Sisterly encouragement in SeoulAlice Walker took the stage at Artsonje Center in Seoul last week after the host introduced the American author by reciting a list of her accomplishments and critically acclaimed work.
Wearing a long, colorful dress and sporting shoulder-length dreadlocks, Ms. Walker, 60, looked around the full theater hall, sighed deeply, then said, “Sometimes when I hear my life being described, it sounds very, very long,” she said. “I want to take a nap.” The crowd broke into laughter.
After arriving in Seoul last week for her first visit to the country, the Pulitzer-Prize winning author of “The Color Purple” spoke to overflow crowds in a series of lectures last week. She will be in Korea until Monday.
Ms. Walker was invited to visit by her friend Hyun Kyung, a professor of Union Theological Seminary in New York, and she accepted, eager to learn more about the women in an unfamiliar region.
The trip was organized by a local feminist collective, Iftopia, to promote her book “In Search of My Mother’s Garden,” which was recently translated into Korean. Two other books have been translated as well, “The Color Purple” and “Anything We Love Can Be Saved.”
Ms. Walker has earned many accolades for her writing, but she’s also had her share of critics. When someone at the Hongik University lecture on Saturday asked her how women who are trying to express themselves can deal with criticism, Ms. Walker said, “Try to think of it as creation, rather than promotion.” She also said she never reads reviews of her books.
The act of creating is what’s important, she said. “I bet the feeling of a person owning Van Gogh’s painting is not comparable to the artist’s while painting it.”
Throughout her lectures last week, Ms. Walker, a noted peace activist, seemed to place a particular emphasis on the current state of the world.
“I devote everything to the present,” she said at the Artsonje lecture last Thursday, explaining that the uncertainty of our future has made every moment precious.
“We live in a world that is very unstable, dangerous and careless that when we meet, so we have to remind ourselves that we may never be able to see each other again,” she said.
Much of Ms. Walker’s work has dealt with voicing protests against institutional violence around the world and in her home country.
During the civil rights movement, she recalled at the Artsonje lecture, she climbed up a tree near the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963 to hear Martin Luther King Jr. speak to a crowd of Americans. Imitating the voice of the legendary preacher, Ms. Walker recounted the famous “I Have a Dream” speech: “ ‘Go back to Georgia; go back to Arkansas; go back to Mississippi.’ ”
Eventually, she did move to Mississippi to join the student’s movement and ended up living there for seven years.
She also had more affectionate memories of the civil rights leader. “What people didn’t know about him was that he was also a very fine dancer,” said Ms. Walker, who was invited to the home of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1962 in recognition of her attendance at the Youth World Peace Festival in Finland.
When asked to share her most memorable experience after “The Color Purple” was made into a film by Steven Spielberg, Ms. Walker thought for a moment. “It was to see a limo carrying Quincy Jones and Steven Spielberg trying to set into my drive,” she said.
Her work doesn’t focus just on injustices at home. She has collaborated in the production of a documentary about the genital mutilation of African women and has written numerous essays that stress the idea of “womanism,” the term she uses in place of “feminism” to include all women of color.
During her press conference last week, she said she had read about the Korean women who had been forced into prostitution to serve Japan’s military during World War II.
“We must learn not to repeat abominable offenses against other human beings,” she said.
She also called on Korean women to see how they might have something in common with their former enemies. At Hongik University, she said that before she left for her trip, her assistant showed her an article about Japanese Princess Masako. Crown Prince Naruhito told reporters that his 40-year-old wife, a Harvard-educated former diplomat, had become depressed and withdrawn because of the constant pressure by the imperial court to have a son. The couple already have a young daughter.
“This is an opportunity to look at a woman in Japan and see the condition of the Japanese woman,” Ms. Walker said. “African-Americans have had to really deconstruct white women in our society because they were just incredible enemies for so long. ... It look a long time to begin to see how white women are oppressed.”
Ms. Walker shared her distaste for every form of human violence, even in images. When someone at the Artsonje lecture asked Ms. Walker about her views on the movie “Passion of the Christ,” referring to Ms. Walker’s emphasis on peace as a political alternative, she said she had not seen the film, because she “couldn’t bear 45 minutes of a person being beaten.”
“I am just as aware of what I put in to my psyche as much as what I put in my body,” she said. “I am very careful about that. If you stuff yourself with other people’s fantasy, their idle thoughts and brutality, you can’t have your own dream.”
Ms. Walker left the audience in one of her lectures by reading “Projection,” which she said she wrote in Mexico, shortly after she temporarily gave up writing novels. (The poem is reprinted at the right.) She calls them the “medicine poems.”
“It helps us go on and to believe in a right way,” she says. “To live a path with a heart.”
Projection by Alice Walker
You must divulge
Not a secret
But a thing
That at the back
Of each human’s eyeballs
resides the image
Of a little child.
It is the world
& it sits
So tell him this
First of all.
When he says
Savages, who do not deserve
Their own forest
Tell him: All the children of the Earth
When he says: Those Germans
& their ovens
Tell him: Like clouds,or grains of sand, all the children of
When he says
Those rotten Arabs
You tell him: All the children of the Earth
When he says
You say: Like the feet of Jesus, the eyelashes of
the Buddha, all the children of the Earth
It is our Life Work
To liberate across the planet
The world child
In the only
Image (our own)
When he says
Those Israelis & their
Those Americans &
Those Africans &
You still say: All the children
Of the earth
by Park Soo-mee
Kirsten Jerch of the JoongAng Daily contributed to this report.