Alice walker, 1989
Alice Walker, 1989. Wikimedia

The Alice Walker interview

Ikaika M Hussey

The Independent sat with Alice Walker recently in a Makiki apartment for a wide-ranging discussion about art, political struggle, and Hawaii’s story. This interview was conducted in the context of a forthcoming film by Meleanna Meyer which uses personal narratives to discuss Hawaiian history. The text of this interview has been edited for clarity. Special thanks to Naomi Sodetani.

In an interview you gave with Amy Goodman a few years back you talked about the “huge machine” – capitalism and empire. What is the trajectory of this machine? Is it growing, or is it in decline?

I see it being challenged and often successfully. And it has to be challenged and has to be forced into decline, just for us to live.

There was a time we thought that if we just waited it would decline without anybody having to do anything. Just because evil eventually collapses. But I think catastrophic global change is making it that much more necessary for humans to stand up and act in defense of the earth. So then the earth becomes an ally in going up against the machine and actually sloughing off the machine.

And we see in these new movements all around the globe that people are awake. This is one of the finest times to be alive ever, because people are waking up and they are eager to discover new ways to confront the machine and not to live by machinery.

People are resisting.

Once you leave this plane as a living human you become everybody’s ancestors. You know, ancestors are not segregated.

Living by the machine, becoming cogs in the machine, they’re discovering that they are earthlings. This is one of the most wonderful things for us to awaken to, that we’re earthlings, and all of these divisions actually are absurd in humanity. One of the things I love about any kind of honoring of ancestors is that once you leave this plane as a living human you become everybody’s ancestors. You know, ancestors are not segregated. They have no boundaries and they have no patience with this trivial way of trying to make earthlings feel like, even though they’re all out of the same earth, that somehow they’re so different that they can’t get along. I mean, what a ridiculous idea.

And this is one of the values of this place, Hawai’i. The willingness to acknowledge all this variety is such a beautiful thing, and the machine doesn’t like variety. So if we insist on variety, really insist on it, and have it, that will break the machine.

Is that why you chose to live here?

I don’t actually live here. I have a house I share with a Hawaiian musician on Moloka‘i. But I’m rarely here. I was here for a couple years and I love Moloka‘i partly because of the resistance there to the machine. It is very vibrant in its understanding, of its love for itself and what it truly is. And everybody there knows who Hina is, everybody there can tell you about the winds in the calabash. Anybody there can talk a good story about the hula. But it’s not for show, it’s not a performance.

I think one of the things I really find distressing here is that the culture is for sale, you know? I mean there are obviously people whose culture is not for sale but the way it is being marketed is very destructive of just the kind of work that you do where you are honestly encountering the true necessity of change. Ancestor-driven.

So I think I love Hawaii because it’s one of the places on the earth where people even if they are not indigenous genetically have a respect for the indigenous wisdom. Indigenous wisdom around the world is always about the earth and about the sacredness of where we are. We are in the most sacred place – the earth is so incredibly dear. And it is painful to see how few people realize or even think about it. And it’s partly because the machine has forced them to work so hard, to have so many kids, to struggle and often they’re blinded by their very lives. This is a crime, and it’s a crime of the machine.

What happens in Hawai’i has happened all over the planet, and we’re all Hawaiians in that sense.

Why is this message important now?

What happens in Hawai’i has happened all over the planet, and we’re all Hawaiians in that sense. So I think what Hawai‘i helps us with, though, is that there seems to be more of an awareness and more of a dedication and so when people come here I think they feel this, they have a sense of ways that they can very humbly actually reconnect with who they are.

For instance, re-learning your language. It’s so incredible to think that people, once they lose their language they can’t even complain sufficiently because they don’t have the words from their own language to say what it is they don’t like. So the work that’s required to reconnect us to our real selves involves having your own language. So this is a place where Hawai’i is a very good teacher. Because it’s daunting to think about re-learning a language you never knew, where people have forced you not to know your own tongue. It’s horrible, it’s what happened to you. So this is something that can go out among indigenous people around the world. Yes you cannot even relearn, you can learn your original language. And if you can do that, there are nuances of thought, of feeling that you are then able to use to help the world.

