I love Alice Walker. I love her prose style, I love her ultra left-wing politics and the way they fuse with her artistic sensibility. I just finished her extremely complex time-spanning epic novel “The Temple of My Familiar” with my thoughts thoroughly provoked and her images in my head.
But I don’t love her decision to refuse to have her most famous book, “The Color Purple,” translated by an Israeli publisher in protest against the occupation and treatment of the Palestinians. She wrote a letter to Yediot books saying the following:
”I would so like knowing my books are read by the people of your country, especially by the young and by the brave Israeli activists (Jewish and Palestinian) for justice and peace I have had the joy of working beside,” she wrote in the letter, obtained by The Associated Press. “I am hopeful that one day, maybe soon, this may happen. But now is not the time.”
Without even getting into the substance of Walker’s critiques of Israel, here’s what I imagine. I imagine Walker must be frustrated. She has spoken out, protested, lobbied, and expressed her solidarity with Palestinians for decades — and very little change has come about. The situation has grown only more dire. Perhaps that’s why she felt she had to strike out this way, because nothing else seemed to work.
But to me, lashing out by denying ones art to the word is deeply problematic. If radical artists are suspicious of nation-states then their response shouldn’t be to shun states, but rather to expand the world of ideas and emotions contained in art so that it becomes border-less. I respect artists who don’t want to deal with corrupt governments or corporations but I can’t see the benefit in refusing to share a novel about the personal effects of oppression with a nation that, as the recent right-wing riots in Tel-Aviv show, has its own deeply pernicious racism to contend with.
Another writer I admire greatly, Margaret Atwood, took the opposite approach when she was asked by activists not to accept a prize in Israel.
“We don’t do cultural boycotts,” Atwood said in an interview before the ceremony at Tel Aviv University. “I would be throwing overboard the thousands of writers around the world who are in prison, censored, exiled and murdered for what they have published.”
In a follow-up interview with Bloomberg News, Atwood said “Artists don’t have armies. What they do is nuanced, by which I mean it is about human beings, not about propaganda positions.”