Reading Alice Walker: 'Me and Jane Eyre were tight'

Published on June 13th, 2014 | by Bright Kids Books


Alice Walker: ‘Me and Jane Eyre were tight’

The Guardian

At the Sydney writers’ festival author Alice Walker discussed how reading awakened her political consciousness, why we need to “show up for others”, and her optimism that change is coming.

Alice Walker meditates, and it was from her meditation cushion in Mexico that Walker, then 60, suddenly rose with a particular conviction to help those bearing greater burden than herself. The renowned poet and author, who became the first African American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize with her novel The Color Purple in 1982, is now 70, and her most recent book The Cushion in the Road is a collection of meditations on Walker’s expansive history of activism and her place in the world.

“I realised when I heard about the bombing of Gaza and it coincided with my sister’s death … I knew I had to get off my cushion,” she tells a packed house at the Sydney writers’ festival. Walker had a compulsion to travel to Gaza, if only to connect with anyone who had survived the destruction and tell them that there was at least one person who did not agree with where her American taxes were going “and what what they were doing to them”.

Walker’s activism pre-dates her Gaza trip. The eighth and youngest child of impoverished Georgia share-croppers, Walker’s childhood was spent under the Jim Crow law in an atmosphere of institutional racism. In order for their black children to receive an education, her community had to build its own school and protect it. “The white children had a school bus, they had adequate schooling, adequate medical care and we did not and we had to make do,” explains Walker, who learned young that “in a terrible situation, people are very generous and very kind.”

For this reason, her love of literature flowered even amidst this deprivation; her parents were both great storytellers, encouraged their children’s education and filled their household with whatever books they could find. Walker had had one of her eyes destroyed as a child when her brother deliberately shot at her with a BB gun, and the self-conscious girl retreated into a literary world of English literary classics.

It’s reading that she credits with the ability to develop political empathy. “If our children could just read everything and feel themselves into everything they’re reading, things would be very different when they grew up,” she says, recalling a particular fondness for Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. “I recognised myself in Jane Eyre. It amazes me how many white people can’t read themselves in black characters. I didn’t feel any separation between me and Jane. We were tight.”

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