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Truthdig Radio airs every Wednesday at 2 p.m. in Los Angeles on 90.7 KPFK. If you can’t listen live, starting on Wednesday nights look for the podcast and transcript of each week’s show right here on Truthdig.
On this week’s episode of Truthdig radio in collaboration with KPFK, author Alice Walker tells tales of her beloved chickens, Scott Tucker speaks up for Bradley Manning, and Sarah Stillman reports about financial coercion in U.S. war zones. Plus: What’s all this about fracking?
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Kasia Anderson: This is Truthdig Radio. I’m Kasia Anderson, Truthdig’s associate editor. This week, we hear why chickens matter to author Alice Walker; why Bradley Manning matters to actor and activist Scott Tucker; energy expert Tom Kenworthy gives us the latest on fracking; and Sarah Stillman reports on a startling form of economic coercion going on in American military zones.
Kasia Anderson: This is Kasia Anderson. I’m associate editor at Truthdig, and we’re pleased to be here with Alice Walker, who is one of the most prominent writers of our time. She has written more than 30 books of fiction, nonfiction and poetry, and she is known for her literary fiction, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning work “The Color Purple.” But she’s also a longtime activist, and we hope to talk to her a little bit more about that towards the end. But I’m also here with Narda Zacchino, who is the former associate editor of the L.A. Times and is now a book publisher and editor. And we’re going to talk about Alice Walker’s new book, which has a very fun and lengthy title: “The Chicken Chronicles: Sitting With the Angels Who Have Returned With My Memories: Glorious, Rufus, Gertrude Stein, Splendor, Hortensia, Agnes of God, The Gladyses, & Babe: A Memoir” [Laughter]. So, Narda, do you want to kick off the questions here?
Narda Zacchino: Sure. Well, for the last several years you’ve raised chickens on your farm near Mendocino [Calif.]. And without those chickens, we wouldn’t have this charming and thought-provoking book. So can you tell us how keeping those chickens came about?
Alice Walker: Yeah. It was a surprise to me, and I think of it now as a gift from the unconscious. I was in Bali many years ago, recovering from writing “The Color Purple” and facing a few slings and arrows. So I went off to Bali, and I was coming back from a fire dance and I saw a hen with her little chicks, and I was transfixed. And I couldn’t figure out why, of all the amazing things I was seeing in Bali, that was the image that stuck. So for years I wanted to understand what had happened. I mean, it was so forceful. I came back—I was an editor at Ms. Magazine at the time—but I came back and I wrote a piece that was published in the magazine called “Why Did the Balinese Chicken Cross the Road?” [Laughter] And I thought it was because I was as always struggling, pretty much, with my vegetarianism—especially around chicken, which is so traditionally a Southern dish. So I thought it was that, and then I went on, you know, years and years and decades … always with knowing that ‘Oh, a real life, a real life”—I mean, for me anyway—“would have chickens in it.” And I was always trying to figure out how I could raise them, how I could see them, how I could know them, how I could … they just were very much very present somewhere in my mind. And I worked it out with my neighbors eventually, here in Mendocino, because I travel a lot. And I’m nomadic; I mean, I’m not just traveling for work, but I just seem to love the earth so much I want to see—what is it doing somewhere else. So I had to make an arrangement to have a shared parentage of these little creatures. And I think of myself as mommy—I pretty much think of myself now as mommy to everything, but especially these little ones. And so tending them, feeding them, sitting with them, being with them, studying them and loving them very much started to open this place in myself from my childhood that turned out to be scary in some ways, but also really affirming. In that place that I had closed off there was my father, for instance, in a way that I had never really let myself feel him. You know, with a great, great tenderness and understanding. So they’ve been really good for me.
Narda Zacchino: Well, you used your relationship with these chickens, which are told in 36 vignettes, to share your musings on love and freedom and all of life’s lessons. And you reflect upon your memories of your mother and your siblings. And one of the things that fascinated me was when you wrote about how your mother used to get chickens in the mail. [Laughter] And I wanted to ask you—like, did they come in a little box, or what? And …what was your childhood relationship with chickens?
