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Alice Walker on motherhood and estrangement from her only child

Alice Walker is the subject of Pratibha Parmar’s new feature documentary, Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth.

John Amis/AP

Alice Walker tells me she is about to have breakfast, so naturally my first question is, "what's on the menu?"

"Oh, let's just get on with the interview, shall we?" the Pulitzer Prize-winning author says curtly, on the phone from her north California home.

All business, the controversial Ms. Walker.

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But if Pratibha Parmar's adoring, new feature documentary, Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth is any guide – it's playing this week at Inside Out, Toronto's LGBT film festival – prickly and provocative could be Walker's middle names.

The 84-minute film covers the full gamut of Walker's extraordinary life.

In a straight chronological line, Parmar deftly chronicles her childhood in the racially segregated and deeply racist Deep South; her emergence as a civil-rights activist and writer; her unlikely marriage to New York lawyer Melvyn Leventhal (they lived for a time in Mississippi, in open defiance of the state's miscegenation laws); her subsequent divorce and romantic liaisons with men and women, most notably pop-recording artist Tracy Chapman (she describes herself as neither heterosexual or gay, just "curious"); the angry backlash from African-American men that greeted her best-selling novel, The Colour Purple (1982), because it depicted them as violent misogynists; her continuing estrangement from her only child, writer Rebecca Walker, who very publicly excoriated her mother's parenting skills; and her recent political activism (including two trips to Gaza) on behalf of Palestinians.

"I think all documentaries leave out areas of people's lives," she says of the film. "Which is good. There are areas that need not be explored. But I'm satisfied with what Pratibha was able to accomplish."

The two women had previously worked together on Warrior Marks, a documentary about female genital mutilation.

The new film took four years to finance and shoot, despite a modest budget of under $500,000, raised in part through crowd-funding.

"I'm mystified why the support we were seeking did not materialize more quickly," says director Parmar. "But in the end, it allowed us to get other voices into the film, including Steven Spielberg, director of the film version of Purple, and record producer Quincy Jones." Actor Danny Glover and writer/editor Gloria Steinem also make appearances.

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Although, at 69, Walker does not write as obsessively as she once did, she has two books due out this month – a poetry collection, The World Will Follow Joy: Turning Madness into Flowers, and The Cushion in the Road, which carries the extended subtitle, Meditation and Wandering as the Whole World Awakens to Being in Harm's Way.

And in the offing, selections from a 40-year collection of her private journals.

"My first reaction to seeing them was, 'why did I write so much? And wouldn't it make a nice blaze?' But that's what I do. Some people are painters and some are ballet dancers and I'm a writer."

An active blogger, Walker recently used the platform to plead on behalf of Assata Shakur (née JoAnne Byron), the African-American activist, former Black Panther and escaped prisoner, now living in Cuba. While the FBI considers her a terrorist, with a bounty of $2-million on her head, Walker calls her "good, decent, kind, compassionate. Good revolutionaries often are."

I ask her if she is disappointed by the results, to date, of Barack Obama's presidency – the once great black hope.

"He has not delivered on his promise," she concedes. But she quickly adds, "it's partly because the system is broken. It was created broken. It's not a fair system. So much of it is controlled by people with money. It's not a matter of who is elected. It's about trying to re-envisage a system that works for everyone."

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Acknowledging that her optimism may be unfounded, Walker says she thinks "a huge awakening is happening, around the globe. Transformations in any kind of struggle are often not seen by the naked eye. They go into the spirit of the people."

In the same Earth Mother mode, she confesses that her strength comes from a belief in Nature ("also under incredible stress"), and that her own spirit "is tuned more to the natural world than to electoral politics. I've never really believed in any of that. I knew from birth there was a great deal wrong with the way things are arranged."

Then she's off on a Chomskyesque rant, accusing the U.S. government and military of bringing martial law and fomenting mayhem around the planet. "We had a pretense of democracy here, and people believed such things could not happen here," she says. "So it was a great shock for many Americans to discover that such things [like the de facto imposition of martial law in Boston last month] can of course happen here. They are not as beloved as they thought they were."

Walker declines to talk about her estrangement from her daughter, Rebecca, who accused her in print of neglect, always putting her needs as a writer ahead of her responsibilities as a parent. The two have also clashed over feminism, "As a little girl," the younger Walker has written, "I wasn't even allowed to play with dolls or stuffed toys in case they brought out a maternal instinct. It was drummed into me that being a mother, raising children and running a home were a form of slavery."

The two women did not speak for years.

"I won't engage publicly in the kind of show that is so prevalent in our culture," Alice says. "But we've had some nice exchanges since Mother's Day, and we all have our burdens and conflicts. I don't feel singled out for this weird thing to occur. I have a collective sense of suffering."

Parmar says she tried more than once to persuade Rebecca to appear in the film, without success. "I saw as a friend the terrible pain Alice went through as a result of that estrangement, but as a filmmaker I knew it had to be addressed. I did not want the documentary to be a Technicolor brochure of her life. I wanted all the greys, the shadows, the nuances."

I take one more pass at Walker on the mother-daughter issue. "We had different expectations," she says at last. "I believe you mother everybody, not in a cloying, hovering way, but taking care of what is around you. We have suffered from building a country on the bones of the children of Indians. So true motherhood is accepting that everything needs to be cared for, not just your own child."

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About the Author

Based in Toronto, Michael Posner has been with the Globe and Mail since 1997, writing for arts, news and features.Before that, he worked for Maclean's Magazine and the Financial Times of Canada, and has freelanced for Toronto Llfe, Chatelaine, Walrus, and Queen's Quarterly magazines. More

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