A Conversation with Alice Walker
If You're Loving, You'll Always Have Love: By Evelyn C. White
In a Northern California enclave suppressed in a color spectrum of white, off-white, beige, and ashen gray, the home of Alice Walker is a shimmering azure. Picture the waters of the Caribbean. Think of those delectably sweet blue Popsicles you might have savored as a child (and the delight of a blue stripe on a poked-out pink tongue).
Inside the exquisitely appointed home, Walker awaits, warm and welcoming. She is still flush with happiness from a previous evening spent with friends, among them the supremely gifted African writer Ayi Kwei Armah (Two Thousand Seasons). About Alice, Armah recently said: "Because I see the quality of her work as such a clear expression of her life and values, I think of her as more than another writer I admire. I trust her as the best of friends. I love her."
As it happens, love is the theme of Walker's most recent book, about which she shared her thoughts as we sipped soothing cups of tea. By way of background (admittedly quick), Alice Walker was born in 1944 in Eatonton, Georgia, and attended Spelman College. She later transferred to Sarah Lawrence, graduating in 1966. Following her marriage to a Jewish civil-rights lawyer, the couple lived in Mississippi for nearly a decade. They divorced in 1976 and have a daughter.
Alice Walker is the author of twenty-three books ranging from Once (1968) to The Way Forward Is with a Broken Heart (2000). Her advocacy on behalf of the dispossessed has spanned the globe.
Q: The Way Forward examines love in all its permutations. As you assess the union from this distance, what prompted you to get married?
A: First and foremost, I was very much in love with my husband. We lived together from almost the instant we met. There was a long tradition of white men having black mistresses in the South. That was not going to be my path. So, when he graduated from law school and we decided to return to Mississippi, I put it very bluntly that we were to be married. He was thrilled to oblige. Our marriage was also an opportunity to resist the antimiscegenation laws. We were in solidarity with Loving v. the State of Virginia, in which a couple successfully filed suit against the statutes prohibiting interracial marriage. A lot of people wanted to get married and couldn't. In that regard, our marriage was part of the political effort to bring about justice and equality.
Q: How have you come to view the end of the marriage?
A: I firmly believe in the fluidity of relationships and the continuation of love, even though external circumstances might change. And it's a truism of life that everything changes. When I got married, it didn't erase the love and affection I felt for the person I fell in love with when I was six. We had started dating when I was fifteen. We separated when I left for college. Not because we'd stopped loving each other. Life took us to different places. It's in that context, the very stream of life, that I met my husband. And then we began our journey. I began to realize that our lovers are all teachers who arrive with important lessons that, if understood, can help us to grow.
Q: For people in the grips of heartache, that can be a difficult concept to embrace. What has enabled you to grasp and maintain such a philosophy?
A: Well, the culture promotes conformity. I have always been an outsider. The standard rules and acceptable forms of behavior have never applied to me. In that sense, I was raised wild. And why wouldn't I be? Why would I attempt to "conform" to a society that doesn't value my existence, that has done everything to wipe me out? I always knew that I'd have to construct an alternative reality. One that reflected my views. And I believe that love is fluid and that lovers come to teach.
Q: How did your husband respond to your fluidity in action?
A: He loved me. So, he made every possible effort to keep up. But it wasn't easy, because fluidity is not his nature. Because of his upbringing, he's a very steady man, which made for a good balance in our marriage. As for Mississippi, the original plan was that we'd be there only a couple of years. Then that dragged on to five, then seven. It was the natural consequence of his work as a civil-rights lawyer. It was understood that he couldn't just pick up and leave. Dismantling segregation in the South was not an abstract proposition. He was on the front lines helping real people in a real struggle that was formidable.
He was completely supportive when I was awarded a fellowship at Radcliffe and left Mississippi for a couple of years. His generosity of spirit made me love him all the more. We were both lonely. But it was the price we paid for the belief, that in our respective work, we were helping to improve conditions for people coming behind us. With that in mind, the pain of our separation was easier to bear.
Q: Were there special factors that finally pushed you to your limit?
A: I began to desire a wider world. I needed an existence more varied and hip than Mississippi provided. The people there were honest, earnest, sincere, real, and wonderful. But I needed to be in a community that had more of an edge. And I was worn out by the prison of race. I just got sick of race being at the center of everything. My spirit resisted being limited or defined exclusively on those terms.
Q: And your experiences in Boston and later in New York?
A: They taught me what I could live without. The academic life was too tight. I've been invited to teach at Harvard and to do this and that. But there's not a piece of me anywhere that wants to go back there. New York offered irrefutable evidence that my spirit does not respond well to tall buildings, bricks, concrete, or glass.
Q: Given the many genres in which you've worked, your creative spirit appears to emerge organically. How did the format for The Way Forward come about?
A: It took me a while to see the direction in which I was going, which is conscious fiction. Most of my work has been unconscious fiction, which I actually prefer. It's when you're writing out of a wellspring of emotion, intuition, and revealed information. Some of which may or may not be connected to reality. But you don't know that until much later. So, you are essentially creating something out of the dark.
I started thinking that it would be interesting to write fiction as a mature adult and to know exactly where the characters and themes came from. Flannery O'Connor always said that fiction is attached to real life by all four corners. And that's true. But as the writer, you don't necessarily see it. So, I wanted to write from a conscious place that enabled me to see, for example, that a certain experience was the foundation of a certain scene. Or that a particular character behaved in a certain way because of the person upon whom the character was based. Because fiction is always truer than truth. Yet it remains fiction, which is how you get to that deeper truth.
For instance, I've been able to see how particular images grew out of the spirits of my parents, although they're not actually depicted in the book. It was amusing to me--and as you know, I like to amuse myself-- to extend some of their characteristics into fiction, consciously, and to own it. That's why the book is shaped as it is.
