(The Root) — Almost halfway through Rebecca Walker's haunting debut novel, Adé: A Love Story, I realized that dog-earing was a fool's errand. Every sentence was a gift. Every new paragraph packed with colors, scents and italicized sounds I had to see, smell and hear again. Soon the book's pages were more bent than not. Wouldn't it be easier, perhaps even more humane, to just read it again?
Adé is the story of a biracial recent Ivy League grad who sets off for West Africa with her friend and sometime lover, Miriam. We never catch our protagonist's name until she dives into the life of a local fisherman named Adé on the island of Lamu off of Kenya. Adé christens her "Farida" on page 38, after more than a third of the book is behind her.
With a brand-new name and all-encompassing love, Farida goes about the difficult task of piecing together her own identity. The story feels like poetry and eavesdropping all at once. It stays with you.
"After writing memoirs and then doing collections, all of the books that I've done have had a very strong socio-political message, and it's been really easy to talk about the choices I've made," said Walker from her home in Hawaii. "But for this book it's harder even to talk about, it was such a creative process. It was more like a stream. It was pure. It just felt right."
Thankfully, Walker was much more prepared to talk about Adé than she realized.
Rebecca Walker: The story is very autobiographical. It's based on true experience. But I felt like I wanted to try to create something that didn't necessarily expose everyone involved. I wanted to create a world that was a little more private, and fiction really helps with that. I also wanted to stretch in terms of craft and to use my imagination in a new way, to see if I could do it.
TR: How was wrestling with a novel?
RW: It is a really new medium for me. I read a thousand memoirs before I tried to write a memoir. There's so much to learn about the form of a novel. I'm excited to be in the early stages of it. Every genre has a different set of rules, in terms of point of view and how important character development is and how the story is told over time.
With a novel, as opposed to entering into someone's world, you're entering into this other world. It's just exciting for me to see how far I can go, to see how many ways I can express myself.
TR: Novelist Mat Johnson said Adé "reads like truth," and I totally agree. Where did truth and art meet?
RW: There are so many different truths when we write fiction. It's another form of truth. The story is based on a really powerful relationship I had with a man on Lamu in the '90s. In some ways the book is really an ode to him. He gave me so much, and I felt that I wasn't able to give him his due. The book is a gift to him in some ways. I've been writing it in pieces for over 10 years.
There are certain things that are changed and fictionalized, but the heart of the story, the love of the story, the pain of the story, is real. The love I had for him is still intact and enduring, and I wanted to build a monument to that with the book. In a lot of ways it's a love letter.
TR: What do you hope readers come away with?
RW: I hope the book works for people. That it both helps them appreciate the love that they have and helps them look back at the powerful loves in their lives. Even if a breakup was hard, there's still something there to be mined, to be processed, to be appreciated. And the experience of letting go of one's old identity … to move into a different modality seems really relevant right now.
In terms of everything happening internationally, we have to be fluid, but we're also asking ourselves just how fluid can we be? Is there something that's nonnegotiable? And that was definitely something I was thinking about as I was writing. To think I could go anywhere and then later to realize I do actually appreciate where I come from. There are boundaries. That's an interesting sort of moment, a realization.
TR: Travel, of course, is a huge theme in the book, almost like another character in and of itself. How has travel changed your own life as it did Farida's?
RW: Traveling has always been a big part of my life. When I was 15 … I backpacked through Mexico and hung out with the Huichol Indians and took peyote. I learned so much from them about nonattachment and beauty. I've always traveled. I traveled a lot with my mother to Indonesia and Jamaica and the Caribbean. I just was a born traveler.
As a woman of color it was really important for me to be able to leave America and to leave the narrative of slavery and the tragic mulatto and to be in an environment where those stories were not the dominant stories. I got to be free in a way. Travel does that.
I think when Farida is in Cairo and Giza and she's going behind the Pyramids and meeting people in their very small, very modest homes, I lived that. It's very healing to connect with someone you don't know. It reaffirms our common humanity. And I think you get that from travel — freedom — freedom from your own ideas about yourself. You get bigger; you expand.
TR: Speaking of your main character, Farida, we never learn her name until she meets Adé. Why?
RW: I wanted that idea that her identity was part of what Adé gave her, to give her a name that was outside this other world. The only way to give that moment when he names her this magnitude was to take her other name away so that you really feel the depth of what he offers. It's the whole new definition of who she was.
The flipside of the gift is that originally she basks in her namelessness; she's open. And then he gives her the name and grounds her in the culture. It's a gift, but it's also a kind of limitation that's being put on her for the first time. There's a double-edged sword there.
TR: The idea of the double-edged sword also comes up when Farida has to unpack her feelings about Africa and whether or not she's been romanticizing it. Were you concerned at all with the idea of romanticizing Africa in the book as a whole?
RW: Yes, I obsessed about that. It's one of my greatest concerns with the book and with the experience. Farida's really struggling to come from a place of being conscious of that and refusing to do that. But it doesn't matter if you're mythologizing Africa as a place full of famine and war and tribalism or a place of pure potential for honest love — you can still get caught up in that process. There was something about being there that made Farida feel like anything was possible, and that was her projection onto the place.
TR: Were there any other reservations about the setting of the book?
RW: My biggest fear is the trope of the noble savage, of the great other man that helps my main character have this transformation, and then she gets to go back to Japanese delivery on the Upper East Side. I definitely had that concern, but at the same time it is a story of redemption and of love that takes place in that environment. There is a truth in that that can't be denied. I hope I succeeded in avoiding the pitfalls.
TR: The subject of feminism versus interdependence also comes up often in the book.
RW: I can't help myself. I did think a lot about how important it is for us to have a deeper appreciation of interdependence, as opposed to thinking that we're losing ourselves, especially in [a] culture were women appear to be subjugated. But what we don't see is the power that they do hold. And I was fascinated by that.
The more time I spent with [my Lamu friend's] family in real life, the more I realized how much power the women had. His mother managed all the money. She made the decisions about how it would be spent; she was the one who figured out who was going to school, what food they would eat, who could travel. And she did it very quietly. Those were all powerful, archetypal ways of being that surprised me in real life.
TR: The community in Lamu is traditional Muslim, and eventually Farida decides to cover herself. Was that an issue you ever grappled with in real life?
RW: In terms of being covered, I started to realize [that] in order to bond fully to the women I was becoming familiar [with], I would need to sort of match them. It was almost like an aesthetic matching more than an ideological matching. The covering facilitated a closeness as opposed to oppression.
I also realized I had the privilege to take it off. But I had to really kind of open my mind to not seeing everything as simply a mark of subjugation, but some of those choices actually built relationships. They built community and kept them strong. In the same way that we think independence as women is the end-all and be-all … there are things that are wonderful about it and things that are very problematic. It's important that we look at the whole picture. To see the limitations of our independence that we so cherish and so fetishize.
TR: What's next for you?
RW: Well, right now I'm doing a lot of stuff in TV development, and I am writing the screenplay for Adé, which has been optioned by a great company. So that's coming up. I've also been developing both Black Cool into a docuseries for TV and Black, White and Jewish into a sitcom for NBC. But definitely I'm working on another novel. It's nascent right now, so who knows what's going to happen, but it's exciting.
I'm really enjoying this next phase in my career. I'm grown up. I don't have as much to figure out now. I feel like I can be more free to create and to just explore.