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Alice Walker on "Overcoming Speechlessness: A Poet Encounters the Horror in Rwanda, Eastern Congo and Palestine/Israel"

StoryApril 13, 2010
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Alice Walker

Pulitzer Prize-winning author, poet and activist. Her latest book is Overcoming Speechlessness.

As the 2010 Pulitzer Prize winners are announced, we speak with the first African American woman to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize for fiction: author, poet and activist Alice Walker. She was awarded the 1983 Pulitzer for her novel The Color Purple. She was written many books since then. Her latest, just out, is called Overcoming Speechlessness: A Poet Encounters the Horror in Rwanda, Eastern Congo and Palestine/Israel. [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: The list of winners for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize were announced Monday — among them, Sheri Fink, reporter with the nonprofit investigative news group ProPublica. She won the Pulitzer for investigative reporting for her story in collaboration with the New York Times Magazine on the urgent life-and-death decisions made by doctors at a New Orleans hospital when they were cut off by the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina. Meanwhile, Anthony Shadid walked away with his second Pulitzer for his Washington Post series on the war in Iraq.

Well, my next guest is the first African American woman to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize for fiction: author, poet, activist, Alice Walker, awarded the 1983 Pulitzer for her novel The Color Purple. She has written many books since then. Her latest, just out, is called Overcoming Speechlessness: A Poet Encounters the Horror in Rwanda, Eastern Congo, and Palestine/Israel. Alice Walker, joining us here in our new firehouse —- in our new Democracy Now! studios.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

ALICE WALKER: It’s so beautiful.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, welcome to the greenest TV, radio, internet studios in the country. It’s great to have you here.

ALICE WALKER: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: And I look forward to speaking to you tonight at the 92nd Street Y in the public conversation. But Alice, this latest book, why did you call it Overcoming Speechlessness?

ALICE WALKER: I wanted to address what I feel is a real problem that we have in the last century, actually, or even before. And that is that things can be so horrible that people lose the ability to talk about them. And I had this happen when I was in college, actually, when I learned that the King of Belgium had decided that if the Africans in the Belgian Congo could not fulfill their rubber quota that he had imposed on them, he could order their hands to be chopped off. This was so appalling to me as a student, as an eighteen— and nineteen-year-old, that I couldn’t speak about it. I just — I put it somewhere that I left for many years. And I think this has happened over and over to people, that they encounter these brutalities, these atrocities, and they literally can’t talk about them, and so we don’t speak. But if we don’t speak, then there’s more of it, and more people suffer. So it’s a call to overcoming speechlessness.

AMY GOODMAN: We just got word that eight Red Cross staff have been kidnapped by an armed group in the eastern Congo. Seven Congolese and one Swiss national were seized on Friday afternoon near the town of Mai Mai [sic] — well, near the town of — in a South Kivu province by the Mai Mai rebels, this according to the Red Cross. You went to eastern Congo?

ALICE WALKER: I was in eastern Congo, and I met some women who were survivors of enslavement and sexual abuse that was so horrendous that it was a challenge to even hear it and even to see some of the damage. On the other hand, I found that by being there, I gave myself some comfort, because I wasn’t trying to see people at a distance and removing myself, my feelings from them. It was very frightening, because there were lots of soldiers everywhere and people who had been damaged by soldiers, you know, people who had lost limbs. And it was traumatic.

AMY GOODMAN: You began, though, by talking about Rwanda, and then you trace the violence to Congo. Talk about Rwanda.

ALICE WALKER: Yes. Well, in Rwanda, because of the killing of so many Tutsis by the Hutu and the — really a slaughter —-

AMY GOODMAN: And you trace it back. You go all the way -—

ALICE WALKER: Well, I went all the way back to, again, those Belgians, the Belgians, and before them, the Germans. They came into the Congo, and they decided that the Tutsi people, because they had larger skulls, were more like Europeans, and so they should be in charge of the Hutu people, whose skulls apparently were not as large. Anyway, they instigated this rule of one clan by the other, even though these people had been fairly peaceful living together for centuries. And after they had done this, finally, after many years of domination, a century or so, they left. But they left the Hutu in charge of the Tutsi. And so, eventually, the hatred that had been building over a long, long period erupted into genocide.

