Overcoming Speechlessness is a short book on poet and novelist Alice Walker’s travels to Rwanda, Congo, and Palestine where she bears witness and attends to heartbreaking tales of atrocity, devastation, and cruelty. Yet, she is able to find a way to overcome speechlessness and pass on what was shared with her by the women of these lands. These encounters were facilitated by Code Pink and Women for Women International.
She is inspired by the strength of Generose from Congo: “She understood the importance of speech, speech about the unspeakable …. A proud woman who reminded me of a young Toni Morrison, she did not once stammer in the telling of her tale, though those of us around her felt a quaking in the heart.”
Walker embraces the Palestinian cause and is able to connect the the struggle for justice there and “our experience of America’s apartheid years, when white people owned and controlled all the resources and the land, in addition to the political, legal, and military apparatus, and used their power to intimidate black people in the most barbaric and merciless ways.”
There’s observing and then wondering what she could say to Palestinian mothers “whose children are, at this moment, playing in the white phosphorous-laden rubble that, after twenty-two days of bombing, is everywhere in Gaza? White phosphorous, once on the skin, never stops burning. There is really nothing to say.”
And she bears witness to those ennobling, precious scenes far away from the reporters and film crews in Gaza: “… I heard one of the sisters consoling her aged father, who sounded disoriented, and helping him back to bed. There was such respect, such tenderness in her voice.”
She practices listening deeply to the Palestinian women, such as this one who said about the Israelis: “If they stopped humiliating and torturing us, if they stopped taking everything we have, including our lives, we would hardly think about them at all. Why would we?”
And as a Buddhist, she sees that, in Thich Nhat Hanh’s expression, we “inter-are”: “Because whatever has happened to humanity, whatever is currently happening to humanity, it is happening to all of us” and “ I had learned what I came to know: that humans are an amazing lot. That to willfully harm any one of us is to damage us all. That hatred of ourselves is the root cause of any harm done to others, others so like us!”
Obviously, Alice Walker has a celebrity status that she brings to her engagement with suffering and injustice. Yet, in these zones of despair and danger, she embodies both a humility and Socratic self-awareness that can prompt us, too, to look in the mirror: “I had never before been so close to bombs being dropped before, and I took the opportunity to interrogate my life. Had I lived it the best way I could?”