Alice Walker addresses her critics: Interview
(By not addressing her critics.) We talk to the award-winning author of The Color Purple.
Alice Walker is not going to read this. The 69-year-old poet, activist and award-winning author, best-known for The Color Purple, makes a point to avoid articles about herself—a necessary skill, perhaps, as many are less than flattering. A Google News search of her name currently turns up articles claiming her newest collection of meditations, The Cushion in the Road ($26.95, The New Press), is anti-Semitic in its take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; that her recent attempt to urge Alicia Keys to cancel her upcoming show in Tel Aviv was misguided; and her support of the book Human Race Get Off Your Knees, by British conspiracy theorist David Icke, is downright bizarre. (According to Icke, Barack Obama is a shapeshifting reptilian humanoid, so that might explain some of the controversy.) Walker is reading on Monday, July 1, in Andersonville, and I wanted to get her take on such criticism and her decades-long career. (She had this advice, too: Clean your apartment!)
A lot of what has been written about you recently seems to fall into two categories—either fiercely critical or passionately defensive. Have reactions to you and your work always been so divided?
I don't generally read reviews. I mean, I write.
But do you intentionally tune out the commentary?
Yeah, because if you look at my list of books, I've written 30 or so. It takes an awful lot of time to write that many books and do the other things that I do. I travel a lot and visit different parts of the world, and I have to recover from that—so I don't focus on criticism. I prefer to praise people and the world, rather than criticize them and it. I know with The Color Purple, there was an awful lot of criticism, and some of it was very painful. This was almost 30 years ago, and during that time I basically turned to other things. I wrote many more books and founded a publishing company and continued my work as an activist. And I survived it.
Was that the last time you let the criticism impact you?
I don't know. It has been a long time, a very long time, and to focus on criticism is just not interesting. Because what I realize is people have a right to whatever they feel. They do. They might like it or not like it, but it doesn't really matter what I think.
In light of all the press surrounding you, the many interviews you've done over the years—is there ever a question you wish would come up but doesn't? Or something you wish you'd never be asked again?
No. I have no idea. I can't claim to really care that much, actually. Some interviews I read, some I don't. Some interviews are really wonderful. I have a whole book of them [The World Has Changed: Conversations with Alice Walker] that came out a few years ago, and I like it because you get, I hope, a lot of thoughtfulness and consideration in reading them. So I'm not being disrespectful of the medium; it's just not as important as the work that I actually do.
Do you discover things about your own personal, political and spiritual ideas via writing, or do you tend to sit down to write having already established them?
No, my writing is very organic. It's what I am. My mother says I was writing before I was crawling. I wrote in the dirt with a twig. So I think of it as something that's very essential to my being at this point.
Have you always remained open to writing about everything? The Cushion in the Road contains a range of topics: the film Frozen River, the presidency of Barack Obama, health care, audiobooks, your local dog park and other things.
It's only because I am a human being, and as a human being you experience life in its fullness, not life in a corner. So you can then write about anything because you're alive to all of it.
But certainly there are writers who don't feel compelled to publish books sharing anything and everything.
But that's not me. We writers—we're the snowflakes of the literary world. We each have our own shape.
In The Cushion in the Road, you say that when the world overwhelms you, you have to tend the chickens. It's not a figure or speech; you really have chickens. What advice would you have for others similarly overwhelmed by the world's problems and injustices?
I was in India a few years ago, and I met the grandchildren of Gandhi and they gave me one of his books. It just so happens that before you called just now, I opened it. He says at some point that we should all do physical labor—that whenever you are feeling stuck and oppressed and sad and dislocated, it's very useful to do something physical. If you only live in an apartment and don't have access to a garden to work in or a field, just really clean your apartment and get some sense of what you can do. This kind of work encourages us and fuels to do something outside our private space.