Of her more than thirty-five books, Alice Walker’s Taking the Arrow Out of the Heart, published this week, is her first bilingual work, presented in both Spanish and English. In 2015, during a period that Walker calls “a time of great sadness and feelings of loss and despair” in the world, she started writing a series of poems—seventy in total, into 2016—that would speak to that particular time, and memorialize the lives of activists and artists, past and present, who’ve used their voices to fight on behalf of those most vulnerable among us. This collection moves swiftly across a variety of places and settings, including Oakland and Havana, Palestine and Rwanda, from blues clubs to state prisons. Taken together, Walker not only captures the varied complexity of our world as it is, but also seeks to imagine our planet as it could be.
Taking the Arrow Out of the Heart is in many ways a return for Walker, whose first book, Once (1968), she wrote as a student on her first visit to Africa in 1965. Most well-known for The Color Purple, a 1982 epistolary novel that traces the coming of age of Celie—an African-American girl from Georgia in the 1930s who is twice impregnated by her stepfather—Walker was first black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. The novel was then adapted into a movie in 1985 and a Broadway musical in 2005, and revived again in 2015. In Taking the Arrow Out of the Heart, Walker continues to explore the themes of feminism, loss, and redemption that colored her earlier work, but poetry allows Walker to adopt a different relationship to time. Rather than traveling back to the far past or suspending time, Walker’s poems, as urgent responses to the events of the past two years, are imbued with a sense of immediacy, intense engagement, and heightened hope.
In mid-September I sat with Walker, who is seventy-four, at her home in Northern California, to discuss her new book, working in two languages, and how the political events of the last two years have shaped her writing. (This conversation had been edited and condensed.)
Salamishah Tillet: Why did you title this collection Taking the Arrow Out of the Heart? In your introduction, you mention that it was originally going to be called The Long Road Home [also the title of Walker’s 2016 poem for Muhammad Ali] and you changed it.
Alice Walker: I think that I was called back to the world. I was called back to the reality that people are suffering so deeply and that many people are not even calm enough and centered enough to contemplate the long road home. They’re still fighting with the arrow that they have been pierced with. About the media and the reality of what is happening on the planet, the murder of children, the abuse of the earth, the ocean, everything.
So even though you changed the title, you still decided to open with the homage to Ali that inspired the earlier title?
Muhammad Ali was a stellar warrior who refused to be complicit in the slaughter of the Vietnamese people at a time when every media outlet on the planet was saying that we have to go and kill those people. He said, “No, I’m not killing any of my brothers and sisters anywhere and if you think I’m going to do that, you’re crazy. Why don’t you just put me in jail right now.” This was a wonderful stand to take and so admirable. He reminds us that the American way of just shutting your brain to other people’s misery is bound to catch up with us in one form or another, and we see that today.
As I traveled through the book, I kept thinking, only Alice Walker could honor such a disparate group of people, like Ali, Chelsea Manning, Jesse Williams, and Fidel Castro in this way. But for you, they really are all of the same world and not simply discrete entities.
Okay, you want to hear about Chelsea? When I speak in that poem [“Later We Would Miss You So Much”] about the people who attain the same bar of courage and fierce determination to share the truth they see, I think of Chelsea [the US Army intelligence analyst who was sentenced to thirty-five years in prison for delivering classified documents to WikiLeaks. President Obama commuted Manning’s sentence in 2017.] They brought to consciousness what war really does to people. Somehow, Americans are anesthetized almost completely, which is really scary when you think about it. I walk in the airports and there’s this voice that comes on talking about military families and preferential treatment, but it covers up the fact of what you’re actually doing. You’re sending off parents… to kill or be killed by people they’ve never even seen.
You seem to insist that we should not compartmentalize the ways in which the US government approaches foreign policy versus how it treats its own citizens. Your poems traverse such a wide political and geographical terrain, and that doesn’t even include the bilingualism of the book. Are your poems modeling how we should live in the world, together and different? Did that influence your decision to publish a bilingual book?
It’s partly that. I have a house in Mexico and I spend two or three months there [each year] but I still write in English because my Spanish is still really poor. I have such a love of Mexican culture because of the kindness that I have encountered from people there. Because many people there don’t read or speak English, I have always wanted to be able to share with them what it is I do, how I am addressing our common situation. So I wanted to create a book that my friends would enjoy, those who’ve been laboring all these years to teach “Alesia” to speak Spanish and getting nowhere.
