Conversations With Writers Braver Than Me: Rebecca Walker

By

Hello, after more than a year. It’s been my intention to keep this column going regularly, as it had been. But this year life has been nuts. I edited two anthologies, am doing another; I’m running workshops and working as editorial director of a nonprofit called TMI Project; I’m running an art gallery in the front of my husband’s Mac repair shop in Kingston, New York; I’m still ghostwriting. And yet somehow I don’t have money for heating oil and a root canal.

But I’m happy to be back here with this, and have another coming soon.

I had the great pleasure this time of interviewing author Rebecca Walker, the author of two memoirs—Black, White and Jewish, published in 2002, and Baby Love, published in 2008—and a novel, Adé, which was published last October.

Walker, the daughter of prominent author Alice Walker and Jewish lawyer Mel Leventhal, made waves with her two memoirs. In them, she wrote candidly about growing up an only child straddling two very different worlds, and being raised by a mother who was a radical feminist, and, to the younger Walker’s disappointment, a relatively hands-off mom. The result was a painful rift between mother and daughter—and mother publicly denying major details of daughter’s story.

I spoke by phone with Walker about the challenges of writing about parents, becoming estranged from them, and then moving together past estrangement, to eventually heal the rift.

***

The Rumpus: Your memoir, Black, White and Jewish, is very relatable to me in terms of your relationship with your mother, in particular, and also just being a kid of divorce, feeling like you’re always in two different worlds. Although, the disparity in your two worlds was much more extreme. Your relationship with your mother reminds me of mine with my father. He hasn’t been happy with things I’ve written in the past, about myself, or relating to him. I am officially “taking a break” from him. I haven’t spoken to him in over a year.

Rebecca Walker: Oh, good!

Rumpus: Yeah, it’s probably among the healthiest things I’ve ever done in my life, and it’s been a really productive year. I still don’t have a memoir, but I feel less anxious about publishing one, or an autobiographical novel. You’re very honest and uncompromising in the book about what it was like to be raised by your mother. I’m very interested in the idea of not being restricted by the sense that you need to protect parents from the truth about your experience with them as parents. In my interview with Melissa Febos, I asked her how she managed this—writing things about herself and her parents that might upset them. And she said, “I really think that early on in life, I made a decision to let the writer win… I guess the writer in me has more clout than the daughter in me. It wins every fucking time.” I’m forty-eight now, and I feel like my entire adult life I’ve always let the daughter win. And this is the first year that I’m trying to give the writer the advantage. You seemed to do the same thing, at least in this book, and so I want to find out how you brought yourself to that, especially with a mother who is such a public figure. How did you make that transition from I’m the daughter who’s going to sit on my mother’s lap, or have your mother sit on your lap for the New York Times photo, to being someone who bravely just put it out there, even though your mother disputes it? How did you make that transition?

black_white_and_jewishWalker: I love that idea of letting the writer lead, and I think that that’s definitely something that sounds and feels true to me. But I also—especially when I wrote Black, White and Jewish—I felt that I had a real psychological imperative to write that book, because there was obviously a creative journey I was on, and I felt really compelled to craft a narrative out of all of these fragmented experiences and selves that I felt needed to be woven together. But I think that fundamentally I had to do it in order to kind of survive, that there was a sense that I needed to reclaim my own narrative within the public discourse. That’s part of being a child of someone who’s very well-known, that your story is sometimes assumed or told in ways that are not authored by you. So I felt a real desire to claim my own narrative.

But also, I really needed to save myself at that point. I think I was twenty-five or twenty-six when I started that book, and I felt very psychologically unhinged. I had the need to sort of save myself and create a place, even if it was a symbolic object—meaning the book—in which I could be an integrated, whole human being. That was much more important to me than anything else at that point. So, I think it was something that I just absolutely needed to do to stay sane, and also to kind of develop, to move to the next developmental stage in my life. I felt very fortunate that I could, through writing, do that work. Because it wasn’t something that therapy traditionally could have done. It was very powerful, but it also was very frightening.

Rumpus: I’ll bet.

Walker: But—and I think a lot of writers think this way—I thought I protected my parents and that they came off very well. But you know, they didn’t agree. But you do what you have to do, basically, as an artist, as a human being, to survive. And to put out something that’s meaningful in the world because you care about doing that. You have to be able to tell the truth. As a reader, if it’s not really true and bold and creative and courageous, I can’t really believe it, and I won’t get invested in it. I feel like I owe that to my readers as well, this level of honestly, or else why bother? If you’re not going to be brave, who cares? I don’t know of any work that I love that isn’t brave.

Rumpus: I’m kind of a recovering “good girl,” and that process of recovering is taking me a really long time. This is like my life’s work—overcoming this need to be the good girl, the good daughter, at tremendous cost to myself, my work, my sanity. It’s a constant internal battle. It feels as if by allowing myself to become real, I’m saving my own life.

