Originally Published Online by Book of the Month Club/InsightOut and QPB book clubs.


An Interview with Alice Walker:
Author of The Way Forward Is with a Broken Heart
by Caz Springer

Alice Walker burst onto the literary scene, and then Hollywood, with The Color Purple. In the eighteen years since its publication she has produced novels, nonfiction, poetry, essays and short stories to feed a growing readership. Whatever rumors swirled about the young author at the time when Shug and Celie lit up the screen in The Color Purple, Walker has kept to her own path, writing about whatever topics she pleased in her own sweet time. From her home in Mendocino County, California, she talked about bisexuality, reputation and rapid changes in our society.

C. Springer:
In the preface you write that the stories are 'mostly fiction, but with the definite thread of having come out of a singular life.' Would you say something about the writer drawing from her own life in fiction?

Alice Walker:
Well, it occurred to me as I was looking at all of these stories that they actually grew organically out of the ending of my marriage. Because the ending of the marriage actually set me free to explore more of life.

CS:
You also have the Mae West quote 'I wrote the story myself. It's about a girl who lost her reputation but never missed it.' What does 'having a good reputation' mean to you these days?

AW:
Many times people think about reputation. I never have particularly, but in any case, many women are brought up to be very fearful of losing it. But the fact is that when you lose it, you don't miss it. [Laughs] That's one of the joyful things that I discovered, that it's such a phony construction. That you might as well go ahead and lose it, and live your life while you have it exactly as you wish, not hurting other people, but definitely with freedom and joy.

CS:
The stories in The Way Forward Is with a Broken Heart explore many types of love relationships. There are several women who are exploring bisexuality within primarily heterosexual relationships, and there are lesbians. What was it like for you to write about these relationships?

AW:
It was fine because I wanted to explore my own interests in my own life in that area. Bisexuality has been in my life for quite a number of years, and so it was quite joyful. As with anything, when you're really able to really look at something, you see how you got there, and what it felt like, and how it leaves you feeling, and whether you feel good about it. Which I do. It's fascinating to me that some women are clearly lesbian and that they relate completely to women sexually. And some women are clearly bisexual, and they are very open to love relationships with men and women. I think we're in this area now, in terms of sexuality, where all of us are learning amazing things. We're in very new territories, for people my age anyway. You know, many of us never dreamed that we would have these choices.

CS:
Right.

AW:
We're shocked. It's incredible.

CS:
Things are changing amazingly quickly in our society.

AW:
I remember when you couldn't imagine black people and white people sitting at the same table. I didn't do that until I was seventeen, and that was a stretch. But we just continue. We just continue to stretch ourselves and it's very good.

CS:
It's interesting to read about life during the Jim Crow era in The Way Forward is with a Broken Heart. Right now there are people living side-by-side in our society who have such different realms of history that they carry with them. The reality of Jim Crow for people from my grandmother's generation or your generation, then there are kids that I've talked with on the West Coast who don't even know that interracial marriage was ever illegal. They had no idea.

AW:
I know. Sometimes when I mention that my marriage was illegal, people just have this blank look.

CS:
What's your opinion about gay and lesbian marriage, or about the institution of marriage for those other than heterosexual couples?

AW:
Well, I think anything that is illegal should be challenged. I mean, anything on the order of personal, grown-up relationship matters. I think that for those people who want to get married, for whatever reasons, they should. That was part of what I learned marrying illegal in Mississippi. How dare those people try to tell us we can't be together and live together? That they could arrest us for living in the same house. Can you imagine?!

CS:
It's enriching to look at a lifetime where at one point a black woman is illegally married to a Jewish man, and then at another point in that lifetime, a woman can be openly in love with another woman. And as much as there is increasing acceptance for lesbian and gay 'lifestyles,' within our communities there can be less acceptance for bisexuals. Liz Smith, the gossip columnist, recently came out in her memoir Natural Blonde. In it she says that she never really made much differentiation between male lovers and female lovers. She likes people. But then in an interview where she was asked about Anne Heche and Ellen DeGeneres, she said, 'If you have bisexual tendencies, you're very dangerous to everybody else in the whole world. You should just lock yourself to the wall because you are dangerous. Dangerous to gay people and straight people.' What's your take on the reputation or status of bisexuals?

AW:
I found a lot [about bisexuality] in my research on Possessing the Secret of Joy. What I discovered is that really the fear of the bisexual is basically what is at the root of female genital mutilation, and also of male circumcision. Because the bisexual is by nature subversive, you cannot really control a bisexual person. You cannot claim that person. You cannot make them do or act or behave in a specific way your own deciding. And yes, in fact this very ancient Dogon myth says quite explicitly that you excise the clitoris of the female to take away any sign of maleness. And you take away the foreskin of the male because it's a circle, to make sure that he has nothing female. I was very interested in this. From my perspective it's more about the fact that bisexual people basically have their own vision, which is a vision that is inclusive because we love everybody. And loving everybody, we really are subversive.

