Excerpted from Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart by Alice Walker. Copyright © 2004 by Alice Walker. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
An Interview With the Author: Alice Walker
Q. What inspired you to write Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart?
A. My friend Gloria Steinem often comments that for a woman over fifty the territory is largely unexplored. This is true. I was amazed to discover in my own life that there seemed to be as much if not more life after fifty than before. After all, it is after fifty that women return to a balanced sense of self they may not have felt since they were ten. By fifty we have completed our childrearing duties; many of us have shifted out of confining work, career or social obligations. We may or may not be in a primary relationship with another person. And are not, generally, obsessed over this. Passion is discovered to be innate, and not necessarily connected to hormonal ebbs and flows. If we are lucky and are able to follow our inner directives, we find our fifties to be a perfect time to explore this previously unknown territory that is in fact the entryway to the next half of our lives. (I say the next half because of an ancestral great-great-great-great grandmother who lived to be one hundred and twenty-five).
So in Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart I set out to chart such a journey, the adventures of Kate Nelson Talkingtree, who is named partly for a grandmother, my father’s mother, who was murdered when he was a boy. The legend of her life and death made a huge impression on me as a child. That she was beautiful; that men were always after her, even after she married and was the mother of five children; that one of these men, angry that she refused his advances, shot her down in the churchyard, leaving my grandfather to attempt to raise my father and his siblings alone. This legend was in fact so compelling that it obscured what I was to discover only in my fifties: that I had never had the comfort and wisdom of this apparently extraordinary woman, my grandmother. Though I’d had a step-grandmother who was kind and loving.
This revelation, that I missed my grandmother terribly, and felt lost as I entered the latter part of my life, helped me to understand how much human beings are collectively missing the presence in the culture of The Grandmother.
Q. What is the significance of Kate’s many journeys? And is it necessary for women to go on these journeys of exploration alone?
A. There comes a time in a woman’s life when she really must go on walk-about. The same way Nunga people of Australia do. There is an inner calling, a sense that wherever it is that we are is lacking the answer. This may in fact not be true. The answer may be just where we are, but without travel, journeying, we may not be able to see it. And so Kate dreams of rivers - the flow of life - but they are dry. She is alarmed, as any of us should be. Her friends advise her to find a real river, symbolic of her inner flow, that is alive. She goes.
It would be a different journey with a man. Or with a woman partner. Partners require more attention than a woman has to offer on this kind of expedition. She needs to remain focused on her inner journey, needs to chart it through her dreams, musings, wistful thoughts; needs to bounce herself off the ribaldry and humor of women her own age, pioneering, as she is, a new way of being.
Because that is precisely what is happening. We are pioneering. Deep inside us is the longing for rebirth as women powerful enough to make a difference in the saving of the world. The Grandmother self is hungering to be born. Not as someone small and destined for Alzheimer’s or a nursing home, but intense, concentrated, her true size; focused on the truth of our situation as human beings who have lost our way.
Q. Why so many story tellers in Now is the Time to Open Your Heart? Friends, partners, lovers, shamans, spirit beings?
A. It is from our stories that we will remake the world. Human breath and humor, empathy and imagination, will be left to us. That is why the ancient stories that Clarissa Pinkola Estes collects and retells are so important. Why Women Who Run With the Wolves was a massive international bestseller. (And why I love it.) I am at the moment becoming familiar with Sufi philosophy, always achored in stories, and am deeply impressed. People instinctively respond to the healing, enlightening medicine of stories, and as a novelist in love with storytelling any novel I write is usually full of them.
Also there is an uneasy distrust of “information.” There is too much of it. Knowledge supplies the mind with facts; stories give sensation to the heart. If The Grandmother archetype teaches one huge thing it is that the mind is limited in a way the heart is not. This oceanic heart which is loving without being sentimental (sentimentality cannot survive The Grandmother’s fierceness) seems to have left the world, because the power of the elder feminine presence has been so thoroughly suppressed. It is fighting now to emerge again as it existed in the distant past: as a counterbalance to male dominance and destructiveness. It is the Grandmothers who are seeing all sides of war issues at the present time, for instance. Whether in Kosovo or Rwanda or Palestine. They see people where the soldiers see “collateral”. Frightened women and children, elders and animals, where the men dictating the wars apparently see nothing at all.
