Alice Walker reflects on a life of writing
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 novel “The Color Purple.”
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, Walker’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” in 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, Walker 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. She 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.
She recently talked to the Banner about her career and about the documentary “Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth,” which premieres on PBS’ American Masters series on Feb. 7 at 9 p.m.
How do you feel about having the biopic coming out about you?
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.
The film left me with an appreciation of your deep connection to nature.
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.
How did you feel about the screen adaptation of “The Color Purple?”
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.
What did you think of the stage version of “The Color Purple?”
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.
You have written several essays about Barack Obama. How do you feel about his presidency thus far?
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 a 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.
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.
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.
Are you interested in writing your own screenplay?
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.