Through the kind intervention of friends in high places, The Daily Maverick was invited to interview the literary giant Alice Walker, who’s currently in South Africa to give the eleventh annual Steve Biko Memorial Lecture. Was it our journalist’s fault that the interview didn’t go according to plan? You decide. By KEVIN BLOOM.
It was bound to happen sometime. Ever since I read Rian Malan’s famous non-interview with JM Coetzee, the piece that was published in Fair Lady magazine in 2004 under the header “Prince of Darkness,” I’ve been wondering how I would handle the situation. You know, a journalist, who also considers himself a writer, waits with much anticipation to interview a Great Writer, a veritable literary giant, and when the hour of the interview finally arrives his reward for the wait is that the Great Writer clears her throat, looks down upon him from the heavens, and judges him unworthy. On the day that happened to me, I wondered, would I be shamed into instant and incurable writer’s block? Would I be angry, too blinded by rage to compose a coherent piece on the incident, and therefore demean myself further? Or would I properly consider the matter, try to find the moral in it, attempt to discover through prose what lessons – if any – could be fashioned and demonstrated and kept?
Well, it happened to me on Tuesday 7 September, and the good news (if the paragraph above counts) is that I don’t yet appear to have writer’s block. I am angry, though, as impotently furious as a toddler, so it’s far from a given that this piece will exhibit the emotional distance necessary for a worthwhile and reflective moral tale. In light of the dilemma, it seems best to start with what happened to Malan, and to hope that once the story is retold I’ll be a) calmer, and b) in a position to draw one or two revealing and apposite comparisons to my own non-interview with Alice Walker.
Right then. Once upon a time, as Malan puts it, the editor of a London newspaper prevailed upon JM Coetzee’s agent to persuade the reclusive author to grant an interview, “an exercise to which Coetzee was known to be totally allergic,” and so after the date was set and the arrangements made, the journalist who wrote My Traitor’s Heart was sent to ask the questions. Malan had read all of Coetzee’s books, had been engaged by them on a level so deep he’d felt hypnotised, had long considered Coetzee the greatest writer in the English language, and was as a consequence greatly looking forward to the interview. He was to ask only questions about literature, which he prepared for, but when the day arrived the opening question was met by silence, because Coetzee was writing it down in a notepad.
“He pondered it for a minute or two,” writes Malan, “then proceeded to analyse the assumptions on which it was based, a process that offered penetrating insights into my own intellectual shortcomings but revealed nothing about Coetzee himself. All my questions were similarly treated, and I wound up sounding like a reporter for a fanzine. ‘What kind of music do you like?’ I asked, desperately. The pen scratched, the great writer cogitated. ‘Music I have never heard before,’ he said.”
Unlike Coetzee might have done, Walker did not write my questions in a notepad and pick apart the assumptions on which they were based. My intellectual shortcomings were not purposefully exposed, and I was not reduced to sounding like a reporter for a fanzine. But I was made to feel foolish and disrespectful, I was made by both Walker and the director of the Steve Biko Foundation to squirm, and although I would much rather have written an article in praise of the Great Writer, that would have been to discard the very principles of truth-telling that have informed Walker’s self-conception since the age of eight.
The seminal event in the young life of Alice Walker, as made clear in her official biography and as recounted time and again in discussions and essays, occurred in 1952, when her older brother accidentally shot her in the eye with a BB gun. To avoid punishment, the brothers – there were two of them there that day – “concocted a fiction and pressured their sister to accept it.” The result was that Walker lost the use of her right eye, which developed a disfiguring scar. As she told her biographer Evelyn White: “The unhappy truth is that I was left feeling a great deal of pain and loss and forced to think I had somehow brought it on myself. It was very like a rape. It was the first time I abandoned myself, by lying, and is at the root of my fear of abandonment. It is also the root of my need to tell the truth, always, because I experienced, very early, the pain of telling a lie.”
My first question for Walker, prepared in advance and typed out and brought into the interview on a printed sheet of paper, was this: “Do you see any parallels in the story of the loss of your eye for this country? I’m thinking specifically of white South Africa, that they’ve played along in a lie and now have lost their sight.”
To be fair, I had a suspicion already that the question wouldn’t go down well. Before the interview, which took place at the offices of the Steve Biko Foundation in Braamfontein, the foundation’s director Obenewa Amponsah had called me aside to inform me that Ms. Walker would not be taking questions on the contents of the Steve Biko Memorial Lecture, to be delivered in Cape Town on 9 September. Given that the news angle in the American writer’s visit was this exact event, I was a bit confused. Still, what can you do? “That’s fine,” I said, “although I do intend to focus quite heavily on South Africa.” Amponsah’s expression indicated that this might not be such a fruitful area of investigation either.
So when I’d entered the boardroom accompanied by Amponsah, to find at the large table not only Walker but two stern-looking gentlemen whose presence would remain unexplained, I thought it best to open the interview by stating that I hoped to explore those areas where the themes in Walker’s work overlapped with South Africa’s specific challenges.