I think that other ancient cultures have really venerated this quality, and have really known that people who are capable of loving everyone regardless of gender or sex make very good healers. So in many places like matriarchal Mexico, in parts of the Amazon, and in very old, old cultures, the bisexual people are the people who really are the curers and the curenderas and the healers. I think that a lot of witches were probably bisexual.

CS:
We talk about the LGBT [Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender] community and the gay community and the lesbian community. Do you think there's a bisexual community?

AW:
I don't know. I don't travel in groups that are based on labels. I feel so 'unlabelable.' So I really don't know.

CS:
Perhaps it's a matter of people using labels to try to get some share of political power, to have representation.

AW:
I understand that, but it also often leads to control.

CS:
Once you accept a label, it affects how you see yourself.

AW:
And not only that. You know, talk about being stuck! As an Aquarian, I really resent any idea of 'stuckness'. And I think there's nothing that sticks you so securely in one spot, which inhibits growth, as a label.

CS:
That leads me to your self-defining in terms of your Scottish-Irish, African and American Indian heritage, which also comes up for the woman in 'For My Young Husband.' It seems that when one accepts that multiethnicity, then one can accept a multitude of types of identity.

AW:
Absolutely. And you just keep transcending them. In my opinion, once you claim them instead of clinging to them, you let them go, and then you just go on to be whoever you are.

CS:
Right. In 'Growing Out,' one woman says to another, 'You fell in love with competence.' What's going on today with women falling 'in love with competence'?

AW:
I think that women have become used to the idea that women can't fix cars, and they can't mow the fields, and they can't get the tractor started or whatever. And so I think that part of what is happening a lot is that women are seeing that other women are quite capable of doing whatever anybody else can do. It's extremely attractive. When you then see that women wear what they like, speak their minds, go where they please, and are competent, capable, it's very, very attractive.

CS:
Gurumayi and spirituality come up in 'Conscious Birth.' What's your spiritual practice like?

AW:
I meditate, and I just came back from a weeklong silent retreat at Spirit Rock. And I study a lot of Buddhism. And really love it. Really respect it. Really see that it works. It's a very strong ancient support for people. The more I understand that my work is pretty much with me at all times, and I can go out and work in the world, but I really can only be as effective there as I am internally.

CS:
In 'Orelia and John,' you talk about city dwellers and country living, cave dwellers and tree dwellers. Tell me something about your choices in community.

AW:
I love the country because I was born in it, and the city has never felt like home, although I have a house in Berkeley and love it. I love that community because there really is a community, and it really is as radical as I need to be in. By that I mean that the people of Berkeley, most of them, are really aware of what's happening in the world, and they really have a point of view. They express it, and you feel like if I talk about the bombing of Iraq, almost anybody on the street here will know what I'm talking about. But yes, the country is very important to me just because I have never in my formative years been without trees, and as much sky as the eye can hold, and good water from a well, so those things are important to me.

CS:
That's interesting because in our American culture 'black culture' is synonymous with 'urban culture.'

AW:
Oh my God, but see, that is so recent. We are completely rural people. We did live in the trees. We are intimate with trees. It's so sad when black people lose that. There are black people who don't know how to plant their own food. I just find that shocking.

CS:
I'd like to close with revisiting gay life and bisexuality in the black community. Whether it's Bessie Smith, James Baldwin or Langston Hughes, whom you write about in The Way Forward..., there is a strong lineage of people who were not heterosexual giving their all to the world of the arts in the African American community. Would you say something about those icons and maybe how the sexuality is often overlooked, and what that might to do with their lasting image and who they were?

AW:
Langston Hughes is a good example. Because he was sort of gay, he was actually forced to behave in ways that he might not have liked. I think that there times when he felt he couldn't read the poems he wanted to read, or couldn't even write them. And I think that he had a lifelong fear of being rejected by black people, whom he loved so deeply. And this kind of behavior really hurts us. It hurts us as a community. It hurts us as a people, because if there's a black person anywhere who fears to be rejected by the 'black community'...if that's true, if people actually go around fearing that, then what good is the community? It's not a community. It's more like a court in which people who seem different are put on trial. It means that we are much weaker in this kind of situation where we come to action, in times of crisis, much later than we should—for instance, in the AIDS crisis.

CS:
Take a church like the East Bay Church of Religious Science in Oakland, California, which has a congregation that is largely black and also inclusive. The church recognizes LGBT pride day. That's refreshing.

AW:
Right. I also feel like we needn't waste too much time trying to worry about being accepted. You know, whenever people think about and talk about 'Will somebody accept me?'...Listen, you are accepted already. You are here. Life accepts you and certainly that's how I feel. I feel like I'm accepted by the moon, I'm accepted by the stars. I'm accepted by the wind, the trees, the water. And who are you to be hanging back?


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