An Interview With the Author: Alice Walker
Q. What inspired you to write Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart?
A. My friend Gloria Steinem often comments that for a woman over fifty the territory is largely unexplored. This is true. I was amazed to discover in my own life that there seemed to be as much if not more life after fifty than before. After all, it is after fifty that women return to a balanced sense of self they may not have felt since they were ten. By fifty we have completed our childrearing duties; many of us have shifted out of confining work, career or social obligations. We may or may not be in a primary relationship with another person. And are not, generally, obsessed over this. Passion is discovered to be innate, and not necessarily connected to hormonal ebbs and flows. If we are lucky and are able to follow our inner directives, we find our fifties to be a perfect time to explore this previously unknown territory that is in fact the entryway to the next half of our lives. (I say the next half because of an ancestral great-great-great-great grandmother who lived to be one hundred and twenty-five).
So in Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart I set out to chart such a journey, the adventures of Kate Nelson Talkingtree, who is named partly for a grandmother, my father’s mother, who was murdered when he was a boy. The legend of her life and death made a huge impression on me as a child. That she was beautiful; that men were always after her, even after she married and was the mother of five children; that one of these men, angry that she refused his advances, shot her down in the churchyard, leaving my grandfather to attempt to raise my father and his siblings alone. This legend was in fact so compelling that it obscured what I was to discover only in my fifties: that I had never had the comfort and wisdom of this apparently extraordinary woman, my grandmother. Though I’d had a step-grandmother who was kind and loving.
This revelation, that I missed my grandmother terribly, and felt lost as I entered the latter part of my life, helped me to understand how much human beings are collectively missing the presence in the culture of The Grandmother.
Q. What is the significance of Kate’s many journeys? And is it necessary for women to go on these journeys of exploration alone?
A. There comes a time in a woman’s life when she really must go on walk-about. The same way Nunga people of Australia do. There is an inner calling, a sense that wherever it is that we are is lacking the answer. This may in fact not be true. The answer may be just where we are, but without travel, journeying, we may not be able to see it. And so Kate dreams of rivers – the flow of life – but they are dry. She is alarmed, as any of us should be. Her friends advise her to find a real river, symbolic of her inner flow, that is alive. She goes.
It would be a different journey with a man. Or with a woman partner. Partners require more attention than a woman has to offer on this kind of expedition. She needs to remain focused on her inner journey, needs to chart it through her dreams, musings, wistful thoughts; needs to bounce herself off the ribaldry and humor of women her own age, pioneering, as she is, a new way of being.
Because that is precisely what is happening. We are pioneering. Deep inside us is the longing for rebirth as women powerful enough to make a difference in the saving of the world. The Grandmother self is hungering to be born. Not as someone small and destined for Alzheimer’s or a nursing home, but intense, concentrated, her true size; focused on the truth of our situation as human beings who have lost our way.
Q. Why so many story tellers in Now is the Time to Open Your Heart? Friends, partners, lovers, shamans, spirit beings?
A. It is from our stories that we will remake the world. Human breath and humor, empathy and imagination, will be left to us. That is why the ancient stories that Clarissa Pinkola Estes collects and retells are so important. Why Women Who Run With the Wolves was a massive international bestseller. (And why I love it.) I am at the moment becoming familiar with Sufi philosophy, always achored in stories, and am deeply impressed. People instinctively respond to the healing, enlightening medicine of stories, and as a novelist in love with storytelling any novel I write is usually full of them.
Also there is an uneasy distrust of “information.” There is too much of it. Knowledge supplies the mind with facts; stories give sensation to the heart. If The Grandmother archetype teaches one huge thing it is that the mind is limited in a way the heart is not. This oceanic heart which is loving without being sentimental (sentimentality cannot survive The Grandmother’s fierceness) seems to have left the world, because the power of the elder feminine presence has been so thoroughly suppressed. It is fighting now to emerge again as it existed in the distant past: as a counterbalance to male dominance and destructiveness. It is the Grandmothers who are seeing all sides of war issues at the present time, for instance. Whether in Kosovo or Rwanda or Palestine. They see people where the soldiers see “collateral”. Frightened women and children, elders and animals, where the men dictating the wars apparently see nothing at all.
Q. In Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart Kate’s partner, Yolo, goes on his own journey, almost by accident. Was this necessary for the continuation of their relationship?
A. Very necessary. Women today are much less likely than at any time in recent history to remain with someone who does not have his or her own journey to attend. Yolo’s experience represents what happens to almost anyone these days who goes to a “foreign” paradise hoping to have a vacation. It is impossible to avoid the condition of the local people. Once you acknowledge their suffering, your vacation is over, but your reconnection to authentic life, among these same people, has just begun. Hawaii, previously a fantasy to Yolo, becomes a real place, and he becomes more real to himself in relation to it. This is beneficial to his intimate relationship with Kate, who senses his transformation immediately.
Q. You mention a number of physical changes that these characters, Yolo and Kate, go through. Why is this important?
A. Because in our fifties – and they are in their fifties, though Yolo is somewhat younger than Kate – our bodies change a great deal. There’s gravity, and graying hair, but also various aches and pains we may never have experienced before. There is likely to be a change in libido as well. And there are choices to be made about how one might direct one’s sexuality. It is important to write about these things in a way that accepts them as natural. If more novels were written and read in which women experience menopause and men experience its counterpart, and people in the book were open to the reality of physical change, our culture would not be so dominated by Viagra and anti-depressant use. Change truly is the only constant; and everything, our bodies especially, changes. Wisdom lies in accepting this.
Q. There is a Buddhist thread in Now is the Time to Open Your Heart. How is Buddhism of interest to you?
A. In fact, what I am exploring is how similar Buddhism and Shamanism are. At the beginning of the novel Kate drops out of a meditation retreat because the Dharma teacher disdains revolutionary activity on the part of oppressed people. Much later in the novel, she travels to the Amazon and undergoes a shamanic initiation that transforms her understanding of indigenous healing as well as indigenous comprehension of the planet. She sees, or is taught, that shamans and Buddhists share the common goal of opening the heart of human beings. That at this point in history this instruction is the absolute imperative of all spiritual practitioners. Because unless the heart opens and we are able to feel each other as we feel ourselves the whole world is in danger of being destroyed by war. War created by people whose hearts are so closed they cannot feel or even know what they are doing.
Q. What was the greatest pleasure you experienced in writing Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart?
A. I seem to be writing more of my books in Mexico. There is the deep freedom of creating a fictional world in a country where I am perpetually learning the language. Everything feels invented, created, fictional, even my own existence. I move in and out of the story as if I am a character; the very different political and cultural setting in Mexico sparking my imagination and embellishing my dreams. It is always a joy to create a novel in a place that’s warm!
For this particular novel, in which medicinal mushrooms and ayahuasca (a plant medicine) appear, it helped to be in Mexico, where they are used, and have been used, medicinally, for thousands of years; longer than anyone can even calculate. The title of the novel Now Is the Time To Open Your Heart comes from an icaro, a shamanic healing song that is sung during ayahuahsca ceremonies. Ususally in Spanish Ya Es El Tiempo Para Abrir Tu Carazon, though originally it would have been in a language indigenous to the Americas.
It was a pleasure to relive some of my own discoveries about life in the person/character of Kate. To reconnect to my longing for my paternal grandmother, Kate Nelson Walker. To be able to think of her, imaginatively, with so much love, and to honor her name.
Thank you, Grandmother.