And so, I had heard about this awful thing that the Hutu Interahamwe people had killed 800,000 of the Tutsi people. And that again was so awful, I couldn’t really entirely let myself feel what it must be like to actually have your body hacked away from you, which is what happened to all of those people. But eventually, I needed to go there, and so I did. And what I found was, you know, that the Rwandan people have done a wonderful job of memorializing what happened, and they have also elected more women to help run the country than almost anywhere else.

But on the other hand, the soldiers and the murderers, a lot of them, just went into the Congo. And so, we went there, not following them, but because we wanted to see the Congo, which is incredibly beautiful. It is the most exquisite country. I had no idea. I mean, lakes and trees and, you know, just a wonderful place, except that it’s torn to bits by the war. And a lot of the people who did the killing in Rwanda are there, and they had been murdering and abusing the people terribly.

And so, one of the women that I talk about in my book is a woman who had been basically chopped up, and I find it hard to talk about it even now. But she survived, and she is now looking for her children, who survived, one or two of them. The Interahamwe people had shot her son and her husband, killed them. So it’s — you know, it’s a kind of violence in the world now that is truly unspeakable. I mean, that is the part of it, that overcoming speechlessness means speaking about what really is unspeakable because it is so terrible.

AMY GOODMAN: You go, in the book, from Rwanda to eastern Congo to Palestine-Israel.


AMY GOODMAN: It was your first trip?

ALICE WALKER: To Palestine? Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: What made you go?

ALICE WALKER: Well, I was actually mourning the death of my own sister, and I thought that, oh, she was, you know, much older, and she was sick, and she died, and we’d had a horrible five or six years before she died. And so I thought, you know, when she dies, I won’t be devastated. And I was completely devastated. It was so painful.

And I was out trying to deal with my own devastation, when I learned about a woman in Palestine, during the bombing, who had been — who had lost five of her daughters, and she herself was unconscious. And it just instantly connected me to her. I felt, what will this be like? Who will tell her? Who will tell this woman when she wakes up that “your five daughters are dead”?

And so I felt that I had to go and present myself to this situation and to be attentive to it in a way that I had started being many years before, except that at the time I was married to and then related to, in many ways, to a Jewish person who always said, well, if you see the Palestinian side, almost anything, you know, positive about the Palestinian side, then it means that you are anti-Semitic. And so, this was so shocking to me that it silenced me for a while. I mean, I said a few things, I wrote a few things. But I felt that I had left something undone. And I realize at this point in my life, and years earlier, actually, that there are things in life that call to us, and they’re ours to do. And this was one of the things that was mine to finish.

And so I went to Gaza, and I met with women who had lost everything, and their children, their houses. You know, I sat on the rubble, even though there was the phosphorus powder, because it was just overwhelming to see the injury and the damage that had been done to these people by the Israeli government. And I knew that it was my responsibility as a writer and as a human being to witness this and to write about it. I mean, why else was I — why else am I a writer? You know, why else do I have a conscience? I think that all people who feel that there is injustice in the world anywhere should learn as much of it as they can bear. That is our duty.

AMY GOODMAN: Would you like to read a little from the book, Overcoming Speechlessness?

ALICE WALKER: I’ll try. I don’t have my reading glasses, but I can do my best.

AMY GOODMAN: Maybe “It Feels Familiar”?

ALICE WALKER: OK, yeah. Alright. Oh, where is it? Where is that, Amy? I don’t see it.

AMY GOODMAN: “It Feels Familiar.” Number seventeen.

ALICE WALKER: OK, I think we might —-

AMY GOODMAN: Right there.

ALICE WALKER: Oh, yeah, I’m sorry.

“It Feels Familiar.”

“One of the triumphs of the civil rights movement is that when you travel through the South today you do not feel overwhelmed by a residue of grievance and hate. This is the legacy of people brought up in the Christian tradition, true believers of every word Jesus had to say on the issues of justice, loving kindness, and peace. This dovetailed nicely with what we learned of Gandhian nonviolence, brought into the movement by Bayard Rustin, a gay strategist for the civil rights movement. A lot of thought went into how to create ‘the beloved community’ so that our country would not be stuck with a violent hatred between black and white, and with the continuous spectacle, and suffering, of communities going up in flames. The progress is astonishing and I will always love Southerners, black and white, for the way we have all grown. Ironically, though there was so much suffering and despair as the struggle for justice tested us, it is in this very ‘backward’ part of our country today that one is most likely to find simple human helpfulness, thoughtfulness, and disinterested courtesy.

