Cover story

Alice Walker: ‘A ménage à trois takes so much energy’

The Times

April 16, 2011

Alice Walker’s home in the hills above Berkeley, near San Francisco, is a whole lot of hippie heaven. A sign on the 67-year-old author’s gate bestows peace on all visitors. Inside are Buddhas and shrines crowded with trinkets, skulls, photographs of loved ones and political activists. The tea served is made from the yerba buena plant in the garden. She is dressed in loose-fitting clothes, her hair a close-cropped grey fuzz, her laugh merry and voice soft.

Walker may be best known for The Color Purple, her Pulitzer-winning feminist blockbuster (still one of the five most read books in America) about a black woman’s battle for survival and independence, later made into a film by Steven Spielberg, but in recent years Walker’s fiction and nonfiction have turned inwards to spirituality and self-examination.

Her 2004 novel Now is the Time to Open Your Heart was condemned by the revered New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani as a “cloying collection of New Age homilies”. Evidently, Walker didn’t care much about this mauling, as her new book is about the spiritual fulfilment she finds in keeping chickens. A short memoir, The Chicken Chronicles relates what happened when, two years ago in her Californian country home outside Mendocino, Walker set up a coop for eight female chickens: Glorious, Rufus, Gertrude Stein, Splendour, Hortensia, Agnes of God, the Gladyses and Babe. She relates the picking up of poop, the bliss when they jump into her lap and, despairingly, their territory-hogging viciousness.

Her blog makes it clear how politically engaged Walker is and we meet just after the US has started bombing Libyan targets. Walker agonises about war “destroying the planet, rivers and earth”. However, she also admits to wanting “us to help the rebel leaders, I couldn’t bear waiting for the slaughter”. So what should the US use to stop Gaddafi? “We should have been talking to him these past 40 years.” Yes, she says, finally, she agreed with the bombing: “But surely someone can find a way to stop aggression — using water cannons, perhaps — that doesn’t involve destruction.” Barack Obama has disillusioned her. “I’d hoped as president he would act more in moral terms, or with instinctive, passionate, direct action. Now I feel he’s playing along with some fairly evil personalities around him: bankers and such. He’s becoming a politician, not a leader.”

Walker’s peace ’n’ love is qualified by pragmatism. “I have always believed in self-defence,” she says. When she and her first husband, the Jewish civil rights lawyer Mel Leventhal, lived in Mississippi in the late 1960s, where their mixed-race marriage was illegal, racists were “firebombing and killing people” and the couple owned a gun. “My husband was afraid of it, I wasn’t that cheerful about it, but we had a child [Rebecca, born in 1969]. There is an instinct to fight back if you are attacked, especially if those attacks come under cover of dark- ness, wearing sheets. We didn’t use the gun, but we would have. It’s a lot to sit and wait for people to kill you. It tests everything you have, even with the heavy-duty Christianity I grew up around and my love of life.”

Having the chickens liberated a lot of memories, I suggest. “Absolutely,” Walker nods. Two years ago, with the sons of some Mendocino neighbours, she agreed to share the upkeep of the chickens. The eggs (boiled, then eaten on long-haul flights) are delicious. “But sitting there with them does bring back all these repressed difficulties.” Walker is referring particularly to being shot and blinded in her right eye by her brother, Curtis, firing an air rifle when she was 8. Growing up in Georgia, she was the eighth child of her father Willie Lee, a share-cropper, and mother Minnie, a part-time maid. At the same age she was shot, she was also tasked with wringing the neck of one of the family’s chickens, which signified “a rupture in the relationship to the animal: once you start killing something to eat it, you destroy a relationship based on tenderness” .

She was a tomboy. “We were playing cowboys and indians, and because I was a girl, I was an indian. I was standing on top of a makeshift garage made of corrugated tin when the pellet hit me. It was a blinding, massive sting. Only later did it really hurt.” Help wasn’t immediately forthcoming. Curtis wanted her to cover up that he had done it and she agreed, saying that she had stepped on some wire, which had hit her. A white driver of a car wouldn’t take her to hospital because she was black. “By the time the truth came out, it was too late to save the sight in that eye. I remember sitting on the porch, watching the blood cover the tree I was looking at. That’s the last thing I saw out of my right eye.”

