MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker has created some of the most fascinating and unforgettable characters of modern American fiction. One of her gifts as a writer is looking beyond the flaws of her characters and giving readers a window into their souls.
That talent for seeing beyond the surface of things is something Walker touches on in her new poetry collection, "Hard Times Require Furious Dancing." The poems speak about family, war, poverty, but also about love and joy. And she's here with us to talk about all of that, we hope, and whatever else is on her mind. Alice Walker, thank you so much for speaking with us.
Ms. ALICE WALKER (Poet, Novelist): I'm happy to be here.
MARTIN: And of course I have to ask you about the title, which is delicious and evocative in its own way. So what inspired you to title the book that way?
Ms. WALKER: Well, I was having, you know, my difficulties in life and I decided that instead of lying on the couch and bawling, what I really needed to do was to invite people to an enormous dance. So I hired a hall and a band and we got together and we danced until we all felt so much better.
MARTIN: How did you invite people? What did you say?
Ms. WALKER: I called them up and I said, this is a party - and it was on Thanksgiving, actually, which I don't normally celebrate in a traditional way anyway. But I said, come and we will dance and I don't want you to stand in corners talking and holding your little cocktail glass. I want you just to be mostly in silence and listen to the music and move your body and move your spirit. And we played a lot of Bob Marley and we also had live music, African High Life, which is so irrepressible.
MARTIN: The silence, though, part, you threw me for a loop with the silence part. How come people had to be silent? And how did you enforce that? Did you go around saying, shh?
Ms. WALKER: No. You'd have to know my friends. We have a long history of dancing and gathering and we understand that so much happens in inner silence and even when you're listening to music. The spirit needs that space. And so it wasn't difficult and people really wanted to dance. We had just lost, for instance, the mother of two of my nieces. And so there was that loss to be danced. And, you know, I had lost several of my siblings and that loss had to be danced. So it wasn't that difficult. People were not into chatting.
MARTIN: And did the work come from that? Or was that event part of the work? Did the words arise from the dancing or was the dancing the way to the words?
Ms. WALKER: Well, it's hard to say what comes first, but in my life I am led by what needs to be expressed in me. And so at that point dance wanted to be expressed. And then, actually, I think it was after that I went off to Mexico thinking I would grow collard greens in my garden there. But the ants loved them. And I started writing poems. So you know, it was a wonderful balance. You lose something, the universe gives you something else. Now, of course, I have the book of poems and the people who are, you know, in my life there, you know, have learned how to take care of the (unintelligible), the ants. So I also have greens there.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: Well, that is a great that is a great relief.
Ms. WALKER: I'm happy.
MARTIN: I was inching my way to asking you how that turned out. So thank you for that. To that end of duality of love and how love and loss so often go together, would you mind reading a selection from your poem "Loving Humans"?
Ms. WALKER: Yes, I'd love to. This is a poem that's dedicated to Aung San Suu Kyi. I went to Burma a couple of years ago. One of the things that she thinks is that even though these people have kept her in prison for so long, she thinks that she could actually one day sit down and have tea with them and convince them to see life from her perspective. So this poem comes out of that. It's called "Loving Humans."
Loving humans is tricky. Sometimes a slap in the face is all you get for doing it just right. Loving humans is a job like any other, only more bumps on the way to work, which is full on all the time. Loving humans makes us want to invite ourselves to tea with rancid dictators we think we can convince of our story's side, while all they think about while we sit and dream is how they can get away with poisoning our tea. And how if only they had enough tea already brewed they could waterboard us to death with it.
Loving humans means writing poems and songs, novels and plays, slogans, chants and protest signs our critics want to stone us for, while we think of them as people under different circumstances we might be able to help. There is indeed a Buddha in every one of us. Loving humans, with all our clear and unmistakable reluctance to evolve, makes this hard for most humans to see, but not you.
MARTIN: Thank you. I'm grateful that you told us the back story because I wondered - there are those who would say that of you as well. And the forward, for example, artist Shiloh McCloud said, quote, "Alice Walker's willingness to share her life at the depths calls us to look at our own lives and relationships to consider how are we living, what is our response to those who hate us." And I was wondering if that poem was, I know it's for Aung San Suu Kyi, but is it your way as well?
Ms. WALKER: Well, I do see that people are often misguided and mistaken and over time they can change, and that is the faith I have in humanity. Now, the one thing that makes this a little challenging is that there has been a study that shows that four percent of humanity is actually sociopathic and has no feelings of compassion. And then the question is, what do you do about those people? And I think that is an area that humanity needs to focus on. What do you do with the people who actually are incapable of feeling?
MARTIN: If youre just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker. We are talking about her new poetry collection, "Hard Times Require Furious Dancing," and we're also talking about whatever else comes up along the way.
