If all you know, or think you know, of Alice Walker is The Color Purple - either the 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel or the 1985 Steven Spielberg film - it might be time to find out what she's been up to since.
Not that she's been hiding or kicking back. Walker, who will read from her work at 8:15 p.m. Wednesday at the Free Library of Philadelphia, has two books out at once: The Cushion in the Road (New Press, 366 pp., $26.95), a collection of essays, reviews, public letters, and opinion pieces; and The World Will Follow Joy (New Press, 192 pp., $21.95), a big book of her poetry.
From reading both, it's clear: Alice Walker has stayed active and on the move, traveling the world, assailing injustice and praising goodness wherever she finds them. She has continued a lifetime of front-line political activism that began in the 1960s civil-rights marches. Egypt, Gaza, Rwanda, South Africa, Burma/Myanmar . . . female genital mutilation, the Israel-Palestinian conflict, same-sex marriage, the environmental ravaging of the planet - in Cushion in the Road, Walker goes to the scene, does the work, tells the truth as she sees it. She has been arrested at the Code Pink rally in Washington against the Iraq war, as part of the Freedom Flotilla in Gaza, and elsewhere.
The urge to go, to do, to right wrongs - where did that come from? "My parents taught me service, not by saying, but by doing," says Walker, 69, by phone from her home in northern California. "That was my culture, the culture of my family."
The books are like two sisters who back each other up. Both move between an ecstatic and deeply religious (indeed, deeply Buddhist) awareness of the innate goodness of the world - and an equal awareness that, as Walker puts it, "this life is so good, and so endangered."
The subtitles of the books say it all: Meditation and Wandering as the Whole World Awakens to Being in Harm's Way and Turning Madness Into Flowers.
"It's the same life," she says, "and the same engagement with it."
You can find ecstatic, meditative optimism, as in the poem "Coming to Worship the 1,000-Year-Old Cherry Tree":
The Earth is good. Goodness is its nature.
Nature is good. Goodness is its essence.
People are also good. Goodness is our offering . . .
And you can find bracing declarations that something's wrong and needs action:
"It is time for us, en masse, to show up in front of our conscience, and sit down in the front of the only bus we have: our very lives."
In a speech in Cape Town, South Africa, after singing the praises of the land and its people, she decries the "rampant greed and materialism that quite takes one's breath away. There is news about the desperation of the poor. News of violence and despair." Against these sad facts, she invokes the work of Steve Biko and Nelson Mandela: "Was it all for this?"
In the midst of the Iraq war, Walker writes: "How long will it take the citizens of the United States, one wonders, to recognize that the house their country bombed in Iraq is the same one they were living in until it was foreclosed?"
In both books, we meet Walker's pantheon of the planet's great souls - "who can be counted on to lead us in a proper direction for survival as humans, and for thriving as a species" - including Aung San Suu Kyi; the Dalai Lama; Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera; John Lennon and his son, Sean; President Obama; Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter; Nawal El Saadawi; Howard Zinn; and Walker's partner, Garrett Larson.
"It's so tempting to despair," Walker says. "To say, 'Nothing can be done. I'll soon be out of here.' I hear that a lot. Those of us who do have the love of where we are - how can we bear to leave this glorious creation so vulnerable, so unprotected?"
As she writes in a poem titled "From: Poems for My Girls":
How can Humanity
look the deer
How can I,
Again and again in both books, the question arises: What to do to make the world better, protect what is beautiful, decrease suffering?
Walker urges concerned people to form circles of like-minded friends - very much like the sangha, or support circles, of Buddhism - to discuss issues and decide the best course of action.
For Walker, poetry, too, is social action. She says that at this point of her career, after seven novels and much other prose, she is giving a new priority to poetry, both as literature and as political activity. She writes that "poetry is the lifeblood of rebellion, revolution, and the raising of consciousness."
Amen, she says by phone: "Poetry can be very effective at times of incredible change, revolution, revolt, unrest, dissatisfaction, and horror - and the occasional bursts of happiness when we accomplish something. We're in that kind of time. Some people are seeing this time as being like the 1960s, when people were very open to making a difference in the world."
Urgency coexists with calm in her voice. "Why wouldn't you use this, if you had it?" she asks. "Why wouldn't you express how beautiful, and how vulnerable, this world is? Why wouldn't you stand up for justice?"
When things change for the better, she says, "poetry is in the lead, because it tells the truth and comes from such a depth of awareness."
(At one point in Cushion, she writes: "Many readers fail to realize this, but The Color Purple is a theological text. It is about the reclamation of one's original God: the earth and nature.")
The essays in Cushion in the Road depict a life of awareness, of going to the scene and taking action.
And the poems in The World Will Follow Joy are themselves action, not just as statements, but also as acts of awareness.
"After all," says Alice Walker, a deep smile in her voice, "to know this is paradise is to have it."