Today she sees the blinding as a cause and metaphor for “the headless chicken” she was as a child, though she also claims to see “so much of my internal self and the truth of others” with her blind eye. “It’s an impediment. I work the other one so much, I constantly thank it for its hardiness and its solidarity with my obsession to write and bear witness. I accept the limitation and the gift of it.” Really, a gift? “It got me out of that town,” Walker says. She was a voracious reader: Jane Eyre, Gulliver’s Travels and Matthew Arnold were early favourites. After her injury, she went to college on a scholarship, then university, receiving a bachelor of arts degree in 1965. “I got an education. Curtis became a gangster. He shot people, beat them with the handles of guns, used cocaine and he died before I had a chance to thank him. I survived and I would have died if I had stayed there.”

Walker shows me a blurry black-and-white picture of her father in the fields. She imagines the life he “should” have had: a university professor. “He was a brilliant man. Before I came along, the last child, he had lots of joie de vivre, loved to dance and cook. He was broken and difficult when I was growing up. He had emphysema, diabetes, heart trouble, fell asleep while he was talking. The cigarettes he smoked would drop and start little fires on him. I loved my parents very much, but my father and I fought like crazy. He understood racism but didn’t get sexism. He thought there were some jobs boys shouldn’t do, like washing dishes and sweeping the floor. Only after he died [aged 61, in 1972] was I able to hold him in a place of honour. These were parents who sacrificed everything to get me out of the cotton fields, to make sure I didn’t have the horrible life they had.”

They hoped she would become a school-teacher, preacher or doctor and they were “so beautiful, dignified and accepting” when she married Leventhal. (“His mother kept shiva and was a stark raving racist,” she says.) The couple divorced amicably in either 1976 or 1977, Walker is not sure: “You’d think I’d remember the exact date, but no, it’s only the moment [of parting] that I recall.”

Walker published her first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland, in 1970; many volumes of poetry followed and in works such as Meridian (1976), anthologies and through academic teaching she sought to rescue black women’s literature and experience from obscurity and invisibility, later dealing with topics like female genital muti- lation (in Possessing The Secret of Joy, 1992). Brought to a huge worldwide audience by Spielberg’s 1985 film The Color Purple became her best-known work, even though Walker wasn’t happy with the movie at the beginning: “It diluted the lesbian theme of [the singer] Shug and [the heroine] Celie’s relationship and it made Mister [Celie’s abusive husband] irredeemable,” Walker says. But she “loves” it now, especially as a later musical (produced by Oprah Winfrey) resolved her two cavils.

Walker hadn’t had a relationship with a woman before she wrote it. Her first lesbian relationship, with the photographer Jean Weisinger, came in her fifties. “It was wonderful and very easy. We were together for about a year; she came into my life when I was still with Robert [Allen, then her lover]. He was flexible and said we could have a ménage à trois. But it didn’t work for Jean. And it takes so much energy.”

Walker next had a relationship with the singer Tracy Chapman. “Her voice is so precious. I fell in love with her, how could I not? We were together for a year, then she went on the road and left me with a beautiful black labrador.” Next Walker fell in love with a singer called Sally, from Hawaii. “And that was it for my fifties.” A relationship with a man came next; then she met her current boyfriend, Kaleo (“it means purity of sound”),a musician who came to fix her sink four years ago. “The thing about lesbians is they really want you to be lesbian, the thing about bi’s is they really want you to be bi, and the thing about straights is they really want you to be straight.” She laughs. “I’m not straight, I’m not bi, I’m not lesbian, I’m curious.” She and Kaleo are “kind of married” and she is friends with all her ex-partners: “Why wouldn’t I be?”

