Walker, the editor of a new collection of essays about the
meaning of "masculinity," talks about her anthology
-- and how her identity as a black, white and Jewish bisexual
affects her work.
28, 2004 | Rebecca Walker has never played it safe. Her
first book, the 1995 anthology "To Be Real: Telling
the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism," unleashed
a feminist firestorm when she published it at age 25. Despite
its foreword by Gloria Steinem, afterword by Angela Davis,
and contributions by many well-known second-wave standard-bearers,
the book's critique of feminism's cultishness infuriated
many movement veterans -- the outcome Walker dreaded most.
"I thought I might be perceived as betraying 'The
Movement' rather than celebrating it," she wrote
in the book's introduction. "I feared that this
betrayal, which was grounded in staying true to myself,
could mean banishment from the community for questioning
the status quo. Because feminism has always been so close
to home, I worried that I might also be banished from there."
risked banishment from home again when she wrote "Black,
White and Jewish" (2001), her memoir of growing up
in the joint custody of her Jewish civil rights lawyer father
and African-American novelist mother. "My parents
did not hold me close, but encouraged me to go,"
she wrote. "They did not buffer, protect, watch
out for, or look after me. I was mostly left alone to discover
the world and my place in it." Brave words for
the daughter of Alice Walker to commit to print. Having
published and regretted a few words about my (non-famous)
mother myself, I found myself astounded as I watched Walker
read passages like that from "Black, White and Jewish"
at Black Oak Books in Berkeley soon after the books
release, beneath a beatific photograph of her mother that
hung -- literally -- over her head.
Rebecca Walker's new anthology, "What Makes a Man:
22 Writers Imagine the Future," is less personal but,
in many ways, equally risky. It's a crazy quilt of essays
made vivid by its eclectic collection of contributors: writers
previously published and not, many of them men of color,
most of them tackling the topic from deeply personal and
provocative perspectives. Jesse Green ("The Velveteen
Father") writes about the meaning of male/female, husband/wife
in the life of a gay dad; National Public Radio commentator
Doug Rushkoff discusses the effects, both good and bad,
that Playboy had on him as a young man. Death-row inmate
Jarvis Jay Masters writes excruciatingly about trying to
mentor young, self-destructive fellow prisoners. Meditation
teacher Caitriona Reed reflects on being Buddhist and transsexual.
There are excerpts from Michael Moore's "Stupid White
Men" ("The End of Men"), Anthony Swofford's
"Jarhead," and "I Sleep at Red Lights,"
by Bruce Stockler, a new father of triplets. The net effect
of the book is that of overhearing a confessional conversation
among a group of thoughtful men, with a few similarly self-appraising
women (Martha Southgate on her seemingly female son; Tajamika
Paxton on her wounded, dying father; Ruth Bettleheim on
the favorable impact of divorce on young boys) in the mix.
Now 34, Walker has once again taken a topic that seemed
to have been talked to death and given us ways and means
to think about it differently. Like her other books, "What
Makes a Man" was born at home -- in her relationship
with the son, now 15, she shares with her ex, musician Meshell
and I spent an afternoon at her publicist's home in the
hills of Oakland, Calif., discussing her writing and how
it affects her identity as a mother.
talk about the new book first. Where'd the idea come from?
night my son -- this dynamic, interesting 11-year-old who
loves chess and snowboarding and sci-fi -- turned to me
and said, "You think I should play sports so girls
will like me?" I reacted the way I would have if I
had a daughter who'd asked, "Should I pretend I'm dumb
so boys will like me?"
he and I talked, I started to understand that in his seventh-grade
culture the boys either played violent video games or they
played competitive sports. With all my son's uniqueness,
he had no social currency unless he did those things. That
started me thinking about how our culture forces boys to
deny their own complexity and pushes them into this competitive
fighting model. I wanted to create a book I could give to
my son, to help him navigate the making of his identity,
give him more room to be who he actually is.
Identity navigation seems to be a theme of your work.
True. I always want to make more space for people who
suffer because we don't fit into some bullshit paradigm
that we didn't make. [Laughs.] Anthologies are good for
when you have questions but no answers on a subject, and
you need to survey a lot of people to figure out what you
you go about asking the questions?
started talking to all kinds of guys: 60-year-old friends
of my dad's, people I was in grad school with, my brother,
random people I met on the road. I'd pull a guy aside and
say, "I'm thinking about doing this book -- tell me
what it was like growing up. Tell me what it's like being
a man." They had all these stories of childhood abuse
and humiliation, of being brutally teased out of their emotional
capacity. Listening to them heightened my sensitivity to
the other half of the human race.
for a loaded question: Why a book about masculinity from
a bisexual woman?
not the first to ask. When I first proposed the book, my
publisher said, "Why are you doing a book on men? You're
a woman, you've been with women." In fact, I've actually
only been with two women. For most of my life I was with
men: four years with one boyfriend, five years with another,
and I was going to marry a man in Africa. [Laughs.] I know
a lot about men up close and personal.
bet you couldn't have gotten away with writing this book
as a lesbian. And if you were straight no one would have
touching on something important. As a writer I've wanted
to make it really hard for people to put me in any kind
of box. I'm not comfortable with being thought of as a black
writer, a Jewish writer, lesbian writer, East Coast, West
Coast. I'm all of those things and I'm more.
one likes being shoved into a box. But when you're black,
white, Jewish, and bi, there are so many boxes to avoid.
have a personal sort of resistance to limitation. But it's
also about the realities of the marketplace. I want my work
to reach as many people as possible. I'd hate to think someone
would get to one of my books and say "This looks interesting
but it's not for me -- she's a black writer, she's a bi
writer." I think a book on masculinity isn't what readers
of "Black, White and Jewish" are expecting. I
like that. If I can keep putting books out there that complicate
the question of an identity box, that'll cut through the
your intro you call on women to help men reconfigure masculinity.