The format also provided a way for me to revisit, consciously, a period in my life that was filled with so many emotions: love, anger, fear, struggle, celebration. The construction of the book enabled me to show how freedom emerges out of a teeming cauldron of emotions. I wanted to show the joys, pleasures, terrors, and discoveries of being on the road to liberation.
Q: What were some of the discoveries for you?
A: I discovered that you can start out with a love that seems complete. It appears to be exactly what you want and need. Then five years later, you're into something you could not have imagined from the vantage point of the first love. You're dating women. You're having lovers of every kind and persuasion. When my marriage was working, it was an absolute enchantment. But there were differences in fluidity.
For example, my husband was very dedicated to his work life. He could not spend much time, say, relaxing. Just sitting around having his head scratched. One day, with my next lover, I realized that I'd been fooling around all morning with his hair. And something about that simple, repetitive act gave us both enormous pleasure. I felt that such playful grooming of each other was something people of color shared with all of creation. That it was a natural state of being that allowed us to reach a certain bliss.
So, I learned that each lover is an opportunity for a reeducation and recommitment to what is real and authentic. The more authentic you can be in each relationship, the freer you become. Each lover moves you toward a greater emancipation. My love life has been like that. And I love it.
Q: What advice might you have for people who don't seem to be able to graduate and move on?
A: When you cling to what is no longer there, you suffer. I know from personal experience that clinging is painful.
Q: And what about the pain that often comes with letting go? With the relinquishing of what people believe to be "true love"?
A: I think it would be helpful for them to know that suffering is in the world and it is in us. The grief and sadness is natural. The crucial thing is acceptance. Nothing in life is eternal. With life being what it is, when one door closes another one opens. When one love leaves, another is on the way. Instead of collapsing in sorrow, I would suggest that they embrace the idea that life is never over. Perhaps in this form it is. But I could be on the way to becoming a seashell.
Maybe there will be a time in my life when there is no romance or intimacy with another person. If that happens, perhaps I'll get a lot of cats and dogs. But love is always a possibility. The key is to have it in yourself and for yourself. If you're loving, you will always have love. And the world is full of people who really deserve and want to be loved.
Q: How can people transcend preconceived or culturally enforced notions of who and what they should love?
A: For me, it has never been about color or any other external characteristics. I have never had to choose somebody just like me. The quality I look for and one that can help people move beyond their preconceived ideas is a sense of readiness. After the ending of a relationship, I inevitably come to a place of being ready to love again. For example, if I'm in a setting where there are really conscious people, I look around to see who is ready to go with me on the next journey, for however long it might be. As you know, most people are not ready. But there are many who are. And they present themselves to us in as many forms as there are in nature.
Q: From your vantage point, what does a ready person look like? A: Ready people are very helpful and reliable. They are present with you. They are very forthright and honest about whatever they might be struggling with in life. They don't tend to make demands. They offer themselves freely as available to assist, with no strings attached. And that is very attractive. It seems like such a small thing, but it's so important. Because it is in that spirit that people can provide the staff of support that we need on the path.
In terms of my own readiness, one day I'll realize that I am completely in love with everything, with just the sheer joy of living. And the universe reflects my readiness and joy. For example, after months of hearing no music, I'll begin to hear music everywhere. I'll start playing my own instruments or begin to put on certain music. Mozart, more than any other music, always lets me know that I'm healed from whatever struggle I've been in. When you hear Mozart coming from my house, know that I'm ready. Bring them on! (laughs).
Q: Why Mozart?
A: He is remarkable. His music has the ability to soothe, comfort, and heal. I wish I knew more about his mother. Because my sense is that a lot of his music comes from lullabies and folk songs from her side of the family. I can't remember a time since I was introduced to his music at Sarah Lawrence that Mozart didn't transport me into the joy of wholeness.
Tina Turner is another artist I listen to who reflects my readiness to love. She's said that she wants to return in another life as a spiritual leader. For me, she is already one. She takes us to places of such pain, degradation, humiliation and then sings us out of that despair. You know she's been down to the low places from which she sings and she owns those experiences. But her music is ultimately about triumph. So, listening to Mozart and Tina makes for an interesting blend. They both get us to the innate joy that resides within us, regardless of heartache. My message for people who have ended relationships and who might be comtemplating killing themselves is to just sit with it. Breathe in the pain. Let it almost kill you. And then put on some music that you really enjoy and dance. Then you'll be ready for the next education. Which will be your next love.
Q: Your career thus far has spanned thirty years. You've written nearly as many books. With The Color Purple (1982), you became the first black woman to win a Pulitzer prize in fiction. Has the willingness of the world to receive you been a surprise?
A: Well, everything has surprised me. But fundamentally, when people respond to me, they are actually responding to a version of themselves. That's what excites them. It's like looking at a really good racecar driver. Now, I will never be one. But there is a part of me that thoroughly appreciates the skill and daring of driving a race car. Of thinking, "I'm going to drive this car as far and as fast as I can, and see what happens. Maybe it will fly." I can identify with that feeling.
When people read my books, I think a similar feeling gets activated. They see what they could be, if only . . . I trust in the world's receptivity to my life and art because of my own response to people who came with gifts. On the outside these people may not have resembled me at all. But when I opened the gift, I was staring into a mirror. That said, I am surprised I have lived this long.
Q: Why? A: For starters, they were shooting people in Mississippi, quite regularly. It's not as if people didn't get killed. Then I had to deal with my own depression about that very fact and all the other difficulties of life. However, having lived this long, I feel such a gratitude and freedom. If I died this minute, my life has been more than I could have ever imagined. Evelyn C. White is editor of The Black Women's Health Book: Speaking for Ourselves.