When did you first visit Mexico? I ask because you visit there in earlier works, like your novels, Temple of My Familiar (1989) and By the Light of My Father’s Smile (1998).
I first visited when I was pregnant with Rebecca in 1969. My husband and I were living in Mississippi, which was both incredibly dangerous and, even more than dangerous, boring. We went to Oaxaca and that was my first experience of the country. Then, when I was trying to write The Temple of My Familiar, my partner and I went to Mexico and rented a house so I could work because a lot of the people in the novel were Spanish-speaking; even though I didn’t speak it myself, there they were, chattering way. That was in 1986. I bought a house there shortly after that.
In your poem “Imagine,” you recreate what Pope Francis and Fidel Castro might have privately said to each other when Francis visited Cuba in 2015.
I loved that poem because I think both of those old men in their own ways tried to bring something decent out of a corrupt environment.
In it you write, “When folks bow to me/ I want to shout at them: bowing/ to your masters/ is what you were forced to do in the first place:/ Straighten up!/ And how bizarre that they want me to kiss their babies.” In your telling, Francis resists the very status that he now embodies.
Well, because he knows it’s a sham. Any intelligent person would know it’s just total ridiculousness. If they care about the babies, they would share all that gold they have. They have all this wealth.
Your work is always political, but I feel a different sense of urgency here.
Well, I always feel like if you can see it maybe you can change it. Clearly, part of what any writer does is try to help you see what it is they see, that’s really all you can do. You can’t make people change if they’re not moved to do it, but that’s why we have writers, poets, fighters, and dancers.
Is that why you returned to poetry?
My first love.
In your introduction, you write, “Here as a poet I intervene.” What kind of intervention does poetry allow you to achieve?
Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If” had a great impact on me as a very young child. It opens with the lines, “If you can keep your head when all about you/ Are losing theirs and blaming it on you” and the last line is, “you’ll be a Man, my son!” Well, I don’t care about the man part, but I did know at that age whenever I heard it, it gave me permission to understand that I can go my own way. I can keep my head and not care what everyone else is doing with their heads, but I need to keep mine. That’s the kind of power that poetry has.
This book is also a calendar of loss. There are a lot of people, besides Ali, who passed away in either 2015 or 2016 to whom you pay homage. Some with whom you were close, like Julian Bond.
I adored him. Still do.
And there is a great poem about B.B. King in which you try to imagine what he had to endure when he was still alive. Are you trying to remind us that we should appreciate these people while they are here with us on earth, too?
So much blues music of that period and earlier is flawed because of the misogyny; B.B. King is one of the few men from that time who is always pleading with whatever woman he’s thinking about to just, Let’s work it out, I’m sorry. You’re sorry. He had a real good heart and he wasn’t a hustler.
Your poem “I Believe the Women” reminded me that you probably have always believed women. How do we read this in this age of #MeToo?
In that poem, I’m talking about how it is good to acknowledge how some of these old men [like Bill Cosby] who have made terrible mistakes got to be that way. It doesn’t mean that you have to go over and give him a big hug. It does mean that you see with compassion that here is a twisted being who is suffering.
Grief and forgiveness dominate in this book. I’m thinking specifically of the poem “Making Frittatas” about your daughter, Rebecca Walker, from whom you were estranged for a decade?
Well, in lieu of going into all of our struggle, I prefer to express what we missed: ten years of being mother and daughter and thus will never come again.
In his opening translator’s note, Manuel García Verdecia writes that you have constantly been showing him “that poetry is everywhere around us, even in the most trivial or unnoticed things, because they all share or add something to the complex and total function and sense of life.” I felt the weight of loss in your meditation on something as simple as “frittatas.”
Grief, after so many years of feeling it so intensely, what I hope for is to come through it still at peace with myself. In a sense, the poem is again about gratitude. There is no regret or there is no even wishing it had not happened. It’s just a realization that we lost ten years of making frittatas together. As a mother and a daughter who loved each other and who love each other, that’s a lot.
Does this return to poetry mean that you don’t want to write another novel?
I don’t really get to say. If life says to me—or whoever it is that directs—“Okay, get out your stuff and get to it, you have another couple of years here,” there’s nothing I can do but try to do it. I’ve done the best with what I could do and I hope you all are happy. I’m pretty happy.
Alice Walker’s Taking the Arrow Out of the Heart is published by Atria.
Salamishah Tillet and Alice Walker will be in conversation at the Brooklyn Museum on October 12.