Ten years ago, Alice Walker wanted to retire at age 60, to sit on her cushion and meditate. But the world kept calling. A black president was to be inaugurated and American-made bombs were killing innocent women and children in Gaza. The acclaimed novelist and political activist realised she was still very much attached to the suffering in the world.
So she travelled on the Freedom Flotilla II to Gaza to apologise to the Palestinian mothers for the bombs that were killing their children with taxes she had paid. Thus, Alice resumed her wandering to awaken the world’s conscience, but this time with her cushion. It would help her find peace amid great suffering and form the kernel for her latest book, A Cushion in the Road, a reflection on her spiritual and physical relationship with the world’s personal, spiritual and political destinies.
Speaking to a full house at the Joan Sutherland Theatre in the Sydney Opera House on Wednesday, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Color Purple explained why, at 70 years old, she resists the urge to retreat and remains deeply engaged with the burdens and the joys of the world – and why she and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre are ‘tight’.
Moderator Caroline Baum introduced Ms Walker as “a warrior for justice and compassion, a champion of the oppressed, an ambassador for peace and so much more; a mother, a sister, a gardener and a woman who likes to dance,” and expresses the hope that her courage will rub off on us because “we need it”.
The world is sick and in dire straits, according to Ms Walker. Despite progress in health, living conditions and social equity, there is more misogyny and abuse against women now than ever before. Women and children are sold into slavery, the wars waged around the globe cause immense suffering to the innocent and defenceless, and millions die from AIDS and cancer.
United States President Barack Obama’s administration, which initially offered such hope for Alice, has proved a source of disillusionment. When asked what she would say to him now, Alice Walker said, “I would tell him to run, and I don’t know where he would run because the planet is so small.” Asked if she would like to see Hillary Clinton assume the presidency, Alice responds, “If you don’t change the system, nothing will change. You will be in despair and disillusionment.”
Somewhat flummoxed by the author’s uncharacteristic pessimism, Ms Baum asked if she should throw her questions away. Ms Walker quipped: “Oh but it’s such joy to see how disillusioned you are!” Finding joy in life is part of her vision of life, a joy founded in facing the truth. It is a lesson she learnt aged eight, when her brother accidentally blinded her in one eye as they were playing. “What is painful often ends up being a teacher. I have a feeling that with one eye I see a lot more than many people see with two or four,” she said.
Alice Walker grew up one of eight children in a poor sharecropping family in Georgia. At four she was sent to school while her mother worked for her white landlords and their children. Her family had its share of mental instability, including her own depression and her brother’s Curtis’s “homicidal madness”. Curtis died after a life of drugs and gangsterism; she speaks with characteristic humour about how he wanted to be buried with all of his hats, and so “of course, we buried him with all his hats”.
Much has been written about her long-standing estrangement with her daughter Rebecca. Now the author said her daughter “did not escape some of the syndromes of instability that unfortunately plagued the family for a long time,” adding, “I think it was that English grandfather.” Ms Walker has a grandson aged nine whom she has never met but hopes that she will, as contact has just recently been restored with her daughter, which she puts down to her being “better and stronger.”
In fact, she said, most colonised countries had to have a strain of mental instability as they would have been originally made up of people with issues, who were often abused. She drew a connection between this history and the “borderline mental disorder” she believes is rampant in society today.
As an activist, Ms Walker coined the word ‘womanism’ as an alternative to ‘feminism’ because that word leaves out so much. “I have a culture of my own which is not white and it has a different understanding of what woman is. It sees woman as more powerful and more central but it also sees the whole community.” She said a womanist would never order the obliteration of Iran because a womanist doesn’t think that way, but a white colonial feminist could. “At the end of the day, it’s about protecting and caring for everyone,” she said.
Above all, Ms Walker urged the need for empathy and to get our children to read. When Ms Baum asked her how she felt growing up reading and never recognising herself in stories where there were no black faces, Alice protested “but I recognised myself in Jane Eyre, a character whose main trait is empathy, and because … it is about the spirits, it’s about the art, so I didn’t feel any separation between me and Jane.”
She said fiction is more powerful than non-fiction because “as we all know, facts expire … whereas there’s more freedom with fiction, it will always hold and will always captivate you.”
In her work as an activist, one of the most heartbreaking practices she fights is that of female genital mutilation, something she has campaigned against for years, managing to get it outlawed in the US as a felony. Neverthless, the practice goes on, evidence of increasing misogyny on the planet, she said. And as a black activist she continues to face racism: Earlier this year, 30 years after the publication of her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Color Purple, authorities in North Carolina tried to ban the book. “They would like to go back to a time when people like me didn’t exist,” she said, adding she would invite them to have a discussion.
What gives Ms Walker hope and strength is the solidarity she feels from people like the members of the Occupy movement. “My vision of change is of a rumbling underneath and that’s something in us and it is us rising in consciousness, in action. But first there’s consciousness and they won’t really be able to control it. It’s inevitable,” she said.
One of the key methods she suggested for dealing with life when it gets scary was to form circles of people that you trust and look up to. She and the other women did this on the Gaza flotilla and it helped then get through the ordeal. But when Ms Walker arrived back home, she was running into trees and tripping over her dog: “Going through life’s burdens takes its toll and you just have to accept that – but you also have to accept that other people have been bearing burdens so much heavier than yours and that your responsibility is to help them too.”
However, she did recommend knowing your limitations. She cannot take on all the causes that she is asked to champion, though she recently adopted an orphanage in Kenya because the AIDS epidemic has killed millions of parents. “The deep joy is really to help others, to show up for them as somebody showed up for you. You may not know it in this lifetime but somebody, somewhere along the line showed up for you. And that’s where the big joy is – to show up for others.”