Alice Walker: Well, we always had chickens. I mean, I can’t remember when we …we never, never didn’t have chickens; we always had them. And yes, she ordered them from the Sears Roebuck catalog [Laughter], and they arrived at the mailbox in a big brown box, you know, with little air holes. And she would take the box down to our house and gently unpack the little chickens, and we all of course adored them. And so that was—that was unlocked; that was given back to me, that moment of anticipation and love and warmth and closeness with her—my mother—as this happened every year, at least once a year. And she would raise these chickens; and some of them, of course, would not have made the journey; they would have died of suffocation or starvation or something. But the chickens that were left she very carefully tended, and then showed us how to tend them; you know, to mix up the cornmeal with water because often there wasn’t very much to give them. But we would share our own cornmeal, and if you mix it with water it comes out in little pellets. So we would give them that. So, yeah, that was that.
Narda Zacchino: And you, also, you wrote about having the job—I forget, I think you were 10 , but—you would remember, of course—of wringing the necks of the chickens for the Sunday dinner. And your complex feelings, I think, not just over that, but also you wrote about other farm animals that had to be slaughtered. And can you just talk about that for a minute?
Alice Walker: Yeah. Well, my feeling is that we as a culture have suffered a disruption of our real connection to the animal world—the other animals. And … because don’t you often think, how can we so callously kill these beings that are so exquisite, and just eat them without any kind of thought? And I think what happens, and I think what happened to me, and what was one of the reasons I had to have chickens and go through this again, was that when I was 9 or 10 and my other siblings had left—I was the youngest—it did devolve to me to go and chase down the chicken for dinner. You know, my mother would say “Go out and get whoever,” because they all had names. And I would go out and get this chicken and I learned to wring its neck and help her pluck its feathers; after you scald it, you pluck the feathers and singe the carcass, and eviscerate it, and the whole thing. And knowing myself, pretty much [Laughs], by now, I can imagine that that on some level for me—for any child—that this would be a traumatic moment. Because the day before, you were carefully tending and appreciating this being that you have now killed and you have to eat it.
Kasia Anderson: This is Kasia again, Alice. And I wanted to pick up on that last point, when you’re kind of reconfiguring our thoughts about chickens. Most people don’t think of chickens as pets. …
Alice Walker: I don’t think of them as pets, either.
Kasia Anderson: Oh, really? OK. But they enrich your life in some way. Are they easier to live with [than] humans? You now, you can interact with them, and cuddle with them, and …
Alice Walker: Well, but you know, I always know that they don’t really care. I mean, they care that they’re well cared for, of course, with a nice heater and lights and a clean house and all of that. But they are chickens, and their world is really with each other—really. And I get to visit and to hold them if they jump up on my knee. But I don’t think of them as pets; I don’t think of any animals, really, as pets. I mean, I have a cat; we have a dog. But I’m not so … I’m not so human- …
Kasia Anderson: … -centric? [Laughter]
Alice Walker: … as to assume that anything can be my pet, you know? I mean, they are here to live, and they are not here to be my pet. I mean, somehow they have managed to—my partner’s dog, for instance, just appeared. He just appeared next to him one day, and he’s just the ideal dog for him. My cat just appeared in my life; I didn’t go after her, she just found me. And the chickens—we did kind of go after them, but I just think we’re pretty much equals, you know? [Laughs]
Narda Zacchino: I think that comes across in your book, where you—I think what you’re saying also is that you disdain the idea of owning anything or possessing anything like an animal. And that what you do is you share the living space with them.
Alice Walker: Exactly. And I see that they—I mean, look at what they give me. Look at what I’m getting. Maybe they can think of me—sometimes I think my cat thinks that I’m her pet, you know. But it is much more rich and developed as a relationship than most people, I think, let themselves feel. And I think when you just open up to the magic and the wonder of life, and … the amazing, astonishing stuff that’s going on every second—not just with us, but with the plants and with all the creatures—you begin to feel a certain degree of enchantment, really.