Walker and her daughter, Rebecca, remain estranged after Rebecca criticised her as being absent and overly permissive when she was growing up. The two haven’t seen each other since 2004. Rebecca has claimed that her mother had threatened to denigrate her as a writer after she had condemned Walker’s parenting. “Devastated,” Rebecca wrote in a 2008 article, “I asked her to apologise and acknowledge how much she’d hurt me over the years with neglect, withholding affection and resenting me for things I had no control over — the fact that I am mixed race, that I have a wealthy, white, professional father and that I was born at all. But she wouldn’t back down. Instead, she wrote me a letter saying that our relationship had been in- consequential for years and that she was no longer interested in being my mother. She even signed the letter with her first name, rather than ‘Mom’.”

Rebecca added of her mother: “She finds it impossible to step out of the limelight, which is extremely ironic in light of her view that all women are sisters and should support one another . . . I’ve done all I can to be a loyal, loving daughter, but I can no longer have this poisonous relationship destroy my life.”

Walker says: “I miss my daughter. It’s like my real daughter, the Rebecca I knew, died. This one hates me completely. We’re not reconciled. I don’t know where she lives and I have never seen my six-year-old grandson [Tenzin]. There seems to be this madness in our family. My sister Mamie hated our mother and went off and wasn’t heard of for years. I miss my daughter, but I have to say the person she turned into I don’t know and don’t understand. I write to her on her birthday and last week I sent her phone numbers in case she needed to call me.”

Rebecca has “fabricated” an image of her as an “ogre”. So was she a good mother? “Yes,” Walker says. Rebecca’s desire for fame — or “notoriety”, as Walker puts it — has “distorted” everything. “She often told me that she couldn’t live in the same town as me because I’m better known. Well, I’ve been on the block longer than she has. It’s painful, but it’s like being blinded. You learn other things.” Like what? “Like about loss.”

How does Walker respond to those who say her writing (in books such as The Temple of My Familiar and By the Light of My Father’s Smile) has gone too New Agey, spacey, that the force behind The Color Purple has been blunted? “I would say they haven’t been reading what I’ve been writing,” she says. “That New York Times review was terrible, absurd, ignorant. But I can’t worry how people see me.” She laughs. “I recognise my own eccentricity. I’ve been waiting for someone else to. Eccentricity is the first sign of giftedness.” No, she says, her career did not peak with The Color Purple: “Anyone who thinks that is left in the dust — but that’s the problem with notoriety.”

Everything is rooted in nature for her; when Walker was little, walking to school in winter, she built a fire in a tree. “I felt a strong connection to it. Years later, when lightning struck it, I felt more sadness than I did for many humans when they die. With my mother’s ancestry — a mixture of English, Irish, Scottish, African and Cherokee — came an indigenous aliveness with nature. All the other labels people attach to me are meaningless.” Walker is “a farmer at heart” and wants to grow marijuana to make tea. Her health is good, although she suffers from the immune system-affecting Lyme disease. “I get tired, but I’m of peasant stock, very sturdy.” She thinks about her mortality “all the time, although I don’t think that there is any death; you transform into something else”. The British film-maker Pratibha Parmar is making a documentary of her life. Much of Walker’s work has been to reveal hidden black history, I say. “The problem with white literature is it left out so much, but I wasn’t on a mission. I resist that box of ‘black woman writer’. I am concerned with the world, the cosmos.” America’s racial demons are far from resolved, but the country has evolved, she says: “Changing consciousness is what changes people.”

Walker has four homes: in Berkeley, Mendocino, Hawaii and Mexico. “I need to buy places rather than rent them because when I was younger we weren’t permitted to go into a hotel. They could throw us out ofanyshackwelivedin.Itmatterstometo say ‘This is mine and these are the deeds to prove it’.” Walker picks up a Mexican drum and starts beating it loudly. “So they think I’m New Agey, huh? Well this will really get them,” she shouts, laughing. Minutes later she is still pacing the room, beating the drum, rapturous expression on her face, as I close the garden gate.