker about her work or her activism, you can call us. If you've seen the musical of "The Color Purple" or the movie, which we haven't yet discussed with Alice Walker, or read the book, you can also call us. 800-433-8850. Let's talk with Rachel in Arlington, Va. Rachel, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RACHELHi, thank you, Kojo. Ms. Walker, I just wanted to thank you personally. as a reader of your work. For -- whether you knew it or not, being there in a part of my life that was very difficult. I grew up in the south and had a pretty dark childhood. And all the sermons that I heard never touched anything until I read "The Color Purple." And I distinctly remember that part where Sugar is talking about if she cuts a tree, her arm would bleed and this infinite love that could help even the most ordinary human beings overcome the worst obstacles and become something new. And I would just like to know where you got that source of inspiration. Was there an event or something that occurred? You can't make up that kind of pain and rebirth without experiencing it firsthand.
WALKEROh, well -- mm-hmm. Well, life is full of lessons. That's the main thing life is for, I think. It's full of joy and it's full of lessons and, you know, of course it has a big bunch of disasters. But if you just live fully in the present with the marvelous nature of reality, I think your inner eye is opened quite wide. And so as a child, I was -- lived a lot of my time in solitude and I was in the countryside and I was well acquainted with the magic of, you know, of our existence.
WALKERAnd so to see people abuse each other and to try to control other people and, you know, the world itself, was blatantly wrong to me, even as a very small child. When I understood that you could actually -- instead of, you know, being brutal and coarse and mean, you could be happy and joyful and generous and you'd make a lot more people happy and you'd be happy.
NNAMDIRachel, thank you very much for your call. "The Color Purple" is now a Broadway musical touring the country. What do you think of the adaptation?
WALKERI like it.
WALKEROh, I do. And I like it because I worked very closely, of course, with Steven Spielberg and everybody to make the movie.
WALKERAnd I liked the movie, but they were a little hesitant about the lesbian issue, the love between Celie and Shug. And I thought that for our people, especially because there are, you know, these great fears that, you know, when people find out something quote "wrong with us," it will just mean they'll treat us worse. I mean, I think that's the foundation of the fear. So I wanted to affirm that basically, you know, all love is good and all love is of God, however you interpret, you know, your notion of what God is.
WALKERSo I was very happy to see that affirmed in the musical in just a delightful way so that even in Georgia and Alabama and Mississippi, you know, where people were not quite -- you know, they didn't know whether they really wanted to have this, you know, brought up, people ended up feeling very warmly and having much heart and much laughter about these people because they saw in them their own relatives. And when you see, in art, relatives, it means then that you can turn around and look at your own family in a very different way and embrace them.
NNAMDIAnd it's ironic, of course, that the musical of "The Color Purple" is out while your book of poetry is called "Hard Times Require Furious Dancing," you mentioned in the book that in response to the grief of losing family members, you have learned to dance. But then you say, not literally because I have learned to dance. It isn't that I didn't know how to dance before. Everyone in my community knew how to dance, even those with several left feet. It's been my observation that those with several left feet are often the best dancers. But you say you learned to dance in order to keep your balance. Can you explain that?
WALKERWell, you're right about the several left feet and that's worth actually taking a moment. Because in my culture, actually what people loved was not so much that you were a quote, you know, "good, perfect dancer," it's that you danced.
WALKERAnd that is, I think, what I -- I really get. I mean, I've been getting it every decade because, you know, life has been fairly tumultuous. But this -- this thing about understanding that we have in us this indomitable spirit and sometimes no matter what is happening, you know, you just get up and you move yourself. Well, it's like Bob Marley says, you know, get up, stand up.
WALKERYou know, and move your body, shake your locks and be this expression of the divine, you know, that you are. And it doesn't matter what's happening. You have this right because you exist. So I'm coming to your town, actually, soon in D.C.
NNAMDIOh, that's right. You're coming here this weekend. You're going to be at...
NNAMDI…Busboys and Poets.
WALKERBusboys and Poets.
NNAMDIOn October the 3rd. And you know what?
NNAMDIOctober the 2nd. This is Saturday, October 2. You know who you'll hear there also? Ben Jealous...