You say, "If we want men to be different we must eroticize
that difference." What do you mean?
say we want these integrated, beautiful, sweet men. Then
we run off with the macho guy. All these years of feminism
and we're still looking for the knight in shining armor.
There's a way in which our impulses haven't caught up with
our intellect. What I'm saying is, we know that men are
often socialized in their sexuality through pornography.
I can eroticize this table if I work hard enough at it.
Well, women need to flex that power and begin to eroticize
what's truly healthy for us and for our partners.
guys finish last -- but at least they finish.
turned on by macho guys who aren't good for us has to do
with us wanting to be the feminine über-counterpart.
I like those guys 'cause I can curl up and be little. I
can be pure sensuality. But those extremes only work in
the realm of sexuality. Real relationships are much more
multidimensional. I want a partner, male or female, who
can be the cool tough guy to my damsel in distress and who
can also be the damsel in distress to my cool tough guy.
I want to have the full range of my humanity in a relationship.
I want to experience life fully, not just a sliver of it.
That's why I did this book -- because men are being allowed
just this tiny part. I was interested in the ones who are
breaking out of that paradigm. I'm interested in knowing
what's that like for them.
published one memoir and two anthologies. Do you prefer
working in one genre over the other?
an anthology is like conducting a symphony: You're orchestrating
different ideas, different writers. It's fairly administrative.
A memoir is more like taking off all your clothes and walking
down a crowded city street -- all that vulnerability and
the vulnerability the good part or the bad part?
That's the bad part. The good part is that writing a
memoir is making a map of your own evolution. It's a clearing,
too. With "Black, White and Jewish," I let all
this stuff go through the writing. It was amazingly cathartic.
me there's always been a price to pay for the catharsis.
a memoir it's inevitable that you're going to hurt some
people. In the past I felt that telling my story was the
most important thing. But I'm not convinced that the damage
is worth it. Now I feel like telling my story and taking
care of the people I love are equally important. There's
got to be a way to write honestly and meaningfully about
my life and not cause anyone suffering. I've been thinking
of it as a challenge: What does it mean to tell my truth
and live authentically and also take care of people? Is
versus caretaking: You're not the first artist to confront
calls for a radical shift in my perspective.
what to what?
an idea of myself as a kind of lone artist who can just
keep moving from project to project, relationship to relationship,
place to place, the infinitely morph-able, infinitely changeable
shifting renegade female warrior artist -- that's a trope
I inherited, a real trope of the women's movement -- to
someone who understands that the joy of life is not found
only in self-expression but in intimacy with others.
just another word for nothing left to lose...
I've had a romantic idea of freedom, of following one's
muse, that hasn't really taken other people's feelings into
account. That's been a very difficult lesson for me to learn.
know this is a touchy subject, but what can you say about
the effects of your books on the important relationships
in your life?
can say that "To Be Real" and "Black, White
and Jewish" put a lot of strain on my personal relationships.
The first book was not well received by the women I grew
up with. They felt like I was critiquing them, calling them
narrow. That book challenged the very idea of the feminist
identity they'd worked so hard to establish.
"Black, White and Jewish" the problems were with
my parents and other family members. The work I had to do
to heal those relationships taught me a lot about what's
really important -- as did going through a breakup with
my partner of eight years. Both of us were very committed
to our art. We both believed we could wantonly pursue our
creative impulses without understanding how to survive that
as individuals and as a family.
from suffering, suffering from art...
many kids of my generation were raised with this permissive
progressivism, without rules or stability. Our parents were
busy doing the right thing, trying to challenge the orthodoxy
of the time. We paid a pretty heavy price for that: a sense
of security, a sense of limits. Many of us experimented
with things we probably shouldn't have. I know I did.
has your own upbringing affected the kind of mother you
my son was younger I could be the chummy kind of mom. But
in the last few years I've had to become much more stern,
much more the real grown-up mom. It's challenging, but I'm
enjoying it. I'm proud of my commitment to my son. It's
a big deal to take on the responsibility of a child who's
(a) not your biological child, then (b) to not flinch when
the relationship with the child's biological parent ends.
moves you from book to book?
always something in my psyche that needs to be resolved,
a place where I feel a little blocked, where there's some
kind of restriction I want to work through. The energy of
writing the book helps to clear it. It's weird: My books
are so thematic, but I'm not somebody who's interested in
trends or the temperature of the moment in pop culture.
I'm someone who cares about where we're going as a species
in terms of human relating. I'm more emotional than I am
pop psych. I'm all about, how does it feel?
there be a novel in your future?
been trying to write a novel since 2001. I had the idea
that I did the memoir, I did the anthology, now I have to
do a novel. Working on it was agony! I finally just decided
to let it go. My mom's such a novelist, I wanted to connect
in that way, to share that. But we don't. Which is fine.
memoir, believe it or not, based on the year I spent in
Africa. I fell in love with this guy, ended up leaving abruptly,
and almost died of dengue fever. It's about transcontinental
romance, the indestructibility of love.
going to get mad at you about this one?
remains to be seen. [Chuckles, then grows somber.] I just
want to do my work, have people read it, and have it mean
something to them. I want to feel like I can transform the
difficulties of my life into something that's helpful not
just for me, but for other people. And I want to be able
to do the hard work of changing myself when it's clear that
I need to.