Author Alice Walker

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Pulitzer Prize-winning author describes the value of good conversation and reads her poem “The World Has Changed.”


Tavis: Pleased to welcome Alice Walker back to this program. The Pulitzer Prize winning writer is out now with two projects – she’s been busy. “Overcoming Speechlessness,” and it’s not what you think it’s about, but we’ll get into that book in just a second, and a second text called “The World Has Changed,” which is a collection of conversations spanning a 35-year period. Alice Walker, always an honor to have you on this stage.
Alice Walker: Thank you very much for inviting me.
Tavis: We’re glad to have you. I want to get into both of these texts, but I asked you when you walked on the stage if you did me a favor, and you were so kind to oblige. This book is called “The World Has Changed,” and before we get into the conversation about the book there is a wonderful poem that you wrote back in 2008, December 7th, to be exact, that’s called “The World Has Changed.” And I wonder, since it’s so beautiful, if you might not commence our conversation by reading that piece?
Walker: I’d love to read it.
Tavis: Please.
Walker: (Reciting poem) “The world has changed. Wake up and smell the possibility. The world has changed. It did not change without your prayers, without your faith, without your determination to believe in liberation and kindness, without your dancing through the years that had no beat. The world has changed. It did not change without your numbers, your fierce love of self and cosmos. It did not change without your strength.
“The world has changed – wake up. Give yourself the gift of a new day. The world has changed. This does not mean you were never hurt. The world has changed – rise, yes, and shine. Resist the siren call of disbelief. The world has changed. Don’t let yourself remain asleep to it.”
Tavis: I could spend a whole show, Alice Walker, talking and dissecting and deconstructing this poem, but let me just ask how it is that we go about resisting the siren call of disbelief? How do we do that?
Walker: Well, we just notice that everything changes, that the world is always changing. It has always done that, it always will, and we should enjoy it. We should learn to accept that change is truly the only thing that’s going on always, and learn to ride with it and enjoy it.
Tavis: This book, as I said, the first one, “The World Has Changed: Conversations with Alice Walker,” is a collection of conversations over a 35-year period. Let me ask a simple question. For you, what is the value of conversation, of good conversation?
I ask that because we live in a world where people seem to condemn conversation. You know that chattering class that says all we do I talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, as if there’s no value to good conversation anymore these days. What’s the value of a good conversation?
Walker: The good conversation, the value there is the listening, and that is what’s missing, often, because people do talk a lot and they don’t listen and they don’t hear, and until we listen and hear each other we will always have, for instance, war. Because people feel that if they can’t be heard they have to be louder and louder and louder, and what is the loudest thing? Well, it’s a big bomb on your house.
Tavis: I’ve been asked many times what I think makes for a good interviewer, a good talk show host, and my answer is pretty simple: You have to learn how to be a generous listener. You have to learn how to listen very generously. The more generously you listen the better you can be sitting in a chair like this.
It’s clear from your conversations over the years and the books you’ve written you’ve become a very good listener over these years. Talk to me about how you became such a good listener.
Walker: I’m entirely interested in people, and also other creatures and beings, but especially in people, and I tend to read them by emotional field more than anything. So I have a special interest in what they’re thinking and who they are and who’s hiding behind those eyes and how did he get there, and what’s the story, really?
Tavis: Just a very curious person.
Walker: Mm-hmm.
Tavis: You’ve always been that way?
Walker: Curious, but truly interested. Interested in the sense of wanting to share something with the person that transforms both of us, and that is what happens in good conversation. We transform each other.
Tavis: You’ve had, I suspect, many – I’ve been subject to a few of them on this program and on my radio show, so I know what it’s like to be engaged in good, high quality conversation with you.
Since you’ve been engaged in so many of those, I suspect, over the course of your life, how do you choose the good conversations that make the cut for this book?
Walker: Well, I asked someone else to do it, my friend, Rudolph Byrd.
Tavis: You took the easy way out. (Laughter)
Walker: I did, I took the easy way out, yes. I gave my archive to Emory University because there’s a really dear friend who teaches there, Rudolph Byrd, and he’s the editor. So he made the choices and I just said I want it to be solid, I want it to be not frou-frou. I don’t want any light stuff, I don’t want any stuff that’s just about publicity for books.
I want it to be about life-and-death issues and I want people to be able to really feel sustained by what they encounter in it. So with that he went about choosing the pieces.
Tavis: I assume there have been occasions in your life where you’ve taken something away from a conversation, maybe, even, to your earlier word, been transformed by the conversation, even though it might not have been on balance a good conversation. Does that make sense?
Walker: It does. Well, yes, because some things are very disturbing. I remember sitting in Africa when I was working on female genital mutilation and going to the house of one of the women who did this practice and actually waiting for her to come out and talk to me about why she did it, and her telling me that she didn’t hear the children scream as she was cutting them. That was one of those conversations that was so difficult, so challenging, gave me such a bad headache.
Yet it strengthened my determination to bring this subject to the light and also to embrace this old woman because this was all she was able to do, given her preparation and her society, which had not prepared her to do anything but something that was injurious to the whole culture.
Tavis: As you speak now of female mutilation, bodily mutilation, it’s a nice segue to the second of these books that you have out now, “Overcoming Speechlessness.” As I said at the top of the show, this title, “Overcoming Speechlessness,” is not about overcoming stuttering or shyness. (Laughter) The subtitle tells the full story: “A Poet Encounters the Horror in Rwanda, Eastern Congo and Palestine/Israel.”
