AUP graduation ceremony at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris.

Speakers

Rebecca Walker speaks about her first novel

Rebecca Walker—author, teacher, feminist, activist—uses her work to talk about freedom: freedom from fear, freedom of (and sometimes, from) ideas, freedom to speak one’s truth, freedom to be believed. “Underneath all of the other thematic tropes, like the shifting nature of identity, how to bridge different worlds and languages, I think that my work is primarily about liberation, on a very deep level.”

On October 18, 2016, Walker was invited to AUP by Professors Jeffrey Greene, Director of the Creative Writing program, and Lissa Lincoln, Director of the Gender, Sexuality, and Society program, to speak about her first novel, Adé: A Love Story, which tells the story of a trip Walker took to Lamu, a small island off the coast of Kenya. There, she fell in love with a Muslim man, accepted his proposal of marriage, got caught in a civil war, fell ill, almost died and had to be air-lifted out of the country, never to see her betrothed again until the publication of Adé in 2013.

Walker would go through several versions of the novel before it came out in the way that she’d envisioned. “It took me a while, not only to have some distance from what had happened but to evolve and get to a place where I understood why I was writing this book. I realized that more than anything, I wanted to honor this person who had been such a big part of my life.” Nonetheless, while the actual plot of the book is founded in events, people, and places familiar to Walker, it was important to her that it be classified as a work of fiction. “Toni Morrison talks about how memory is really just an act of creativity, so there really is no “truth” other than what we imagine. As we remember, we’re imagining our memory, so even though everything rings very true to me, I know that much of it is created, because as I was remembering, I was also creating things that I emotionally experienced but may not have experienced literally.”

With all of her writing, Walker is on a quest to complicate, to avoid cliché and to guard against a kind of essentialism that oversimplifies any topic it touches. “Imagine that your mind is as big as the sky and that your ideas are just stars in that sky. There’s much more space in the sky than there are stars, but in our culture, when we experience our minds we don’t experience the freedom of that vastness, which is infinite with potential; we experience the stars as these clusters that are dominating our mental spaces. The kind of problematizing of identity that I write about is a way to touch what is beyond identity, what is beyond concept, what is beyond idea, in order to reach something that is rooted in our very human-ness.”

Ultimately, for Walker, one should only write because one needs to write, because one’s life depends on telling a particular story. “Some of my most successful writing moments—and when I say ‘successful’, I don’t mean best-selling—have come about because the work is very true to what happened and isn’t burdened with the overlay of meta-analysis of what exactly I’m doing.” She advised future writers to remember that more than anything, they must know what and why they are writing, a deceptively simple injunction. “It’s very, very important to know why you’re writing and how what you’re writing might impact the culture, how it’s relevant. It’s not about getting acclaim, it’s about figuring out what you can do well and how honest you can be. I hope all of my students feel courageous, I hope that they feel that they have a story. I believe that my students, every one of them, has a story that’s important.”