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Inner Light in a Time of Darkness: A Conversation with Author and Poet Alice Walker

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A renowned author, poet and activist, Alice Walker is perhaps best known for her book “The Color Purple,” for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1983. She was the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer for Fiction. Alice Walker joins us in our firehouse studio to talk about her latest work, “We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: This song, “We Are the Ones,” by Sweet Honey in the Rock inspired the title of the latest book by Alice Walker, We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For: Inner Light in a Time of Darkness. A renowned author, poet and activist, Alice Walker is perhaps best known for her book, The Color Purple, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1983. She was the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer for Fiction. The novel was adapted into an Oscar-nominated feature-length film and has been recently made into a Broadway musical. She has written many other best-selling books, including In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, Possessing the Secret of Joy, The Way Forward Is With a Broken Heart. She joins me in the firehouse studio. Welcome to Democracy Now!

ALICE WALKER: Thank you so much.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Your new book is somewhat of a departure. It’s largely essays and also publications of some of the speeches that you’ve given across the country. What led you to decide to tackle — because you’re always tackling major issues, and now you’re also tackling a lot of the major social issues of our time in some of your writing.

ALICE WALKER: Well, I wanted to publish some of the talks that I have given to yoga teachers and Buddhists across the country, and I wanted to offer a meditation at the end of each of these to help people get through this very difficult time and the times that are coming.

JUAN GONZALEZ: One of the things that impressed me in reading through the manuscript, is you often refer back to your experiences on a farm and what your parents taught you about the land and farming and how that has infused a lot of how you look at the world.

ALICE WALKER: I love the earth, because I had parents who knew what to do with the earth and who respected it and could grow anything there on the farm. So I think that that’s part of my spirituality, is just — it just is me. It is how I came into the world, understanding how divine earth is.

AMY GOODMAN: Alice, it’s great to be with you again, although I’m in Miami now, and you’re in New York. Yesterday, we were together at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, where you gave an address, and you called your address “While the World Burns.” Can you talk about how that connects to your mother and how it connects to what’s happening today?

ALICE WALKER: Well, my mother was someone who worked very hard and used to watch the soaps. There was one called While the World Turns, and I could see how this activity of watching these soaps in the evenings, even though she was very tired, gradually sucked away a lot of her energy. And I was thinking about how people like my mother could actually be a part of changing the world, even though they’re so overburdened with work and children usually. And I was thinking that one way of doing that would be to form circles of people in your neighborhood, in your community, in your home even, so that during the really hard times, you would have your own mini community to help guide you through difficulties, as the world burns. And the world is burning.

AMY GOODMAN: Alice, just before the invasion, on International Women’s Day, you and a group of other writers went to Washington. You stood in front of the White House in Lafayette Park and you linked arms. And you write about this in We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For. Can you talk about that experience, why you, Alice Walker, the artist, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, chose to get arrested that day?

ALICE WALKER: It just seemed necessary, because I don’t believe in harming people. I don’t believe in bombing children. I don’t believe in making misery when it’s totally unnecessary. And misery is not necessary. And so, I was with other women who believe that the women and children of Iraq are just as dear as the women and children in our families, and that, in fact, we are one family. And so it would have felt to me as if we were going over to actually bomb ourselves.

JUAN GONZALEZ: In one of the essays, there was a really poignant reflection on a time when you were called to jury duty and you found that the trial involved three youths who were charged with shooting a policeman. And you reflected on what the continuing oppression of African Americans has done to the entire community.

ALICE WALKER: Yes, well, these three — actually these were, I think, two Asian men and a Latino, and they had robbed a steakhouse. And so, when I was called to jury duty to see these young men, what struck me was how hungry they looked and how emaciated and how they just were children. And what was before them was life imprisonment, basically. And it just was horrible and horrifying and unjust and wrong, because I think that this kind of punishment, even when children are adults who are really very young do these things, we need to have a different approach than prison and interminable sentences.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But in the same essay, you sort of — you connected to a lot of the lessons that you have drawn from your studies of Buddhism, and could you connect them for our listeners and the audience who haven’t yet had the opportunity to read the book?

ALICE WALKER: Well, what comes to mind right away is the saint in Buddhism, Mila Repa. Mila Repa started out his life very well-to-do, but then they fell on hard times, his family, and he was mistreated. His mother was abused, and so he ended up murdering a whole village. And yet, at some point in his later life, in his development, he became one of the most venerated saints of Buddhism, which says to us that people change, and they develop, and they grow, and that if you just stick them in a cell and just leave them there, this is in no way going to make them into better people and in no way will it ultimately protect us.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Alice Walker, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, wrote, among many other books, The Color Purple, and her new book, a series of essays based on lectures she has given, We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For: Inner Light in a Time of Darkness. We’ll come back to our conversation with Alice Walker, and then we’ll turn to Isabel Allende, who’s here in Miami at the Miami Festival of Books. Stay with us.


JUAN GONZALEZ: Later in the show, we will speak with Chilean novelist Isabel Allende, but right now we go back to our conversation with author Alice Walker. And I’d like to ask you, as you well know, our nation has just gone through a national election, and there’s been some kind of a change. And I’m wondering whether you have any hope that this will be a significant change in the direction of the country. Or is it going to be more of the changing of the guard, but no real substantive change?

