Mommie Dearest

INTERVIEW: Having publicly fallen out with her own mother, who is one of the most iconic writers in the US, Rebecca Walker has…

INTERVIEW:Having publicly fallen out with her own mother, who is one of the most iconic writers in the US, Rebecca Walker has now devoted herself to motherhood

AMBIVALENT IS NOT a word much used to describe motherhood. Ambivalence is for Belgium and digestive biscuits and the Toyota Yaris; not motherhood. Yet for many years, ambivalent was how author and activist Rebecca Walker felt about having a child.

As the daughter of Alice Walker, author of the hugely iconic American novel The Colour Purple, Rebecca (38) imbibed neat feminism with her mother's milk. It was a cocktail which made her a little queasy on the subject of motherhood.

"I grew up in this feminist ideology which had a very strong critique of motherhood. The idea was that you'd lose yourself and lose your identity if you had a baby. In order to maintain one's sovereignty and not just be a vessel for the patriarchy, you had to be very wary of having a child," she summarises dryly.


Sitting cross-legged in an armchair with a shawl draped over her shoulders, Walker is warm, candid and unflappable. In America, she's well-known for her campaigning work on issues of gender, race and identity. At 22, she founded her own post-feminist movement, the Third Wave. Time magazine hailed her as one of the 50 most influential American leaders under 40.

Her new book, Baby Love, charts the move from ambivalence to becoming the proud mother of Tenzin, now three and a half. As a book, it's a strange mixture. Written diary-style, it covers the uncharted waters of first-time pregnancy - the hunger, the expanding thighs, the surges of love, the sweats.

But spliced between these observations (which, like other people's dreams, may only be fascinating if you're involved) are spikier ruminations on feminism, on her famous mother, on new modes of parenting.

For such a slim, cheerily written volume, it's had a seismic effect. Rebecca and her mother are no longer speaking; Alice has never seen her only grandson and has written her daughter out of her will. Relations, Rebecca says with devastating understatement, are "not so good, pretty alienated".

At the heart of their dispute is the way Rebecca was raised, and what Rebecca perceives as her mother's deep, well, ambivalence, regarding her own daughter. Early on in the pregnancy, Walker senior e-mails Walker junior a copy of a statement she is sending to the editors of in response to their reprinting a section of Rebecca's memoir, Black, White and Jewish.

In the article, Rebecca says her parents did not love and look out for her, but fed and watered her, and encouraged her to grow. In her retaliatory statement, Alice calls her daughter a thief and a liar.

"The book is a lot of different things but it's definitely about what happens to children of well-known public figures and cultural icons who in telling their own story sometimes challenge the identity that their parents have worked so hard to create," Rebecca says.

She's aware that some people find this public washing of family laundry distasteful, but says sadly, "I've tried to have many conversations privately about these things, but when you're dealing with someone who plays out most of their life in the public eye, it takes taking it to the level of the public eye for it to have any impact whatsoever. So that's what's happened." For her part, Walker feels that becoming a mother herself caused the chasm to open.

"Confrontations with my mother helped me to understand that the most important thing for me was protecting my own son. The ferocity of my feelings of protection for him allowed me to be more protective of myself in terms of dysfunctional, unhealthy relationships."

So how, then, does she feel about writing about her own son? "I always say, Tenzin may, when he's 30 years' old, write a memoir about what a terrible parent I've been," she laughs. "And then the question is, what do you do? What is your role as a parent, when you have injured your child? Is it to say, 'You're crazy, I don't want to be your parent any more,' or do you say, 'I'm terribly sorry that I did that and what can I do to make it better for you?'"

For all that her own relationship with her mother has soured so badly, Walker understands the choices made by her mother's generation of feminists.

"The realm of domesticity was where women were supposed to thrive, and they rejected motherhood so they could have a more complex womanhood. It was needed at the time. But now there needs to be some kind of middle ground, and to reject that is a sign you've become too wedded to your ideology."

After a lifetime of political engagement, Walker finds she is instinctively moving away from the political towards the personal. "Ultimately, an ideological position doesn't leave a lot of room for the complexity of one's humanity," she says. Her experiences running foul of the very community she helped to foster and support cannot have helped. Prior to her relationship with Tenzin's father (a 53-year-old Buddhist teacher called Glen), Walker was in an eight-year relationship with singer Meshell Ndegeocello, making her "one of the most visible 'out' women in America".

During that time, Walker took an active role in parenting Ndegeocello's son, Solomon, and despite an acrimonious break-up, she still sees him regularly.

But when she wrote in Baby Love about the difference in how she felt about her unborn child and how she felt about Solomon, all hell broke loose.

"People were very angry with me for talking about that. There's been a sense that because I'm with Glen, I've lost touch with the lesbian community, but I've always been bisexual, I've always talked about that. It was very disappointing." With several groups calling for the boycotting of the book, and message boards humming with emotional diatribes against her, Walker changed the wording of the offending passage for the paperback version and for the edition published in Ireland and the UK.

"I tend to be kind of Germanic and hyperbolic and intense," she says in her soft, low and distinctly un-Germanic voice. "That's just how I am, but I don't always realise the impact of my words on others. I'm not sure as an artist what my responsibilities are, in that way.

"When I think of the writers I love, like Anaïs Nin, Simone de Beauvoir and Audre Lorde, they said things that were shocking but they were unapologetic. I find myself really grappling with that. I want to be heard and I don't want to injure people, but at the same time, I have to be true or none of it really works."

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, for her next book, Walker is walking away from the inflammatory story of her own family, while staying within the context of memoir.

"My next book is about living in Africa, and I'm hoping that it includes nothing about my mother or father or my child. In some ways, I've reached a level of maturity now where I can let go of that. I've written all those childhood issues out. They're purged now."

Baby Love by Rebecca Walker is published by Souvenir Press priced £15