Walker, after listening to my introductory remarks, held me with an impassive stare. “How much of my work have you actually read?” she asked.
There was a foundation-owned recording device in the room, and for the sake of accuracy I’d like to emphasise that she may have asked something different – “How much do you know about my work?” for instance, or, “Do you know my work well?” – but the subtext, to me at least, was clear: I was being accused of not having done my research, of not showing sufficient respect, of having failed some sort of test. I stumbled, willing my dry tongue to provide an answer. “I’ve read quite a lot of the short fiction,” I said, “some of the non-fiction, and of course The Color Purple.” Again, the recording device belonged to the foundation and not to me, so I concede that my actual response may have been slightly different.
Nonetheless, my response was the truth. Over the years, I’ve read a lot of Walker’s short fiction. The short story “Everyday Use” is a universal text, for example, it’s been included in countless anthologies, and few people who claim to love literature are unfamiliar with it. As an aspiring writer, the non-fiction collection Living by the Word once seemed equally important to me, an insight into the subjects and concerns that shaped a master. Along with 15-million other people, I’ve read The Color Purple, I’ve seen the movie, I’ve concurred that Walker fully deserved the Pulitzer Prize she’d won for writing it. Further, on the night before my interview with the Great Writer, I dipped into the remarkable novel By The Light of My Father’s Smile, and was awed by the virtuosic display of rhythm and voice.
I’d decided, however, not to focus on Walker’s craft, not to ask her about the symbolism and narrative techniques in “Everyday Use,” and instead to probe if I could her views on identity and South African-ness. I’d decided to do this because of an interview Nkosinathi Biko, the son of Steve and the CEO of the eponymous foundation, gave on 6 September to the Mail & Guardian. “[There] are questions which we need to ask,” said Biko, who had worked for ten years to persuade Walker to deliver the foundation’s annual lecture, “such as what our definition of being a South African is. In the past, Steve Biko’s message was focusing on ridding ourselves of racism. Black consciousness was the antithesis to white racism, right? So, we need to ask what is the new agenda… which we ought to be rallying ourselves towards. Perhaps, she [Walker] will rekindle our consciousness.”
It appears I may have made a mistake in taking Biko’s words at face value. After I asked my first question, the one about white South Africans playing along in a lie and losing their sight, there was silence – the same “dead silence” that greeted Malan when he asked JM Coetzee that first question back in 2004. The silence this time was broken by Amponsah, who asked whether she might have a word with me outside. “Sure,” I said, “no problem.” I was told by Amponsah that Walker couldn’t answer questions about white South Africa, that she had just arrived in the country, that I should focus rather on her activism and her identification with the struggle against apartheid.
Which I did. I returned to the boardroom, avoided the glares of the unidentified gentlemen at the table, and asked the question I was told to ask. I received an answer that touched on the central role of Winnie Mandela in the struggle. I heard about the disparity in our current living conditions, the vast gap between the big houses and the small one-window shacks. I heard about the many wives of our president, the insult this was to South Africa’s women and children. I heard that our country is despite all this “a real model of possibility” for the world.
I heard nothing new; nothing I vehemently disagreed with, but nothing revelatory or profound either. To salvage a rapidly deteriorating situation, I abandoned my planned questions and asked Walker whether there was anything in her work, any themes or concerns, which she felt resonated strongly with the work of some of South Africa’s writers – Zakes Mda or Njabulo Ndebele, for instance. She looked at me impassively again. “I can’t answer that question,” she said.
Stonewalled. My last gasp was to try tease out Walker’s views on South African reconciliation and exceptionalism. Did she think the attempt to reconcile meant anything? Might we be exceptions to history? It was a desperate effort, the end of the line. “Our time is up,” interjected Amponsah, from the other side of the table. Including the quick discussion outside, I had been there precisely thirteen minutes.
A day later, I’m still trying to figure out what happened. While I’m no longer angry, I’m no closer to a moral either. I was sent to do an interview, an interview I’d been looking forward to for weeks, and I was treated as if I were invisible, a nonentity. I was respectfully addressed on the surface, of course, nobody swore at me or called me names, but the intent was unmistakable. Might that have been the moral, then? That people who aren’t white and male, as I am, know far more about the condition of invisible nothingness than I ever will? Maybe, in which case it’s a valuable lesson. I’m not convinced that it is the moral, though. Looking at the tweets from Walker’s appearance at the State Theatre on the night of 7 September, there’s one that stands out. It’s a statement that Walker must have made during her talk, and it goes like this: “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”
Back at you, Ms Walker. DM
Read more: Mail & Guardian interviews Nkosinathi Biko
Photo: Talkshow host Oprah Winfrey (R) and producer Scott Sanders (C) listen as writer Alice Walker speaks during the curtain call of Winfrey’s Broadway musical “The Color Purple” in New York December 1, 2005. Winfrey’s musical is based on Walker’s book of the same name. REUTERS/Keith Bedford