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Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart Reader’s Guide

By Alice Walker

Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart by Alice Walker


Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. In the preface, Alice Walker writes, “My father’s mother was murdered when he was a boy. . . . This novel is a memorial to the psychic explorer she might have become.” How does this statement affect your understanding of Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart? Do you think that any attributes of the real Kate influenced the writing of this book? Does setting a character rooted in reality at the center of the novel give it any particular resonance?

2. What does the book’s title mean to you? How does the refrain “open your heart” course throughout the story? At the beginning of the book, what do you think Kate’s heart is closed toward? How about Yolo’s? Does this change as the novel unfolds?

3. Dreams play a significant part in the book. What is it about Kate’s dream that compels her to leave on her journey? Why is it significant that Yolo begins to dream immediately upon her departure? How does the novel blur the dream world with that of reality? In which ways does Walker’s writing itself often attain a dreamlike quality?

4. How is Yolo’s voyage of self-discovery similar to the one Kate embarks upon? How is it different? How do Yolo and Kate complement each other in their relationship? Initially, why is each of them so convinced that their romantic partnership is over?

5. How do the ghosts of the past—Kate’s mother, for instance—guide her and the others around her? In which way is Kate more mindful of these internal voices than of those that speak in the present? What actions does she take to be free of these specters and shadows?

6. Describe Kate’s experience in the rain forest. How is the rain forest a living, breathing entity in the novel? How does the setting around her affect Kate’s own personal journey? Why do you think the medicina ceases to have an effect on her?

7. Compare and contrast Kate’s inner self to the façade she presents to the outside world. How is she true to herself, and how does she hide herself away? How does this sense of self compare with that of the other women with whom she comes in contact, including Lalika, Missy, and Anunu?

8. Describe the notion of the Grandmother in this novel. What forms, both literal and metaphorical, does she take? What do you think that Kate seeks from her? How does Kate come to identify with Grandmother, and in what ways does this give her peace and contentment? Knowing that the character of Kate was spurred by the author’s real-life grandmother, how does the constant refrain of Grandmother in the book resonate?

9. “Smoking had taught him about emptiness, the need to fill internal space,” thinks Yolo (p. 18). How else do he and the other characters attempt to fill themselves up? How does Yolo convey his ideas about space in his paintings? Why do you think Grandmother tells Kate, “You must live for at least two years in space”?

10. Names have a particular resonance in this book. Yolo has created his; Kate thinks of changing hers to indicate her love of trees; the hula girl Leilani is really Alma; Lalika and her friend Gloria adopt the name Saartjie. Why are names, either given or created, so important to the characters? How does changing or considering a name change enable characters to reinvent themselves?

11. What effect do the chapter titles have on the narrative structure of Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart? Why doesn’t Walker use devices like quotation marks? What does this choice lend to the tenor and tone of the story? Do you feel that there is one driving narrative voice of the novel? If so, whose?

12. What do you make of the interlude “First of All, Abandon,” which is set off from the book and isn’t told from the same point of view? Who do you think is the narrative voice of this section? What impact does it have on the novel as a whole?

13. “I saw someone with a story to tell,” says Kate of her vision of a tortured ancestor (p. 90). How does she view herself as a vessel for those stories? How can she unburden herself of her own stories through her work as a writer? In which ways do you think this mind-set parallels Walker’s experience with this particular book?

14. How are reptiles and animals important, both in the cycle of life and in Kate’s and Yolo’s journeys? What nonhuman forms does Grandmother take, and why is each of these forms significant?

15. How does concern for the environment and for the living world affect the characters? What role does water play?

16. Saartjie, also known as the Hottentot Venus, takes a paramount role in Lalika’s life. Why do you think Lalika turns to her for help? In which ways does Saartjie become an icon to her and to others?

17. The book includes characters who are Makus—women that are really men. In this way, and in others, how does Walker play with the notion of a fluid gender identity? How does she explore the notion of female power and a matrilineal society?

18. What do the others that Kate and Yolo meet on their journeys teach them about the world and about themselves? Who do you think has the most profound impact on each of them? In turn, who do Kate and Yolo influence the most?

19. “I started to understand why to myself and often to other people I have felt invisible,” says Rick (p. 152). How is this book about the artifice of appearance and the act of stripping that away? How do Yolo and Kate seek to be visible, not only to others but to themselves? Who else seeks to become visible in the book, and who do you think will be the most successful in that quest?

20. The concept of devotion plays a large role in the book. To what are both Yolo and Kate devoted at the beginning of the novel? How does that devotion change and evolve as the story unfolds? What value is placed on devotion to ancestors and the past?

21. Yolo listens with interest to the stories of the aborigines (p. 134). How does the sense of an “original people” permeate the book? What would Kate and Yolo consider their original people? How do they want to return to their roots? How does Walker twist notions of color, race, and religion in unexpected ways throughout the novel?

22. The medicina “will teach you to see through your own plots,” Armando had promised Kate (p. 180). What artificial plots have the characters constructed about their own lives? In which ways are these constructs coping mechanisms? How is this artifice detrimental to their development and their happiness?

23. Why do Yolo and Kate ultimately decide to stay together? How have their solo journeys solidified their bond? Why do you think they choose to make a public, if unconventional, display of their union?

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