Q. In Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart Kate’s partner, Yolo, goes on his own journey, almost by accident. Was this necessary for the continuation of their relationship?
A. Very necessary. Women today are much less likely than at any time in recent history to remain with someone who does not have his or her own journey to attend. Yolo’s experience represents what happens to almost anyone these days who goes to a “foreign” paradise hoping to have a vacation. It is impossible to avoid the condition of the local people. Once you acknowledge their suffering, your vacation is over, but your reconnection to authentic life, among these same people, has just begun. Hawaii, previously a fantasy to Yolo, becomes a real place, and he becomes more real to himself in relation to it. This is beneficial to his intimate relationship with Kate, who senses his transformation immediately.
Q. You mention a number of physical changes that these characters, Yolo and Kate, go through. Why is this important?
A. Because in our fifties - and they are in their fifties, though Yolo is somewhat younger than Kate - our bodies change a great deal. There’s gravity, and graying hair, but also various aches and pains we may never have experienced before. There is likely to be a change in libido as well. And there are choices to be made about how one might direct one’s sexuality. It is important to write about these things in a way that accepts them as natural. If more novels were written and read in which women experience menopause and men experience its counterpart, and people in the book were open to the reality of physical change, our culture would not be so dominated by Viagra and anti-depressant use. Change truly is the only constant; and everything, our bodies especially, changes. Wisdom lies in accepting this.
Q. There is a Buddhist thread in Now is the Time to Open Your Heart. How is Buddhism of interest to you?
A. In fact, what I am exploring is how similar Buddhism and Shamanism are. At the beginning of the novel Kate drops out of a meditation retreat because the Dharma teacher disdains revolutionary activity on the part of oppressed people. Much later in the novel, she travels to the Amazon and undergoes a shamanic initiation that transforms her understanding of indigenous healing as well as indigenous comprehension of the planet. She sees, or is taught, that shamans and Buddhists share the common goal of opening the heart of human beings. That at this point in history this instruction is the absolute imperative of all spiritual practitioners. Because unless the heart opens and we are able to feel each other as we feel ourselves the whole world is in danger of being destroyed by war. War created by people whose hearts are so closed they cannot feel or even know what they are doing.
Q. What was the greatest pleasure you experienced in writing Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart?
A. I seem to be writing more of my books in Mexico. There is the deep freedom of creating a fictional world in a country where I am perpetually learning the language. Everything feels invented, created, fictional, even my own existence. I move in and out of the story as if I am a character; the very different political and cultural setting in Mexico sparking my imagination and embellishing my dreams. It is always a joy to create a novel in a place that’s warm!
For this particular novel, in which medicinal mushrooms and ayahuasca (a plant medicine) appear, it helped to be in Mexico, where they are used, and have been used, medicinally, for thousands of years; longer than anyone can even calculate. The title of the novel Now Is the Time To Open Your Heart comes from an icaro, a shamanic healing song that is sung during ayahuahsca ceremonies. Ususally in Spanish Ya Es El Tiempo Para Abrir Tu Carazon, though originally it would have been in a language indigenous to the Americas.
It was a pleasure to relive some of my own discoveries about life in the person/character of Kate. To reconnect to my longing for my paternal grandmother, Kate Nelson Walker. To be able to think of her, imaginatively, with so much love, and to honor her name.
Thank you, Grandmother.
From the Hardcover edition.
1. In the preface, Alice Walker writes, “My father’s mother was murdered when he was a boy. . . . This novel is a memorial to the psychic explorer she might have become.” How does this statement affect your understanding of Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart? Do you think that any attributes of the real Kate influenced the writing of this book? Does setting a character rooted in reality at the center of the novel give it any particular resonance?
2. What does the book’s title mean to you? How does the refrain “open your heart” course throughout the story? At the beginning of the book, what do you think Kate’s heart is closed toward? How about Yolo’s? Does this change as the novel unfolds?
3. Dreams play a significant part in the book. What is it about Kate’s dream that compels her to leave on her journey? Why is it significant that Yolo begins to dream immediately upon her departure? How does the novel blur the dream world with that of reality? In which ways does Walker’s writing itself often attain a dreamlike quality?
4. How is Yolo’s voyage of self-discovery similar to the one Kate embarks upon? How is it different? How do Yolo and Kate complement each other in their relationship? Initially, why is each of them so convinced that their romantic partnership is over?
