bell hooks: The Last Interview: and Other Conversations (The Last Interview Series)
Interviews are either appetizers or afterhours drinks. They either prepare you for a full conversation or one reads them to forget the long day. bell hooks: The Last Interview and Other Conversations is a collection of seven interviews. hooks died on December 15, 2021, in Berea, Kentucky. This book feels like it was quickly put together by someone who forget to send flowers to a funeral but decided it was not too late to send a card.
bell hooks was known for her theoretical views on feminism. She was also a poet. Here seven interviews capture her thinking between 1989 and 2017. They were previously published in such journals as Tricycle: The Buddhist Review and Bomb magazine. They were done by men as well as women. Together the essays read like short clinic exams. The result is an over-the-counter prescription and a “memory pill” so that one doesn’t forget the cultural importance of bell hooks.
The first interview is by Yvonne Zylan a former student of bell hooks. It’s an important interview primarily because it finds hooks responding to the criticism of her book Ain’t I a Woman. This book established her reputation, but some critics accused hooks of homophobia because she didn’t discuss lesbianism. At times there was a tendency to confuse feminist identity with lesbian identity. hooks mentions how her editor, a white lesbian woman, wanted her to say more positive things about lesbian women. This comment offers a glimpse into the politics of the publishing industry and how books can be edited. hooks in her conversation with Zylan she mentions she was 19 when she started Ain’t I a Woman. This fact permits one to measure the arc of her emergence as a public intellectual.
“I mean there is not a day of my life that I am not critiquing myself and looking at myself to see if my politics are borne out in the way I live and the way that I talk and present myself.”
Since hooks often in her work examines herself, one wonders if this compromises her theoretical approach and analysis resulting in statements that might simply be opinions. The collection of interviews encourages the reader come to one’s own decision. Helen Tworkov’s interview is perhaps the best one in the book. It provides insight into how her thinking was influenced by Buddhism. This started when she was an undergraduate at Stanford University and met the poet Gary Snyder. Snyder, whose early works link him to the Beat Generation, was one of the more serious poets interested in Zen teachings. He formally became a Buddhist in 1955. Along with Snyder hooks mentions the work of the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh as having a significant presence in her life and transformation. In the conversation with Tworkov she explains the reason for changing her name to that of her great grandmother.
“The name ‘bell hooks’ was a way for me to distance myself from the identity that I most cling to, which is Gloria Watkins, and to create this other self.”
This renaming undertaken by hooks should perhaps be viewed as the taking of a vow. Her later work often focused on the subject of love, something which many Buddhists are taught to believe comes only after acknowledgement and understanding of suffering.
In the interview with Lawrence Chua one finds tidbits of bell hooks’ private life. She mentions how coming from a rural section of the United States permits her to articulate a viewpoint that is overlooked when discussing sexism and racism.
“Basically the educated body of Black people who are cultural workers, writers, artists, musicians, etc. tend to be deeply invested in bourgeois values on all levels.”
There are moments in this book of conversations where hooks makes statements that might raise eyebrows. She was outspoken in the tradition of Sojourner Truth, and one sees her using her own life as if she was an abolitionist for these years that now survive her. One is reminded while reading this book that hooks wrote children books as a way of helping to change the paradigm in our culture. The need to break with conventional thinking was what many feminists believed was necessary. This is underscored in what is presented as the last interview with bell hooks conducted by Abigail Bereola.
“I would say that I think in terms of feminist politics and feminist practice, that the world changed most for women in relation to work, but that really, in relation to the family- of any family we’re talking about—not a lot really changed. I see women today working full-time jobs but still doing most of the household work, still doing most of the care of children.”
After reading these words of hooks (a few years before she died) one might think of the words Ossie Davis spoke when he gave the eulogy at Malcolm X’s funeral in 1965. What Davis said of Malcolm X, we now say of bell hooks. This woman was a seed who planted ideas of love in our barren lives and after the winter of our discontent she will come forth to love us again. And we will know her then for what she was: a bell ringing loud, sweetly loud, offering a hand to lift us up.