I’ve told this story to so many of the authors I’ve had conversations with, I’m tired of it, but here goes: I published a Modern Love in the New York Times a couple of years ago, and I talked about how witnessing my parents’ fucked-up relationship dynamics really informed my own backward idea of how you interact with men: you pick the ones who aren’t terribly attentive or kind, get them hooked on you by being needless and “nice,” then you pull the rug out from under them and they go crazy for you. Then my dad gave me that book The Rules. But I thought that in the piece I had protected my dad, too. I have him trying really hard to help me stop dating jerks. I have him turn around in the piece and try to be a good father. But he didn’t see it that way and he is still, years later, very angry at me. And I’ve wrestled with the idea of, do I have the right to do this? To put this out there like that?

Ade

Walker: One of the things I remember saying to my mother, in the midst of the upset about that first book, was, that I had been raised to tell my story and tell my truth. That was a fundamental part of what growing up as her daughter, in the community that I was raised in, was about. I basically said, “Look, I’m following the tradition that you gave me.” And the second thing I said, which I think was probably more important, when I look back on it now, is that there are going be so many stories to write about our relationship. And not all of them are as complex, or not all of them are as shadowy, and I think even though my new book Adé is fiction, a lot of it is very autobiographical. I think the portrayal of the mother in that book is another facet of our relationship, and to me, it’s a very positive, beautiful, portrait. And I’ve since written several pieces about the different ways in which we related when I was growing up that were so important and so powerful and so affirming to me. So an important type of emotional piece to remember with family is, hopefully you’ll be able to write many books. And some of them will be glowing and some of them will be messy, and that’s how family is.

My response to “do I have the right to do this” is, if the precedent for telling the truth and following your own instincts and creating a life for yourself as an artist has been laid down for you, then you have every right. Especially for me. It felt like a lot of my story had been used by both of my parents in public.

But I decided to write Adé as fiction, partially because I wanted to kind of move away from exposing my family in that way. And I wanted to not necessarily be the good girl, but I wanted to have the things that good girls have. Like I wanted to have that warm family life and connection. I wanted to move away from the anger and the constant contention and the drain of it. I wanted to have some of that comfort and ease. And so it felt like a creative moment for me, an important evolution, to move into fiction. But it also felt like a move toward having some of the benefits of family that I felt I haven’t had. So I understand your good girl conflict. I guess the question is how to not be a good girl and shut yourself down, but also find a way to enjoy the fruits of what it means to be a good girl.

Rumpus: Definitely. But for me, at least right now, the sort of good girl I’ve been is kind of a lie. And for me there isn’t much of that warm family thing. I feel like in my story, in my breaking down the good girl façade, there’s so much value. I received e-mails from about 150 women saying, “Oh my god, this is me, I’ve done this… and thank you for writing that.” And so I feel like there’s a higher value in being honest. And I think it has to stop being the children’s job to protect their parents from the truth.

Walker: I completely agree with that. I think that’s so important. I think about this a lot. I make a lot of mistakes as a parent, and I fully expect my son to tell me about them at some point. I fully expect to have to apologize and explain and help him understand that I’m not perfect, but also take accountability and not force him to lie about his reality. No matter how painful it is for me, it’s his right to describe the truth. So I’m with that. And I love the activist part—maybe not the “activist part,” but I love the part of writing that connects with people, so when you hear those voices coming in and responding, that’s where art is successful. And when people are transformed and they relate, or they feel less alone, or they start a conversation about it, that’s one of the main reasons why I do what I do. So I applaud you. I think it is a really important subject, you know, and I’m sure you’ve helped a lot of people, and it’s worth it.

Rumpus: Something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is that there’s another reaction our parents could have, instead of just being insulted or incensed. I run these monologue and essay writing workshops, and there was this older man who was close to seventy in one of them. He heard younger women in the workshop telling stories about their fathers and the not-so-good men they’ve been involved with, and his reaction was, “Hearing this, I’m realizing that I didn’t treat women very well when I was younger. I have been emotionally abusive to women in my past, and I want to make up for it.” I cried when he said that. This is the reaction I want. Like, “Oh my god, you’re showing me something, and I could learn from it, and I could apologize.”

Walker: When my mother initially read Black, White and Jewish, her feedback was, “This is so beautifully written,” and it was positive. But then, I think there was the thought of other people reading it, and having their ideas, and that became an issue for her.

Rumpus: Did you send it to your mom before it was published?

Walker: No, I don’t really share my work with anyone before it is published, which is kind of insane. I think I gave her the copyedited final. I tell my students, there are a lot of different ways you can handle this. You can give the work to people that you think may be injured or upset, and ask them if they want you to change something in it. You can do that, or not. And I really felt like my mother, both of my parents, were so powerful to me, especially at that point in my life, that I would not have been able to stand in the face of their concerns. I would definitely have wanted to change the book to make them feel better, and so my way of handling that was just not to involve them in the process at all. And that really saved me, saved the book. I can’t imagine what the book would be like otherwise. It might have made my life easier. And there are some things I would have changed, looking back now. But they have very little to do with my parents.

