The World Has Changed: Conversations with Alice Walker
Edited by Rudolph P. Byrd
Publisher: The New Press
There are many ways to get a little closer, a little more intimate with the luminaries who have shaped our world. All of them are revelatory, and all of them have little flaws. Biographies, for instance, are told by someone else and thus necessarily limited in detail; autobiographies are told by the subject and often laced with omissions and fictions that draw a veil across the whole truth; essays are beautifully but consciously formed, aimed at a precise point of discourse and premeditated in their opinions. But interviews – or conversations, rather – are unique. When truly fascinating people are engrossed in a conversation with interesting, thorough interlocutors, all bets are off, and the flaws that arise are simple, relatable, honest and human.
Alice Walker is an undeniably fascinating person. And in The World Has Changed: Conversations with Alice Walker, a volume introduced and compiled by renowned literary scholar Rudolph P. Byrd, truth, conviction, creative energy and insight illuminate Walker’s life and work in a kaleidoscope of organic opinions and ideas. Walker’s conversations are real – sometimes rambling, often funny and always down to earth – and they allow devotees of her writing and newcomers to her world alike to hear the voice beyond the page as it shifts and shapes itself to meet the changing times. Accompanied by a handy chronology of Walker’s life and a comprehensive, compelling mini-biography detailing her journey from rural Georgia to tutelage under radical, rock star historian Howard Zinn to passionate involvement in the Civil Rights movement and eventual prominence as an activist, feminist and award-winning author of The Color Purple, The World Has Changed couches a host of sparkling interview transcripts. Byrd wisely adds his scholarly piece and then retreats, allowing Walker herself to shine throughout this collection.
Spanning from 1973-2009, Byrd’s selection of 19 interviews achieves a striking balance between reiteration, reflection and spiritual evolution. Certain themes and preoccupations (civil rights, honoring the past, a fascination with animism and the beauty of the earth, liberal politics and feminism) remain constant in these interviews, and certain stories, recollections and mantras recur again and again over the years. Yet far from seeming redundant, Walker’s deeply rooted feelings, experiences and beliefs illuminate their significance in her birth and growth as an artist. Fortunately, Walker does not trade on these themes alone; instead, she carries them through a variety of preoccupations – some literary, some political, many a hybrid of the two – to give depth to every project or cause that spurs her to action.
The interviews throughout The World Has Changed are marvelously accessible. Walker is a frank woman: she often gives her opinion without reserve, and those inclined to take offense at strident declarations of political, spiritual or feminist conviction may be a little put off. Still, most readers will undoubtedly find commonality, inspiration and deep wisdom in Walker’s words, regardless of their knowledge of her work. From her illegal abortion as a young student at Spellman College to her marriage, divorce, motherhood, bisexuality, Buddhist leanings, studies in meditation, affinity for animism, opinions on organized religion, marriage, death and suicide, activism against female genital mutilation and love of a simple, rural lifestyle, Walker leaves no topic off the record. She dives in, without apology, and emerges at the volume’s conclusion with utter grace, humility and something damn near enlightenment.
The world has indeed changed, but Alice Walker continues to stand her ground, at every moment an opinionated, forthright, authentic self. Her writing bears witness to this; now, in Byrd’s volume of collected conversations, her voice can be heard to do the same.
by Lauren Westerfield