So what you want us to wrestle with, courtesy of this text, is to talk about those things that re so difficult to address. Why is this such a passion for you?
Walker: Well, because I realized in my own life that some subjects I have encountered were so horrible I couldn’t believe people could actually do these things, and I was silenced, for years. It may not seem like that to many people because there have been complaints about my not being silent. (Laughter)
Tavis: I haven’t heard those.
Walker: Yeah, well, but actually, the truth is that especially in the last century or so, there have been such horrific acts done by humans to other humans that really we as a people, and I mean humanity, we’ve been silenced.
We didn’t know what to call them, we couldn’t put them anywhere, we didn’t recognize them often, and they’re just heinous. And so we have been self-silencing, and that means that all the children who need us and all the women, often, who need us don’t hear from us for, like, 10 and 20 years because we are reeling, we’re still, “Why is this happening?’
Tavis: How do you get folk to talk, Alice Walker, if you can’t even get them to agree on language? For example, if you have leaders who are afraid to say the word “genocide,” then how do you talk about genocide?
Walker: Well, you just do. There’s a definition for genocide, what it means. If it applies, then you just use that word and you take the definition into any conversation that you have. Then they cannot evade it.
Tavis: How do you get traction – I started reading this last night, the “Overcoming Speechlessness” text. It’s a small book so you can read it relatively quickly. It’s a quick read, pardon my English, but it ain’t a easy read.
Walker: Right.
Tavis: It’s a quick read but it ain’t an easy read.
Walker: I know.
Tavis: Because the stuff you want us to talk about is hard for me to even read, some of the stories you tell in this book about the things that you saw –
Walker: I’m sorry.
Tavis: – about man’s inhumanity to man or humanity’s inhumanity to humanity, if it’s hard to read, how do you talk about it?
Walker: Well, that’s why I’m a writer. I discovered early on that that’s one of the reasons people do write – they encounter horrible stuff and they understand that, well, I can’t say this, but if I learn, if I go to school and I teach myself how to express this, I can express it in writing and then I can show it, I can share it.
And it gives a space to the reader. So for instance I’m sorry you read this at night. Nobody should read it at night. But at least when you read it you can give yourself some distance and you will know the information but you don’t feel that you have to immediately do something.
It’s much better to contemplate, meditate, think about what is your role now, having this information. For example, about things in the Congo, the Congo is now considered the most awful place on the face of the Earth to be a woman, and there are reasons for that.
Find out what they are and then see what can you do to make, like, one woman feel safer in her home and one child feel safe in the yard. That, we can do.
Tavis: To your point about not reading at night, thanks for the advice. A little too late, but thank you for the advice to not read this at night. (Laughter) But one of the things that it did do for me last night, looking at it, was it underscored something for me that I had not really thought of, shame on me, perhaps, and I could be wrong about this.
But something hit me last night that had never hit me before, as much as I’ve read your work, seen your work, talked to you in conversation over the years. Your work seems to express – this is my words, not yours – your work seems to express – your work seems to suggest to me that there is a burden that you bear in your soul for humanity, a burden for women.
I don’t want to describe what it is, but again, all these years of having access to you I finally, looking at your work holistically, see that there’s a burden that you have borne throughout the balance of your life that winds up on paper. Am I making sense?
Walker: You know what the burden – yes, you are, and you know what it is is love. I love us so incredibly, insanely deeply; it’s almost unbearable to see what we do to ourselves. It’s almost unbearable just to see how we have sunk over the last – even the last – in my lifetime, the things that people do to each other, the things they say to each other, the way people behave.
It’s almost unbearable, because I see us with such love; I just see that we’re wonderful. People are wonderful, just like everything else on this planet, but look at what we do. So this is the burden – it’s the burden of love.
Tavis: Since you are burdened by this and obviously wrestle with this, have you figured out why our civilization has become so uncivil?
Walker: Well, capitalism is a big problem, because with capitalism you’re just going to keep buying and selling things until there’s nothing else to buy and sell, which means gobbling up the planet. So on one level it’s that.
The central thing seems to be greed. It seems to be people feeling empty, they don’t have anything inside, they think. They haven’t looked. They do have something inside, I feel, but they’re afraid to look. They don’t want to take the time to sit and find out anything.
So there they are, trying to get more and more of everything, just taking it more and more in, and we will gradually just be people who are empty and exploding.
Tavis: Lastly, I love the photo on the cover of this book. What do you know or remember about this photo?
Walker: Well, I was pregnant and I was carrying my daughter, who’s my only child, and I had made that dress myself.
Tavis: Oh.
Walker: My mother had bought a sewing machine for me. When I went away to college she gave me a sewing machine, a typewriter and a suitcase, and my mother made $17 a week working as a maid 12 hours a day, and she did that for me. She and my father put me on the Greyhound bus and they sent me off.
So many years later, after I had gone through college and all kinds of adventures, I took that sewing machine and I bought some African fabric and I was pregnant in Mississippi, where I was interracially married illegally, and I sewed a dress for me and my daughter, she’s in my tummy, to wear. I loved the dress and my sister has it still.
Tavis: Wow. (Laughter) That dress ought to be in a museum somewhere.
Walker: I’ll try to get it back from her. (Laughter)
Tavis: It’s a gorgeous dress, it’s a gorgeous photo, and for all those parents watching right now who are later this year going to be sending kids off to college, if you give them a typewriter, a sewing machine and a suitcase, who knows? They might turn out to be an iconic and prolific author like Alice Walker, with two new books out now.
Again, “The World Has Changed: Conversations with Alice Walker,” and “Overcoming Speechlessness.” Alice Walker, always an honor to have you on the program.
Walker: Thank you.

Tavis: Thank you.

Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm