The award-winning author, poet and activist considers herself above all a daughter of the Earth, as she explains to Frank Barat.
What’s your earliest memory?
I think my earliest memory is of being enchanted by dust motes as I crawled around a handmade wooden chair. This must have been when I was a baby. I saw the tiny motes caught in the sunlight that poured through a window, revolving ever so slowly, glinting beautifully, mysteriously. I’m sure I put my hand through them and was amazed that none stuck. Now I think of this memory as an early imprint on my psyche of the cosmos, which I so love.
Another memory that was very early and pre-verbal was of being held aloft by a beautiful, shining, loving, very black man, perhaps my father or my brother Fred, who adored me. I am being held up to a plum tree on which there are many juicy red plums. The very black brother or father is laughing because it is taking so little to make me so happy. I can reach the plums if I am held up in this way; I can eat as many as I can, I’m thinking, when I am sat down again. This is a wonderful adventure for both of us. To this day if I see any tree with red fruit I feel happy. And a very black man who loves children, and introduces the natural world to them, can intoxicate me with joy.
What does ageing mean to you?
As I prepare to repaint my house dogwood white with pale turquoise trim I think of all the houses I have lived in, rescued, repaired, painted. There are so many! Each has been a canvas on which I’ve painted the years my soul has been working on my life. I appreciate ageing. And, I am surprised by it. I never expected to live this long: 69 on my next birthday. What I love about being this old is how happy I am with the smallest things. Maybe I’ve returned to childhood. In fact, I sometimes say to my friends: It feels like I’m enjoying my childhood for the first time! There is a freedom that is wonderful, a peace about one’s being in the world. I seem to feel closer to all youth, as I get older; I want the best for them. I want their happiness.
What I love about being this old is how happy I am with the smallest things. There is a freedom that is wonderful, a peace about one’s being in the world
I realize too that I am by nature incapable of hating groups of people; I have only to look back over my long, racially and ethnically varied, list of friends, lovers and beloveds to see this. Because I was raised in such a racist country and environment I’m not sure how this happened: my guess is that my parents strictly forbade expressions of racism in our family, though they did not, unfortunately, have the same success with colourism, though they tried. Colourism is the distinctions people of colour make about each other based on colour, with the darker shades being considered less physically appealing, if more trustworthy, than lighter ones. This oppressive ranking of people based on skin tone is encouraged in a racist culture because the lighter skinned are often permitted greater chances at success, since there is often the unacknowledged recognition that people with lighter skin are the offspring of members of the oppressive gate-keeping class/race.
It is lovely to see these things so clearly as one ages. In childhood and youth – and even young adulthood – many of the maneuvers set in place to humiliate and separate people seem inscrutable. Therefore they are quite effective.
I am also closer than I’ve ever been to animals. Luckily I live in Northern California where many people love animals, especially dogs. I was given a small dog that seems to be my twin, in some ways. Though he is only six pounds, we are so much alike: curious, loving, happy with small things, wanting to play, smell things, go for walks, that it is simply a wonder. We sleep together every night, and I want this feeling of closeness with animals, especially for the young, who seem to me to be, with all their inanimate gadgets, some of the loneliest people the planet has ever spawned.
What are you passionate about politically?
Bedrock for me is probably indigenous wisdom and medicine. It is crucial for the world to support, rather than eradicate, the people who can best teach us all how to live on and with the planet. One of the things still held in indigenous memory is the idea of Mother Leadership. Male planetary rule is not sustainable and in fact has led to the degradation of the planet we now experience. Planetary male-only leadership has existed for only a few thousand years and I think most humans can agree, at this point, that it has been a disaster. Many cultures – wiped out almost entirely by Western, European superiority in arms – conceived of life’s meaning in very different and planet-respectful ways. Women were considered quite capable of leading civilizations and of determining the healthiest direction for the group to take. Some of their ways were simple common sense. For instance, once I visited an Acoma village in New Mexico and learned that, in their Mother-centred and -led existence before conquest, the home always belonged to the woman and the children. If a man and a woman decided to part, or if the woman wished him to depart, his shoes were placed outside the door. His fatherhood rights remained as long as he honoured them, but there was no way he could rule over the household since it was understood by all to belong to the woman and the children: this was their security, one that was fundamental to the stability of the entire group.
Planetary male-only leadership has existed for only a few thousand years and I think most humans can agree that it has been a disaster
I recently wrote a poem called ‘Democratic Womanism’, which is essentially leadership of the planet by those women who’ve had the least to say about earth’s direction, while knowing more than almost anyone else about how to work with, protect, and honour it: indigenous women and women of colour. With our brave allies of all colours and kinds, male and female.