One of the people that I really admire, somebody who’s handled this I think very well, is Erica Jong. Her daughter Molly wrote a really tough book about growing up in her family and being in and out of rehab, and this and that, and just horrors. And instead of her mother distancing herself, her mother threw her a huge book party, put her book on her website, and really championed her as a writer and as a voice. I always think about that, that that’s what I would do. I mean, I hope I would do that. It would be hard, but I think that’s what parents should do. My father now gives my books out in his office, and to all his friends. Black, White and Jewish was hard for him initially, but he’s come full circle. Especially when he’s heard from readers about how important it’s been for them. I think he really gets why I needed to write it. And I like that approach, and yes, that idea that there are so many different ways that parents can respond to the pain and anguish of their children.

Rumpus: So often people—like my father—will say things like, “Get over it already.” But as Stephen Elliott wrote somewhere in The Adderall Diaries, some people don’t get over things; instead they make art with them. He says something to the effect of, “My experience is like a can of red paint, and I can’t do anything but paint with it.” And I feel the same way. I feel like as long as you’re not doing it with the intention of hurting someone.

book_baby_love_coverWalker: I do think that part of why I wrote the books I’ve written, Black, White and Jewish and Baby Love in particular, but all the essays in anthologies, everything up until very recently, has been about getting over it. Just writing it all out and getting it literally out of my body and out of mind, to the point that now if I do a reading of Black, White and Jewish, I just sometimes burst into tears, because I can’t believe that little girl went through that, because I don’t remember any of it anymore. And that’s a wonderful relief, you know, and I do think that’s one of the things that writing can provide. You do make peace, and the longer you wait, because you’re afraid, the more time goes by, the less time you have to enjoy a life that’s free from that, hopefully.

Right now I’m reading my MFA students’ work, and they’re writing their hearts out and telling their really rough stories. I do believe that at the end of telling it all, and then transforming it into something that’s art, that people can consume and be changed by, that they will be able to move on. And I feel like part of my role in their lives is to support that process, because writing is mysterious and alchemical and psycho-spiritual, and in many ways, magic. And when the magic can help you heal and move forward, I push them to do it, to make that magic. Because life is not to be taken for granted, and it’s very, very short, really.

Rumpus: One of my obstacles is that I’m always looking for somebody to give me permission to do it. This is the year that I stopped waiting for permission with certain other things. But I’m still kind of stuck on this. In other interviews I’ve described this feeling of being pregnant with my story, and that nothing else can come through me until I deliver this. But I’m hanging onto it. I’ve been pregnant with this shit for a long time.

Walker: How long?

Rumpus: Oh, just, you know, since my mid-twenties, and I’m in my late forties. I mean, I’ve written dribs and drabs, I’ve published essays in major magazines, I’ve published in the New York Times. Little pieces. But then the reactions from my parents always freak me out, and so I freeze up, and I can’t put that away. I’m almost fifty. It’s time to stop worrying about my mommy and my daddy being mad at me. They’ve already been mad at me for this, so I may as well just keep going.

Walker: Yeah, I mean, give birth, honey! Do you have kids?

Rumpus: I don’t.

Walker: The idea of being pregnant for twenty years is a nightmare. Holding it and holding it can’t be good. You don’t want to fetishize your own pain. You don’t want to fall in love with your own story of tragedy. I think I definitely did that for a while. My identity was about that story. And it was very comfortable, in a way. But it was also really tedious and draining, and not helpful for me in terms of the life that I wanted to live and manifest. So I really, I understand. I mean, the new book, Adé, it took me anywhere from a decade to twenty years to write. That had to do with not wanting to really let go of the fantasy or the promise of an old relationship. And so as long as I didn’t write it, it wasn’t really over. But now the writing of it just feels so good. And it’s not over, it’s just changed. And I was able to kind of pay homage to the relationship that I had through this book, and that feels very satisfying. But you never know, I think once you embark, you don’t know what the outcome will be. But taking that leap, you find out.

Rumpus: So where are you now with your mother? Are you still estranged?

Walker: We’re working on it. I continue to have tremendous, boundless love for my mother and respect and adoration and gratitude, and all those things, and I’m hoping that one day, we’ll be able to be together again in a way that’s healthy and positive. I keep holding that, and we’ll see. I think we’re definitely making some headway, but it’s a process. I think it’s definitely positive that I haven’t written another memoir about growing up. And I hope that in Adé, she sees some of her own beauty reflected in that character, in a way that will make her feel the depth of my gratitude.

***

Want to read more conversations between Sari Botton and brave writers? Visit the archives here

***

Featured image of Rebecca Walker © by David Fenton.


Sari Botton is a writer living in upstate New York. She is the editor of Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving & Leaving NY. Her articles and essays have appeared in The New York Times, New York Magazine, The Village Voice and more retrograde women’s magazines than she’d care to recall or admit to. She tweets at @saribotton. More from this author →