Because ultimately all the work that we do, it’s to help the world. It is to help the mother, it is to help the earth in her struggle, to be whole, to be healthy, you know, not to have people exploding the heads off of mountains, despoiling the rivers, fouling the oceans. The task of humanity forever going into the future for as long as we’re here is to resuscitate and rehabilitate the planet. I mean, that is just the work. And the people who are thinking that the task is only to get more oil and more gas and steal people’s water and take off the topsoil and destroy the mountains, you know, their days have to be numbered and I think collectively we can manage to number those days and make them short. And we can do this without the kind of violence that people used to think you had to do. I so love this period because of the internet for Instance and because of the quickness with which people can communicate their dissatisfaction and their anger and their sorrow and their grief.

The task of humanity forever going into the future for as long as we’re here is to resuscitate and rehabilitate the planet.

I have so much faith in us. I mean, we are her children, we are the children of the earth. And we are her thinking, walking beings and we belong to her. So I have a faith that, once awakened, if we all just wake up, and part of this work that you’re doing is to hasten the awakening of everyone. And that’s one of the great places that Hawaii and Meleanna’s work, this is one of the places where what could I do, for instance, but to support her? What could one do? Here is someone who is giving it all that she has and she’s clearly devoted to something so large and something so sustaining for humanity and for all the creatures because once humanity really awakens it can’t help but care for all the other beings, because this whole hierarchy thing is ridiculous, you know, to think that we are somehow, just because we wear clothes, I guess, better than somebody who actually has a beautiful coat that’s perfect without having to buy any clothes, like your dog.

I was wondering if you could talk about your experiences in Cuba and if you see any lessons.

Cuba is one of my favorite places on earth. I have great love and admiration for the people, great love for Fidel and Celia Sanchez – who was very little known, but without Celia Sanchez there would not have been a revolution. Heidi Santamaria, Armando Hart, Camillo San Fuegos, all of these revolutionaries were I think really very pure in heart, they really cast their lot w/the poor of the world.

I think that Cuba would be very different if the United States had not imposed a really horrendous embargo. But even with the embargo it’s amazing, an amazing place, and I think they are showing the world a different way. I think many people are frightened because it chose Communism and socialism as their path. But I learned really early when I was a student and I went to the Soviet Union when I was 18 years old. And before I went to the Soviet Union I had gone to a world youth festival where I’d encountered the Cubans and the Russians. And the Cubans were just coming to consciousness about their socialism. And what I learned there was that the Russians were heavy as lead, they didn’t dance, they were all wearing gray. And the Cubans, on the other hand, were dancing every chance they got. They were full of life, of spirit. In other words, there are many different socialisms in the world, and many ways of being communists too. So I’m not frightened at all of any direction they choose because it’s their right, you know?

The dignity that you can have when you are not dancing for the masters, you know, it’s amazing.

There’s a big sign in Cuba in a lot of the cities that gives the number of children who are sleeping outside at night, and underneath, there are millions of children, homeless. And the sign says, “Not one in Cuba.” Not a single child sleeping outside in Cuba, there’s not a single child who doesn’t have health care. Not a single child who doesn’t have enough to eat. And they’ve had to do a lot of fancy footwork over the years in order to do that. For instance during the period when everybody lost weight, I went there during that period, and they’d all lost 10 or more pounds because they had so little food. One child had just one egg a week. And they were desperately trying to figure out how to grow soybeans so they could make soybean yogurt because they no longer had milk. What I see there is a society that cares deeply about its people and about its pride. That’s the part that I love. The dignity that you can have when you are not dancing for the masters, you know, it’s amazing. When you dance for yourself out of your own joy, that’s dance. And when you dance to sell your island, that’s something else.

So I’m really an admirer and been there four times, twice to bring medicines because the embargo was and still is so cruel that you can’t even get the film that women need when they have breast cancer, you know you have to take the photo of the breast, they couldn’t even get that from the United States. Luckily other countries in the world have risen to fill that void. But the suffering has been pretty drastic and I’m just I’m so happy. They tried to kill Fidel 638 times. They tried to assassinate this man, 638 times. And when you look at all the other leaders of the world who are, as we speak, bombing people, poisoning their water, and my government, our government says nothing. I never think of Hawaii as being a state, I think of it as being a country, so that’s why I talk this way.

I love anybody who loves the land. You know, if you love the land, I love you. And if you don’t love the land it’s harder to love you.