I have tried enough plant medicine myself to know it is a necessary and natural component of our healing; and Native people remind us it is always to be administered in ceremony. Which means we must develop a planetary and communal understanding and faith that the earth has given us every medicine to cure our illnesses; and that Nature itself must be approached in the right way. If we go to the root of our drug addictions in so many cultures and countries around the world today, we will discover that humans have an instinctive need to rely on natural medicines found in plants. They search for this medicine, unfortunately, in drugs or in plants that have been insulted and degraded to become substances that harm rather than heal. One of my novels, Now is the Time to Open Your Heart, delves into this.
It is tragic beyond bearing what has been done to aboriginal peoples everywhere. I have had the privilege of standing in, sitting in, walking in, drumming in, with Native Americans, Maori, Nungas [aboriginals of Australia], Native Hawaiians and shamans of the Amazon. My constant prayer is that enough people with indigenous wisdom and training can hold on until the rest of humanity catches on to how essential they are. At the funeral of a friend last October I was told of the brutal torture and murder of eight shamans from Peru. My own shaman, who taught me so much about plant medicines, was Peruvian Indigenous; I do not know if he was among the eight. Their assassins were from a fundamentalist sect that believes shamanism is akin to devil worship. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. What is happening is that the pharmaceutical companies wish to steal the medicines shared so freely by the shamans and to make money by selling them to the rest of us. They use twisted religious organizations to incite hatred against the very medicines that have helped poor and indigenous people survive their illnesses and traumas since time immemorial.
My constant prayer is that enough people with indigenous wisdom and training can hold on until the rest of humanity catches on to how essential they are
I am also passionate about midwifery. I believe the violent way many people are being delivered into the world, by Caesarean section especially, rather than being gently born into it, through excellent midwifery, accounts for a great loss of connection between mother and child; this has led to increased insensitivity to, and distance from, feelings of all kinds.
Then there is my belief that war is immoral and really stupid. I dislike calling anything stupid. But what else can you call war? It destroys everything in its path, especially those forced to engage in it. Even the vast profits that it makes for a few families in the world cannot shield them from suffering, old age and death. Nor can it make their children successful adults, no matter how rich they might be. It destroys our home, this earth, which is why it should be immediately outlawed. We must have more faith in our ability to reason with each other, and to give up our religion of money worship.
Who or what inspires you?
My admiration for Fidel Castro is well known. Whether one likes or dislikes what Fidel represents – and I like what he represents – he seems to me a truly extraordinary human being. Filled with love for the suffering beings of the world, and with a willingness to fight alongside them for their liberation. I met him twice, in Havana, Cuba, with other Americans, and each time he made me chuckle with delight. In fact, his energy seemed almost overwhelming, as if the Creator gave him more than his fair share. That is why he could make those four- and five-hour speeches that formed the core of his teachings to the Cuban people. Teachings (or lectures) some Cubans probably moaned and groaned about, but which many loved because, having been kept poor and ignorant for so long, they relished having someone enlighten them who they knew loved them madly. Fidel’s record as revolutionary assured them of this. Educated as a Jesuit, he has a fierce moral compass that makes him stand up and speak out while others are silent. At our meetings his mind was witty and quick and almost scarily informed about almost anything one could think of. He’s an old man now, and writing his memoirs, in which I hope he will be candid. As his niece Mariela Castro said recently in an interview: ‘There are things only he knows!’ The CIA and others tried to assassinate him 648 times, according to filmmaker Saul Landau, who made the movie Will The Real Terrorist Please Stand Up (about the many attacks against Cuba instigated by the US). This is also astonishing: someone who managed to live through all these attempts on his life. He could never have survived without the active protection given him by the Cuban people. And in that protection one understands that the love Fidel has for the people has been, and is, overwhelmingly returned.
I also admire the Dalai Lama and can appreciate the similarity between His Holiness and Father Fidel. One waged war to overthrow a dictatorship that degraded and almost destroyed the people of Cuba, and the other wages peace toward an adversary, the Chinese government, which to this day shows no sign of mercy toward the Tibetan people. They are both, as Che Guevara would have observed had he known the Dalai Lama, men who are revolutionaries in the truest sense: fuelled by immense love for their people and by extension for all humanity. For each man the path chosen is completely sacred.