ALICE WALKER: I think it’s a good beginning, because you can see that people are awake, and they’re really awakening. But it is just a beginning, and the great fear is that people will fall back now and feel that they have actually accomplished something substantive, and that is not true. We have to really just understand that we’re beginning, and I think if we know that, we can continue. And one of the things I wanted to mention was how important it is now, instead of rushing forward immediately, that we take some time to reflect on where we’re actually going and what kind of society we want.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And as you go around country, as you say in your book, you always had a fear of speaking. You’ve always wanted to prepare your speeches until recently now, when you went to, I think it was, South —


JUAN GONZALEZ: — to Korea. That’s when you suddenly discovered that you had the capacity for just speaking without preparing your notes. What is your sense of, when you go around other places in the world especially, how people regard what’s going on in the United States?

ALICE WALKER: I think they’re very afraid. I think most of the planet is very afraid, because they feel that our leadership is actually endangering the planet. And I think they’re right.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And in terms of the hope for the role of artists in helping to promote social change — you’ve always been very much of an advocate of the artists being socially involved — do you sense among American writers and artists that there’s more of a commitment in these days to using their work to raise the consciousness of the people, rather than just arts for art’s sake?

ALICE WALKER: Well, I don’t know many people who still believe in art for art’s sake. You know, we have flowers for that. Most people that I know who are artists really are dedicated to trying to change people and to change minds and hearts. A lot of it has to do with just survival, that we, as a species, can survive and thrive. And so, people are putting their hearts into their work in a way that I think they haven’t done in a very long time.

AMY GOODMAN: Alice, you are a woman of many firsts. You’re the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. You are, with your ex-husband, the first interracial couple to be legally married in Mississippi. You’re the first woman professor to teach a course in African-American writers at Wellesley University. Where do all these firsts come from?

ALICE WALKER: They come from whatever is of interest to me. And so, where my husband was concerned, I was very interested and loved him very much. I loved the writers that I taught at Wellesley. And I have forgotten the first thing that you said.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, talking about winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1983, first African-American woman, and teaching African-American women writers.

ALICE WALKER: Mm-hmm. Well, the Pulitzer was a surprise to me, because I didn’t realize that there was a Pulitzer for Fiction. But all of my work basically comes out of love.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I would like to — Amy, I’m sorry?

AMY GOODMAN: I was just going to say I wanted to follow up on one of the stories you told earlier, Alice. And that is, when you were arrested in Washington, D.C., I was there, watched the whole thing go down. You were arrested, Terry Tempest Williams, Maxine Hong Kingston, Nina Utne and many other writers. Well, it was a group of about 24, 25 of you. You write beautifully about it in We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For. But can you talk about what happened with the police officer who arrested you?

ALICE WALKER: Well, the police officer who arrested me really didn’t want to do it, and he told me, “Oh, my wife is just going to kill me if I come home and say that I have arrested you.” So we started talking and, in fact, when I was let out of the holding cell, he helped me tie up my shoes, because they make you untie your shoes. And while he was helping me tie my shoes, we started talking about his children, and so he wanted to know if I had written any children’s books, and I had. And so I was able to send some books to his children.

It was a very good experience, because I realized that even though sometimes we think of the police as our enemy, they’re really our family, and often, especially with African Americans, oftentimes it’s the only job that many of the people can get, and so he was doing it very well, I thought.

JUAN GONZALEZ: In your essays in your newest book, there is a lot about the earth and the environment, but usually in Latino, African Americans, poor communities, with so many other pressing issues that are confronting people, the social activists rarely deal with the broader question of what is happening to our earth and the environmental devastation. Your sense of the importance of people being aware of the need to protect the earth?

ALICE WALKER: That comes from the way I was brought up. I was born and raised way, way, way in country. We rarely saw other people. We saw more trees than people and more animals than people. And so I became very close to earth and to the knowledge that without a healthy environment we cannot be healthy people.

AMY GOODMAN: Alice, would you be willing to read something from your latest book, We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For?

ALICE WALKER: Yes. ”It is the worst of times. It is the best of times. Try as I might I cannot find a more appropriate opening to this volume: it helps tremendously that these words have been spoken before and, thanks to Charles Dickens, written at the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities. Perhaps they have been spoken, written, thought, an endless number of times throughout human history. It is the worst of times because it feels as though the very earth is being stolen from us, by us; the land and air poisoned, the water polluted, the animals disappeared, humans degraded and misguided. War is everywhere. It is the best of times because we have entered a period, if we can bring ourselves to pay attention, of great clarity as to cause and effect. A blessing when we consider how much suffering human beings have endured, in previous millennia, without a clue to its cause. Gods and Goddesses were no doubt created to fill this gap. Because we can now see into every crevice of the globe and because we are free to explore previously unexplored crevices in our own hearts and minds, it is inevitable that everything we have needed to comprehend in order to survive, everything that we have needed to understand in the most basic of ways, will be illuminated now. We have only to open our eyes, and awaken to our predicament. We see that we are, alas, a huge part of our problem. However: We live in a time of global enlightenment. This alone should make us shout for joy.”

AMY GOODMAN: Alice Walker, reading from her new book, We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For: Inner Light in a Time of Darkness. And before we formally introduce our next guest, Isabel Allende, I just wanted these two — it’s hard to say California women, given that Isabel Allende is hardly someone we think of exactly from California, but to get a chance to greet each other. Welcome, Isabel.

ISABEL ALLENDE: Welcome, Alice. It’s wonderful to hear your voice and to read your words. I think you are the person we have been waiting for, for many, many years.

ALICE WALKER: Thank you so much. And we are together.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Alice, thank you very much for having been with us.

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Acclaimed Chilean Novelist Isabel Allende on Michelle Bachelet, Immigration and Chile as a “Country of Poets”

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