Alice Walker is best known as the author of “The Color Purple,” her 1983 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about the lives of African-American women in the Deep South early in the 20th century — which Steven Spielberg made into a film in 1985 starring Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey.
Born in 1944 as the eighth child of Georgia sharecroppers, Walker lost the sight in her right eye at age 8, when one of her brothers accidentally shot her with a BB gun. However, she says that the pain she suffered then, and her disability since, have granted her greater insight into those who are weak or dispossessed.
A graduate of Sarah Lawrence College in New York, and now a resident of Berkeley, Calif., Walker, a divorced mother with a grown-up daughter, has written more than 20 books as well as innumerable essays and poems on themes ranging from civil rights, violence, rape and sexism to the environment.
Late last month, Walker visited Japan for the first time to attend the Tokyo International Book Forum to promote her 1997 book, “Anything We Love Can Be Saved,” a collection of her essays and speeches, recently published in Japanese by Shueisha. During her short stay, she also delivered several lectures, including one at UNICEF House in Tokyo on the subject of female genital mutilation (FGM) — which she has also addressed in both novels and essays.
Despite her hectic schedule, however, the author found time for this interview with The Japan Times, answering questions in her firm but softly spoken way about her work and life as a writer and a lifelong activist.
Although this is your first visit to Japan, have you had any connection with the country before, other than several of your books having been translated here?
When I was a student in college, I fell in love with Japanese haiku poets such as Matsuo Basho and Kobayashi Issa.
“Sitting quietly, doing nothing, spring comes, and the grass grows by itself” . . . There is not a finer poem anywhere than that. The haiku poets influenced me very deeply.
You have strenuously covered so many issues, both as a novelist and an activist. What is it that drives you?
Love. You know, it was Che Guevara who said that, “it may sound ridiculous, but in fact, revolution is fueled by love. And to be revolutionary means that you have a lot of love.” I feel that way about being an activist.
Love is a great energizer. And once you feel it, whether for a country, for animals, vegetation or for human beings, it is impossible not to act, because you really want them to be healthy and happy, and you want them to have enough of everything they need. You don’t want them to be starving, cold, brutalized or bombed. You don’t. You want just the opposite. Lots of food, lots of music, dancing and art.
You have expressed your thoughts in various forms, including through novels, essays and poems, and you also co-directed a documentary film on FGM. How do you decide which way to communicate?
Life brings you the emotions and the form, really. Sometimes with poetry, it is tricky because it is so free. It is so independent that it always wants to be written when it wants to be written.
But for novels and essays, there is a way in which the life or the subject catches you and won’t let go. And when that happens, all you can really do is just make a space for it. Sometimes that means, especially for novels, arranging your life so that you have a year or two to work. And often that means you’ll also need the money to finance that time. And different books take different lengths of time. The novel “The Temple of My Familiar” took two years, and “The Color Purple” took one year.
But in any case, you have to find the time, and it has to be inviolate. It has to be your time.
Although you came across FGM for the first time when you visited Kenya at the age of 20, why was it not until your 1992 novel “Possessing the Secret of Joy” that you addressed the issue publicly?
“Possessing” was my 15th book, and I was writing other books before then.
But I was also gathering my courage, because it is such a taboo subject and I knew that many people didn’t want it discussed. I myself didn’t want to embarrass anybody.
So I had to question what was the best thing to do, or what should I do. Was my duty to write about this so that people can see and feel it and think about it in a different way and change it? Or, like all the other people before me, should I just camouflage it in my fiction and make it look like something else? You know? I had to struggle with all those issues. So I took all the time I needed to be able to make a decision that I can live with.
And that is very good to do, because sometimes if we have a lot of passion about something and jump on it right away, it’s so soon that you can’t sustain what comes after. And actually what came after “Possessing” was a lot of criticism and a lot of controversy. But I could sustain it because I’d had 20 years to think about it and commit myself to it.
How did you respond to the criticism that it was other people’s culture you were pointing your finger at?
Genital mutilation is torture, and torture is not actually a culture. It may be a custom, but it is not a culture.
The reason it is not a culture is that, implicitly, culture means care and flourishing and causing things to grow and behold. So you can hardly say that something that destroys a woman’s vulva is something that makes her healthy. In fact it makes her ill, and it imperils the birth of all her children and it causes great harm. So I don’t have a problem with my position on that.