I admire many people; the list grows the longer I live. This gives me hope. At the moment I am over the moon about the revolutionary Celia Sanchez, beloved compañera to Che Guevara and the person closest to Fidel Castro for many years until she died of lung cancer in 1980. I’ve just written the foreword to a book about her: One Day in December: The Life of Celia Sanchez by Nancy Stout. It’s thrilling to see how these two revolutionaries, Celia and Fidel, managed to share leadership of the revolution and to raise children together (not their own) and build institutions together and create ice-cream flavours together, (they sent a couple of early flavours packed in dry ice to [Vietnamese communist revolutionary leader] Ho Chi Minh) while the war against Cuba meant Fidel had to be protected at all times, and a US embargo against the country attempted to starve its rebellious citizens into submission. Celia too had a price on her head before the revolution became the government.
I also admire Liliu’okalani. She was Hawaii’s queen [from 1891 to 1893]. She was deposed and her government overthrown by the US military to make Hawaii safe for the sons of missionaries who planted the island with pineapples and sugar cane. In everything she wrote, and in the many songs she created, her love for her people is only equalled by her love of the land, the Aina, itself. I am executive producer of a film being made about her life and this bleak period in Hawaiian history (when two-thirds of the people perished due to the conquest). It is called Ku’u Aloha Aina, (The Beloved Country), and the director is Meleanna Meyer who made an earlier film I am always raving about: Ho’ho Ku'i Kahi (To Unify As One). This film is about finding ways to heal some of the horrendously misguided acts of our ancestors that continue to cause trauma hundreds of years later.
We artists are possessed by the belief that this sacred function that has been entrusted to us is worth our lives
The creation of art is such a sacred function it is appalling that it is often so hard for artists to have the support and funding they need. If Meleanna Meyer’s film finds the necessary funding it will help the healing of the world. It can help us restore our senses. It can help us reconnect with ancestors whose base acts depress, distress and embarrass us. We should all be jumping up and down around our artists asking them what we can do to help them help us! Instead, art has become like so much else, a commodity for snack-like consumption and quick forgetting.
It is a blessing that someone else that I admire has plentiful support to deliver his art. Steven Spielberg, a director I met because he wanted to make a film of my novel The Color Purple, is a genius at finding the way to the human heart, and thawing it completely. I just watched War Horse and spent a good deal of the time either bawling uncontrollably or pacing the floor like a madwoman. This is art! What it can do! And should! To move us somewhere we haven’t been or are afraid to go. War Horse is a great film about war. And Spielberg teaches us its evil by letting us feel the pain of those most overlooked: horses. And in particular, one horse.
I realized early on that there is no external judgment that matters more to me than my own
There are many ways to be revolutionary: the best Buddhist teachers are revolutionaries (I recently said this to my friend, Buddhist teacher and former monk, Jack Kornfield, someone I deeply love and admire); and Spielberg, no less than His Holiness and Father Fidel, is revolutionary in the sense that Che describes: there is a feeling of great love and of wanting humanity to evolve. Out of being deeply moved, out of having our emotions tell us the news of who we truly are, we can change our behaviours, change ourselves, change the world.
I am also deeply inspired by the dignity and stamina of the Palestinian people. Recently I watched a film called Five Broken Cameras. In the person of one man, the man with the cameras, we see the plight of the Palestinians as they attempt to survive Israeli oppression. I’m not sure he survived the last attack on him and his camera, but what I know is that the film made about his attempt to record what he witnessed of the violence against him and his people is the winner in the hearts and mind category in this war that has dragged on for so long. And this is hopeful. Guns and contemptuous faces, brutality and murder cannot, in the end, hold a candle to the persistence and courage of determined resistance in the form of art. It is a great film, all jagged edges and oddly angled shots, full of heart and stubborn nobility of soul, not to be missed by anyone who wants to understand why we artists are possessed by the belief, sometimes attacked by others and sometimes decried by ourselves, that this sacred function that has been entrusted to us, so imperfect, so small, so lacking in resources, so solitary (far too often) is worth our lives.
What’s your biggest fear?
That I will not, in some area, live up to my highest belief in myself. To me this betrayal of what I know I am capable of, even though I might be excused because I am scared breathless, would be abysmal. I realized early on that there is no external judgment that matters more to me than my own.
Where do you feel most at home?
I feel completely at home in this Universe, which I consider a perfect marvel. And specifically I feel I am an Earthling. There can be no better place for me to be than here. In any form. When I look around at the earth I see the possibilities: grass, rain, rocks, dust, wind. Flowers! Butterflies! Endless opportunities for change, for transformation. All of them fascinating. In this human form, which amazes me and which I’ve enjoyed a lot, I look around me at Earth and Universe; I can clearly see, appreciate, and anticipate my future face in everything.