In addition to your writing, you have long been an activist. Your work has taken you around the world, and of course youve also written deeply about the injustices in this country both past and present. But I am interested in how when you address situations like the relationships in Israel and Palestine, or the circumstances there, how you decide where to be.
Ms. WALKER: Well, I don't like to be silenced and I don't like to silence myself. For instance, on female genital mutilation, I had silenced myself for a couple of decades because it just seemed too huge. And then on the Palestinian-Israeli situation, I had silenced myself to some extent because I had married a Jewish man who we just had completely opposing views. And so I really kind of toned down a little bit and, you know, the world is full of other things to focus on. But one of my sisters died just at the beginning of the bombing of Gaza. That was about a year and a half ago, I think. And my devastation at her death was so intense and I went into the house and I turned on my computer and I learned that, you know, among the other casualties there was this mother who had lost five of her daughter's in Gaza and she was unconscious herself. So I was thinking - what must that feel like? If I'm devastated to lose a sister who was older than me, who was sick, what would it be like for this woman to come out of her coma and to learn that she had lost five of her daughters? So it reawakened my interest in the whole situation and just the need to know what is actually happening.
MARTIN: It's a very complex political situation. But I do want to ask in hearing you, many Israelis would say, well, many of us have died too and suffered in horrible ways. And I just wonder as an artist who is about the process of letting people hear each other, how you decide where you are in something like that.
Ms. WALKER: Yeah, but there is such an inequity there. First of all, the Palestinians had their land basically taken from them. I think what would be really helpful here would be some history. We are not denying the Holocaust and it's, you know, its suffering, but does that give anyone the right then to inflict that same suffering on other people? I don't think so. And as to where I stand on it, I stand on what I witness myself. You know, I would never have tried to even take on, you know, such a huge topic if I were doing it from my living room. I actually did it from standing right there, you know, where they had, for instance, bombed into smithereens the American school there in Gaza. It's something that is really crucial for us to look at, no matter how we feel, you know, the anger. You know, my former husband would just be in such a rage at the idea that anybody would question Israel. Well, I don't think that's a good way to be. I think you can question anybody, you can question anything. It's your right as a human being.
MARTIN: May I go back to the loss that you mentioned earlier about the siblings? You have seven, and five of them have...
Ms. WALKER: Yes, five have died.
MARTIN: ...have died. And you are the youngest child in the family. And would you tell us a little bit more about how these losses have affected you at this stage of your life? I mean you've long since passed for being the baby, right? Or maybe you never do. I don't know.
Ms. WALKER: You never pass from being the baby. I was always Baby Alice. I think I'll always be Baby Alice. And - but when you lose five siblings, it's sobering and it helps me to focus on the fact that we don't live forever. We don't know, you know, the moment or the year or the time when we transition ourselves. It helps to prepare for whatever is going to happen and it also encourages more love for the world, more devotion to the people, whoever they are. And sometimes people fail to realize that part of your, quote, "criticism" is out of love for them, you know, that you see the danger that their behavior is leading them into and you would really like them to avoid it.
So you know, I've had that my whole life, actually, in my writing, where I write things, and often people don't see how much love it takes to look at what is difficult. It takes all the energy and love that you have to look at the really hard situations and to hold all the people dear, not to try to damage them further but to offer what it is that you can offer, which is sometimes a fresh perspective.
MARTIN: What is keeping your perspective fresh at this stage of your life? And as you were saying, you're always Baby Alice to the family of origin. But now you're grandma, you're a Pulitzer Prize winner, you're sort of - do you know what I mean? You are so many other things to other people. How do you see yourself now and what is continuing to allow you to continue to create and grow and see things?
Ms. WALKER: Well, I find life to be endlessly fascinating and incredibly marvelous. And for instance, I just in the last year started raising chickens. I mean actually I ended up, I started writing about them on my blog and before I knew it, it became a book and it will be published next year. But it's called "The Chicken Chronicles" and it turns out that it's a memoir, because what I learned was that if you focus really on something that just kind of appears -for me it was a chicken that I saw in Bali many years ago - and I kept thinking, well, what is this trying to tell me? And so decades go by and then finally I have a whole flock of chickens and I'm with them. And what I discover is that they are helping me connect with memories that I had basically hidden from myself. But that's how life is. It's just marvelous. If you're present to it, it is constantly revealing itself to be absolutely magical.
MARTIN: So much to talk about. I hope we'll talk again.
Ms. WALKER: Yes.
MARTIN: Alice Walker is a Pulitzer prize-winning author, a human rights activist. Her new collection of poetry is titled "Hard Times Require Furious Dancing." She was kind enough to join us from the studios at the University of California at Berkeley..
Alice Walker, thank you so much for speaking with us.
Ms. WALKER: Thank you, Michel. Take care.