“I speak a little about this American history, but it isn’t history that these women know.” These are the women, the Palestinian women, I’m with. “They’re too young. They’ve never been taught it. It feels irrelevant. Following their example of speaking of their families, I talk about my Southern parents’ teachings during our experience of America’s apartheid years, when white people owned and controlled all the resources and the land, in addition to the political, legal, and military apparatus, and used their power to intimidate black people in the most barbaric and merciless ways. These whites who tormented us daily were like Israelis who have cut down millions of trees planted by Arab Palestinians, stolen Palestinian water, even topsoil. Forcing Palestinians to use separate roads from those they use themselves, they have bulldozed innumerable villages, houses, mosques, and in their place built settlements for strangers who have no connection whatsoever with Palestine: settlers who have been the most rabidly anti-Palestinian of all, attacking the children, the women, everyone, old and young alike, viciously.”

AMY GOODMAN: Alice, I wanted to go back to March 2009 -—


AMY GOODMAN: — when you were in Gaza, to a video of you there.

    ALICE WALKER: It’s shocking beyond anything I have ever experienced. And it’s actually so horrible that it’s basically unbelievable, even though I’m standing here and I’ve been walking here and I’ve been looking at things here. It still feels like, you know, you could never convince anyone that this is actually what is happening and what has happened to these people and what the Israeli government has done. It will be a very difficult thing for anyone to actually believe in, so it’s totally important that people come to visit and to see for themselves, because the world community, that cares about peace and cares about truth and cares about justice, will have to find a way to deal with this. We cannot let this go as if it’s just OK, especially those of us in the United States who pay for this. You know, I have come here, in part, to see what I’m buying with my tax money.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Alice Walker in 2009, interviewed by my colleague here at Democracy Now!, Anjali Kamat. When you look back at you walking through the rubble of Gaza, your thoughts?

ALICE WALKER: My thought is that I am so glad I was there. I am so glad that I managed to gather myself and present myself to this situation, because it is my responsibility, you know, as a person, as an elder, as someone who cares about the planet, who really wants us all to thrive, you know, or just survive. This is a very thorny issue, and it takes all of us looking at it as carefully as we can to help solve it. It’s not that it’s impossible to solve. But what will help a lot is the insistence by all of us on fairness and on people actually understanding what they’re looking at.

AMY GOODMAN: You say that the Middle East solution is beyond the two-state solution, and you also talk about restorative justice.

ALICE WALKER: Yes, I do, because I believe in restorative justice. I think we could use that here. I mean, I don’t feel great about the past leaders here not being brought to trial, actually, you know. But if we can’t have trial, we could at least have council. I mean, but to let people, any people, just go, after they’ve murdered lots of people and destroyed a lot, is not right. It destroys trust. So — what was the rest of the question?

AMY GOODMAN: And you believe in a one-state solution.

ALICE WALKER: Oh, the one-state solution. Yes, I do. I mean, when I think about my tax money, and I think about, well, you know, given that I’ve already given, and we as a country have given over a trillion dollars to Israel in the last — since, I don’t know, ‘48 or something, but a lot of money that we could have used here, where would I be happiest to see, you know, my money spent? Well, I would be happy seeing my money spent for all the people who live in Palestine. And that means that, you know, the Palestinians who are forced out of their houses, forced off of their land, should come back and share the land, all of it, including the settlements. You know, if I am going to be asked to help pay for settlements, I would like to be, you know, permitted to say who gets to live in them. And I would like the women and children, the Palestinian women and children that I saw, I would like to say — take them by hand and say, “You know what? Look at this. We built this for you. You’re home now.”

AMY GOODMAN: Alice Walker, her latest book, Overcoming Speechlessness: A Poet Encounters the Horror in Rwanda, Eastern Congo, and Palestine/Israel. We will continue our conversation tonight at 8:00 at the 92nd Street Y in New York City at 92nd and Lex. And we will play portions of that here. We’ll also post on our website Anjali’s entire interview with Alice Walker in Gaza last year.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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