And I think people who are critical often haven’t thought it through. Because, for instance, we often say that slavery might have been considered culture to some people. Like the Southerners, they thought it was their culture. But for my ancestors it was torture, it was enslavement and it was wrong. And they were happy to be freed because they are human beings and they wanted to be liberated.
How do you talk to women who believe they have to follow that custom?
I don’t try to tell them anything, really. In my experience, I’ve sat with them and I tried to get them to remember what it felt like.
I have been in Africa with women who have had their daughters “circumcised” and they themselves had completely shut out the memory of the pain they suffered. Human beings are very good at hiding the pain from themselves. And the sense of betrayal is even more painful.
So I sat with many women and just gently asked them about what had happened to them. At first they would say they didn’t remember a thing. But with a little bit of talking, and once they understood that someone was actually interested and that they could actually say something, then they remembered. They remembered their own pain. And they were able to feel for their children and to question the custom.
Something taboo is a very powerful thing. It’s really like a wall that you just don’t think about knocking down. And if you are used to living behind that wall for 6,000 years, it’s a lot to consider removing it.
Many issues you work on are to do with women, and most of those who come to hear you speak appear to be women. Would it not be better if more men were concerned about these issues?
I totally agree. You know, one of the great things about the struggle to end FGM is that more and more men are joining. And this is very powerful because the women are not used to having men aware of it. Even though they sleep together, the men have claimed all this time that they had no idea. But now there are many men who are very involved. This has changed the feelings of men and women.
And that’s what happens. If more men would try to see the world from a woman’s point of view, there would emerge a much freer relationship between men and women, and a much more joyful one.
Sometimes I feel that those few men who are there at my lectures, as well as the women, are at least aware that we are imperiled because of what is being done to women. It means that the whole world is very shaky because the foundation is actually the women. Because it’s out of their bodies that the earth is peopled. You know? It seems so simple, doesn’t it?
One way to help this is to associate with men who are trying to heal themselves around these issues, who have a respect for the feminine in themselves and in the world. But we can’t make them or drag them to do it. And so I would say to men, you have a lot of work to do.
Are more men now attending your lectures than before?
Oh yes. In the beginning it was all women, which is fine with me, but I also like it that over the years more and more men have come. It is very warming.
But there is a bit of sadness because I think if they had come earlier, so much destructive behavior that we have witnessed over the past 30 years or so might have been avoided. I mean, many men have actually refused to acknowledge domestic violence, for instance. And they have tried to pretend that people who said that it existed were liars.
Your stories and activities have a lot to do with women in the United States, South America and African countries. Will Asian women figure in your work in the future?
When I went to China in 1983, they had already translated “The Color Purple,” and it was already a best seller. When I asked why that was, they said that it is a very Chinese story.
My point is that you don’t necessarily have to have Japanese people or Chinese people or whatever, because it’s basically the heart. And the women around the world are so similar.
Our conditions are as if we are on a continuum of violence and repression. FGM may be way up there, women having to wear veils may also be way up there. But at the other end, you have women who seem to have everything and yet they can’t go outside the house.
There is enough always in each culture to remind any woman that we have been oppressed. And therefore there is a solidarity among women.
You’ve written essays opposing the Gulf War in 1991, and you protested strongly against the invasion of Iraq before it started — and were even arrested at an anti-war rally in Washington. How do you feel now the war has happened?
We are standing in a really contaminated and scary place. But I think the people of the world should not be discouraged. Some 30 million people said no to this war, and they were very vocal and active about it. This is a cause for joy and celebration of human beings to be that aware and that willing to rise and speak out.
I think people feel demoralized because the war went right ahead. Everything we were trying to prevent happened. But I take a lot of consolation from the fact that so many people were awake to this issue. I think that even if we don’t change things very much or very quickly, we can have a degree of peace in ourselves because we have acted up to our own expectations of what it means to be a human being. It’s very important to do that.
So in that sense, it’s not about who wins or whether we get him to back down, whether we change this or that. I mean, we do want to change this and that, but the joyfulness and therefore the possibility of uniting as humans — I think the joy of taking action is what takes us forward.
I’ve been telling people that when I was arrested I felt very happy. I felt so happy because it is such an honor to be able to express your love of humanity.
I don’t even think of it as just expressing opposition to anything. I try to think of it as being “pro” — pro life, pro happiness, and pro health.