NNAMDI...is going to be there with you. So you'll get to both see and hear him on that occasion.
WALKERThat's really lovely.
NNAMDIHere is Tim in Rockville, Md. Tim, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TIMMs. Walker, I just wanted to say that I am eager to get a hold of this new book of poetry. While I love your fiction, "Meridian" and, of course, "The Color Purple," I've always emphasized your essays. I'm a college literature professor and I've always emphasized your essays and what a fabulous essayist you are. Things like, "In Search of our Mother's Gardens," or "Living by the Word." So seeing you in yet another genre is something I'm very excited about.
NNAMDIThis is a good thing, Tim. So you can...
TIMThat's my comment.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your comment. You've been traveling quite a bit these days, Alice Walker, Tibet, Gaza, Kerala, India are on your list. What are you doing in these places?
WALKERWell, in Burma, Myanmar, which, you know, the changed the name...
WALKER...to fool the people, but people were not fooled, I wanted very much to be close to Aung San Suu Kyi, even though I couldn't, you know, do anything without endangering other people. So I didn't do anything but ask -- finally find someone to drive me past her house. Aung San Suu Kyi is, to me, one of the great leaders of the world. And it is so shameful and sad and pathetic that we cannot free her. They have her locked away for a very good reason, you know. She is really a light of the world because she, in her years of house arrest and meditation, she has so much to teach us about true democracy and about morality and about actually forgiveness.
WALKERSo I traveled there to be close to her, to visit a culture that is amazing, even though they have this horrible dictatorship. They cannot wipe out a culture that is just steeped in Buddhism and the sacred. So that's one part of my travel.
NNAMDIGo ahead, please.
WALKERNo. The -- but another part on sort of the other direction is Rwanda and the Congo, the eastern Congo especially, where a lot of the people from Rwanda -- we have fled to. And just the incredible devastation of the land and of the people. And, you know, it's called the worst place on earth to be a woman, in the Congo.
NNAMDIThere is a severe rape crisis there.
WALKERSevere. And not only that, you know, just mutilations beyond anything that people can even hardly imagine. So to be brief, my journeys into Gaza, for instance, you know, after the Israeli bombardment, is -- it's about being a witness. Because when you cannot do -- you know, I would like to wipe out all war. I would like to make sure all the children have fresh water and clothing and schools. But if you can't do all of that and if you can go and witness and say, I am here, I see this, then I feel that that's worthwhile.
NNAMDIHere is Horace in Stafford, Va. Horace, your turn. Go ahead, please.
HORACEThank you, Kojo. Alice, I always -- a long time ago, I read a short story that you wrote and I have never been able to get beyond wondering what inspired you to write it. It's called, "To Hell with Dying."
NNAMDIAnd that really takes her back.
HORACEYeah. And well, that shows you how long I've had...
NNAMDIThat may have been your first published short story. Was it?
WALKERYeah. I'd be happy to answer that because it -- it's sort of interesting. I, you know, grew up materially poor. And my sister always says to me, we were never poor. What are you talking about? We -- you know, but the truth is, if you don't have health care and you don't have dental care, you're kind of poor. So anyway, I went off to school and I had had in my childhood this wonderful old man who came -- Mr. Sweet, who used to come and play the guitar in our house.
WALKERAnd he, you know, he was an alcoholic and he was (word?) and I adored him. And so while I was away at Sarah Lawrence college in New York, he died and I could not afford to go to his funeral. So a friend there took me to her house and on the weekend that he was buried, I wrote that story, "To Hell with Dying," and it really connected with something that was going on in my own life. I was very depressed and, you know, very -- feeling my life maybe shouldn't continue. And just being able to create something, you know, something beautiful out of, you know, loss and tragedy brought me back.
NNAMDI"To Hell with Dying," was the first published short story. "Hard Times Require Furious Dancing" is the latest book of poetry. Saturday, October 2, she'll be at Busboys and Poets. Alice Walker, thank you for joining us.
WALKERIt's been lovely, thank you.
NNAMDIAlice Walker is a Pulitzer Prize winning author, most recently of the aforementioned book of poetry, "Hard Times Require Furious Dancing." Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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