5. How do the ghosts of the past—Kate’s mother, for instance—guide her and the others around her? In which way is Kate more mindful of these internal voices than of those that speak in the present? What actions does she take to be free of these specters and shadows?
6. Describe Kate’s experience in the rain forest. How is the rain forest a living, breathing entity in the novel? How does the setting around her affect Kate’s own personal journey? Why do you think the medicina ceases to have an effect on her?
7. Compare and contrast Kate’s inner self to the façade she presents to the outside world. How is she true to herself, and how does she hide herself away? How does this sense of self compare with that of the other women with whom she comes in contact, including Lalika, Missy, and Anunu?
8. Describe the notion of the Grandmother in this novel. What forms, both literal and metaphorical, does she take? What do you think that Kate seeks from her? How does Kate come to identify with Grandmother, and in what ways does this give her peace and contentment? Knowing that the character of Kate was spurred by the author’s real-life grandmother, how does the constant refrain of Grandmother in the book resonate?
9. “Smoking had taught him about emptiness, the need to fill internal space,” thinks Yolo (p. 18). How else do he and the other characters attempt to fill themselves up? How does Yolo convey his ideas about space in his paintings? Why do you think Grandmother tells Kate, “You must live for at least two years in space”?
10. Names have a particular resonance in this book. Yolo has created his; Kate thinks of changing hers to indicate her love of trees; the hula girl Leilani is really Alma; Lalika and her friend Gloria adopt the name Saartjie. Why are names, either given or created, so important to the characters? How does changing or considering a name change enable characters to reinvent themselves?
11. What effect do the chapter titles have on the narrative structure of Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart? Why doesn’t Walker use devices like quotation marks? What does this choice lend to the tenor and tone of the story? Do you feel that there is one driving narrative voice of the novel? If so, whose?
12. What do you make of the interlude “First of All, Abandon,” which is set off from the book and isn’t told from the same point of view? Who do you think is the narrative voice of this section? What impact does it have on the novel as a whole?
13. “I saw someone with a story to tell,” says Kate of her vision of a tortured ancestor (p. 90). How does she view herself as a vessel for those stories? How can she unburden herself of her own stories through her work as a writer? In which ways do you think this mind-set parallels Walker’s experience with this particular book?
14. How are reptiles and animals important, both in the cycle of life and in Kate’s and Yolo’s journeys? What nonhuman forms does Grandmother take, and why is each of these forms significant?
15. How does concern for the environment and for the living world affect the characters? What role does water play?
16. Saartjie, also known as the Hottentot Venus, takes a paramount role in Lalika’s life. Why do you think Lalika turns to her for help? In which ways does Saartjie become an icon to her and to others?
17. The book includes characters who are Makus—women that are really men. In this way, and in others, how does Walker play with the notion of a fluid gender identity? How does she explore the notion of female power and a matrilineal society?
18. What do the others that Kate and Yolo meet on their journeys teach them about the world and about themselves? Who do you think has the most profound impact on each of them? In turn, who do Kate and Yolo influence the most?
19. “I started to understand why to myself and often to other people I have felt invisible,” says Rick (p. 152). How is this book about the artifice of appearance and the act of stripping that away? How do Yolo and Kate seek to be visible, not only to others but to themselves? Who else seeks to become visible in the book, and who do you think will be the most successful in that quest?
20. The concept of devotion plays a large role in the book. To what are both Yolo and Kate devoted at the beginning of the novel? How does that devotion change and evolve as the story unfolds? What value is placed on devotion to ancestors and the past?
21. Yolo listens with interest to the stories of the aborigines (p. 134). How does the sense of an “original people” permeate the book? What would Kate and Yolo consider their original people? How do they want to return to their roots? How does Walker twist notions of color, race, and religion in unexpected ways throughout the novel?
22. The medicina “will teach you to see through your own plots,” Armando had promised Kate (p. 180). What artificial plots have the characters constructed about their own lives? In which ways are these constructs coping mechanisms? How is this artifice detrimental to their development and their happiness?
23. Why do Yolo and Kate ultimately decide to stay together? How have their solo journeys solidified their bond? Why do you think they choose to make a public, if unconventional, display of their union?