Elevate Difference

Personal Politics

Interview with Rebecca Walker

The Feminism 101 dictum “the personal is political” has been writ large across third wave feminist founder Rebecca Walker’s work since she published her first book, the 1995 anthology To Be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism—her generation’s response to second wave feminism.

Since then, she has written memoirs and edited anthologies that explore her own biracial identity (Black, White, and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self), raising a son (What Makes a Man: 22 Writers Imagine the Future), and first-time motherhood (Baby Love: Choosing Motherhood After a Lifetime of Ambivalence).

Her latest book—the anthology One Big Happy Family: 18 Writers Talk About Polyamory, Open Adoption, Mixed Marriage, Househusbandry,Single Motherhood, and Other Realities of Truly Modern Love—is a re-envisioning of the American nuclear family, partly inspired by Walker’s memories of her own “fragmented” family (her parents are feminist icon Alice Walker and civil rights lawyer Mel Leventhal). The collection features essays by Dan Savage, Dawn Friedman, Min Jin Lee, and asha bandele, among others.

Walker’s recent work has ignited some debate, including discussions about whether there’s a difference between loving an adopted child and a biological one (Walker says there is) and whether a mother-daughter estrangement as dramatic as the one that played out between Walker and her mother signals a greater generational “rift” between the second and third wave feminist movements.

Feminist Review recently interviewed Walker about her new book on families off the “hetero-normative grid," the power of disclosure in her work, and why she never anticipates controversy.

You’ve written two memoirs and edited three anthologies, including your latest, One Big Happy Family. How are these processes different for you?

A collection is more like a prism than a magnifying glass. Anthologies are more democratic—everyone has their say. The form is radical in that it implicitly acknowledges many voices; the truth of multiplicity is built into its DNA.

In terms of process, I work with other writers the way I try to work with myself—to get to the heart of the story and support its birth. I try not to get too focused on craft. If I meet someone who can’t write a paragraph, but has a true, moving story, I’m there. I encourage that inside voice and coax it out. I do that for myself, and yes, I would say it is a joy, an honor even, to do that for others.

Who is the audience for One Big Happy Family?

One Big Happy Family is for you, your neighbors, the Supreme Court, and your uncle Robert. It’s for anyone doing family differently than the way it’s done on TV or at their grandmother’s house. It’s for people who are making up their version of family as they go along, following love and their own longing for connection. One Big Happy Family is for those who refuse to let love be defined by anything other than the truth of its existence. It’s a kind of Dr. Spock for the millions of people living life off the nuclear, hetero-normative grid.

You open the anthology with a piece by Jenny Block about her polyamorous marriage. Why that particular piece as the opener?

Polyamory has a PR problem—people think those who love more than one person at a time are part of a seamy scene, nymphomaniacs, or delusional, at best. Jenny Block, who wrote the essay, is so not any of those things. It’s one of my favorite pieces in the book because she is so honest and accessible, brave and tender. The essay does a great job smashing the stereotype, and I like that. Putting it front and center pushed the envelope.

You wrote in Newsweek about how President Obama has changed our concept of manhood. Do you feel he and Michelle Obama will shift national discourse on family values?

Modeling partnership between mutually adoring and respectful equals certainly feels like a step in the right direction. I’m encouraged by their apparent openness to families of all kinds, and by their insistence on putting the health and well-being of their children first. It seems so simple, and yet, so many do not do the work.

You’ve written memoirs that have raised the curtain on your childhood and, with Baby Love, your estrangement from your mother. Many writers choose to keep their private lives to themselves, while others make the so-called private, public. Why have you chosen disclosure for your work, and how do you feel it has served you as a writer and activist?

As a child of feminism, I think the real question would be why wouldn’t I choose disclosure? Feminism 101 teaches that the personal is always political—this does not stop being true because the personal may negatively impact the matriarchy.

My work has given voice and agency to many. Like the feminist writers whose work I’ve devoured for decades, I prefer to live my own life, and tell my own story, than have it presumed, projected, or in any other way defined by those who would benefit from my silence. I think my readers resonate with that and are encouraged and emboldened to do the same in their own lives. In this area, you could say I’m classically second wave.

You’re a feminist leader who produces work that sends ripples through some feminist communities. To Be Real shifted the focus of second wave feminists to include young women’s realities. Your statements about the difference between loving a biological child and an adopted child caused a bit of controversy, as did your writing about your estrangement from your mother. In a sense, your personal choices, beliefs, and experiences have become political for many. What do you think of your ability to provoke such a response—and is this a burden, a blessing, or neither?

It’s fascinating, surprising, frustrating, and revelatory. What’s odd is that I never anticipate controversy. I suppose that is to say that my point of view is not calculated in any way. I am nothing if not brutally honest, emotionally raw, and deeply hopeful. I tend to anticipate the best in people, to expect them to—no matter how challenging to their ego or ideas about who they are—rise to the occasion of simple listening and acknowledgment of different viewpoints. This expectation is a blessing, certainly. It sets a bar to which I, myself, aspire.

A burden? Not for me.

Written by: Ellen Papazian, July 8th 2009

Mandy, we've done no surveys to be able to say for sure. One supposition has to do with the polyamory community placing a high value on egalitarianism - without it relationships end up crashing and burning pretty quickly (unless they are kink-focused, consensual dom-sub or master/slave relationships, which is a whole nuther kind of poly relating.)

Egalitarianism is inherently feminist, or so it seems to me. Poly men who as activists might be visible to the mainstream are leary about the possibility being accused of having misogynistic motives, i.e. being in it for as much sex as they can get, harem building, etc. Sex negativity as hard on both men and women, and traditional mainstream thinking about sex often doesn't leave room for men to be assumed as authentically in it for the love.

The two most visible male poly leaders are special cases. One is in his 70s and old enough not to give a damn what people think of him, and the other is a much younger bisexual genderqueer leatherman second generation self-identified feminist who doesn't seem to worry about defending himself against accusations of misogyny.

That is a really interesting point, Anita. Why do you think that is?

One other point - despite hand-wringing about polyamory becoming a vehicle for oppressing women, it is interesting to note that the vast majority of polyamory authors, activist leaders and community organizers are women.

Jenny Block is indeed a badly needed public example of how polyamory can be practiced openly, honestly, and with integrity. When her book Open: Love, Sex and Life in an Open Marriage was published, the mainstreaming of polyamory via media interest was well under way. Hers was a breath of fresh air sorely needed in order to clear out a lot of those ridiculous assumptions that are often made about we polyamorists.