Narda Zacchino: Mm-hmm. In your book, you write letters to your chickens from, as you said earlier, you call yourself “mommy.” And these become letters to your readers, in essence. And I was very taken with the one letter where you talked about being in shock the week that Michael Jackson died. In fact, in your chronicle of him, you call him Saint Michael. And you wrote in the next chapter a most beautiful poem about him. Can you tell us why he was so important?
Alice Walker: Yes. Because he was extremely gifted and extremely beautiful, and obviously, he was not told this enough. I mean, he had fans, but in his own home he was ridiculed and told, for instance, that his nose was way too big, and whatever else went with that. But psychic abuse for sure, from his family. And this is what happens so often to us: that people abuse children. And yet Michael was able to continue to give; he was here to give us joy. He was here to give us an insight into the possibility that we, too, had this spirit—this dancing, singing, loving, free spirit. And yet because he was not sufficiently met with the appreciation that he deserved, somehow he felt that he was ugly and that he had to transform himself into something that we seemed to prefer. And so in some ways, he died when he changed his face. And I think … I’m alluding in this poem to Saint Sebastian, who is shown with all the arrows in him as he’s on a cross of sorts. And I feel that Michael was similar: Here’s this decent, good person who loves animals, who loves people, who just goes around really trying to get you up, and dancing and seeing and understanding. And he was often misguided, but he still had a loving heart; he had a very kind and loving heart. So to me, I think of saints not as saintly people, but as people who basically have a gift, they try to give it, they’re really forced to suffer through things that they shouldn’t have to, and often they don’t make it because of what they encounter.
Kasia Anderson: This is Truthdig Radio, once again; I’m Kasia Anderson, associate editor. And I’m here with Narda Zacchino talking to writer Alice Walker. And maybe, if it’s fine by you, we can talk a little bit about your activism, Alice. Because we’ve checked out your blog; it’s at AliceWalkersGarden.com. Our readers, I know, are particularly interested in the case of Bradley Manning, and you posted an item about that that was quite profound, I thought. I wondered if you could speak a little bit about that.
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By gerard, June 12, 2011 at 5:48 pm Link to this comment
ATTENTION: Mistake, trying to work two organizaitons at the same time! Sorry, the url just below is for Campaign for Peace and Democracy, which also has a large list of names on the their current petition and asking for more signatures—and donations, too, if possible. Their concern is U.S. military operations intruding on the “Arab Spring.”
By gerard, June 12, 2011 at 5:34 pm Link to this comment
Here’s the url for National Religious Campaign Against Torture which includes all names of signers of the petition: http://www.cpdweb.org/stmts/1019/stmt.shtml
By gerard, June 12, 2011 at 11:48 am Link to this comment
P.S. This organization is also supporting Bradley Manning.
By gerard, June 12, 2011 at 11:32 am Link to this comment
And again: Google Campaign for Peace and Democracy, 2790 Broadway, #12, New York 10025 and add your name to the many already there on two petitions.
You’ll be encouraged by the number and quality of the people who are beginning to urge the U.S. to change its pro-war policies in the Middle East.
There’s plenty to do if we just do it.
By berniem, June 11, 2011 at 12:49 pm Link to this comment
Does anyone really believe that the truth will ever come from our current government? OOOH!!! a coalition of RELIGIOUS groups are calling upon our great senate to spill the beans! Aren’t our wonderful bible-thumping christian fundamentalists partilly responsible for all of this insane military madness we’re currently witnessing? What happens when the senate tells them to take a hike? I guess they’ll just pray real, real hard and make ‘em do it, right? And don’t think that these elected parasites worry about being voted out! The ballot box is a joke when the MIC is in charge and owns the government!
By gerard, June 10, 2011 at 2:11 pm Link to this comment
Just in case people here don’t know, a coalition of religious organizations nationwide are usisng the month of June to call upon the Sentate Intelligence Committee to release to the public the results of its 3-year investigation of torture. Their purpose is to obtain information as complete as possible into the public domain, in order to prevent the creeping acceptance of torture as policy and procedure.
The name of the organization is National Religious Campaign Against Torture. NRCAT. It can be googled under that name, where more than 100 allied religious and civic organizations are listed, along with publications and materials that can be downloaded for distribution to neighbors and friends.
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