book by Alice Walker
annotation by Marianne Woods Cirone
The Color Purple is heartbreaking, funny, enlightening, tragic, ultimately uplifting—and I really wish I had read it before I read The Temple of My Familiar. Alice Walker published The Color Purple in 1982; she received the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the National Book Award for it in 1983. The Temple of My Familiar was published in 1989, seven years after The Color Purple, and includes several characters that were continued from the first book, including Miss Celie and Miss Shug, two of my favorites.
In an ironic twist, the characters of Miss Celie and Miss Shug are brought together initially through an affair between Miss Shug and “Mister” (Albert), who is Miss Celie’s domineering, merciless husband who brings the sexy songstress Miss Shug into their home to have the submissive Miss Celie nurse her to health—only to see the two of them end up falling into a sexual relationship and moving out together. Miss Celie eventually finds her own independence and self-respect, is reunited with her long lost sister and the children that she “gave up” at birth, and finds peace with a god who resides in nature and not churches. In TCP, Walker shows the same beautiful skill in developing characters and scenarios which show and extreme fluidity of relationships and lifestyles, constantly redefining the meaning of the words “family” and “spirituality” in a more modern contest.
After reading two on Walker’s book, I can see her exceptional talent in expressing herself poetically and in telling, in particular, the important stories of many voiceless women who have been oppressed over centuries. Walker shows the transformation of characters such as Miss Celie, who initially started as a little dormouse and developed into her own strong person, as well as those like Sophia, who started out with a will of steel and were nearly broken by the never ending sequence of events involving men determined to break her spirit—and who nearly succeeded. Walker shows the weaknesses and strengths of people of many different races, and expresses, perhaps on behalf of the untold many, the deserved anger and touches our hearts through the stories behind this legacy of mistreatment and exploitation that started this cycle of fear and loathing.
I found The Color Purple to be much more emotionally engaging that those in The Temple of My Familiar—I was literally in the skin of the characters in TCP, while I found I was held at arm’s length by the stylistic techniques and the complexly intertwining stories in TTOMF. Every time I picked up TTOMF it felt like starting anew, while TCP (which I listened to on audio book in the wonderful voice of Alice Walker reading her own work) sucked me into their world from the start.
In doing some research on Alice Walker, I found that she attended Spelman College and later transferred to Sarah Lawrence, worked as a civil rights activist and married a white, Jewish civil rights lawyer at a time when interracial marriages were still illegal in some states; they had a daughter together, Rebecca, who was born in 1969, and later divorced. Rebecca claims to have felt disenfranchised from the black, the white and the Jewish communities; she later wrote a book called Black White and Jewish and said that she felt as though she was “more of a political symbol than a cherished daughter.” Later in life, Rebecca took “Walker” as her surname although Alice and Rebecca later became estranged, with Rebecca’s citing her mother’s “extremely feminist views that children enslave women” and the absence of Alice as a mother figure in her life as a major distress and void in her life.
Rebecca wrote in a 2008 U.K publication:
Ironically, my mother regards herself as a hugely maternal woman. Believing that women are suppressed, she has campaigned for their rights around the world and set up organisations to aid women abandoned in Africa – offering herself up as a mother figure.
But, while she has taken care of daughters all over the world and is hugely revered for her public work and service, my childhood tells a very different story. I came very low down in her priorities – after work, political integrity, self-fulfillment, friendships, spiritual life, fame and travel…My mother … never came to a single school event, she didn’t buy me any clothes, she didn’t even help me buy my first bra – a friend was paid to go shopping with me. If I needed help with homework I asked my boyfriend’s mother.
…When I wrote my memoir, Black, White and Jewish, my mother insisted on publishing her version. She finds it impossible to step out of the limelight, which is extremely ironic in light of her view that all women are sisters and should support one another.
Astrologically, the conflict between Alice and Rebecca seems explicable —Alice’s Aquarius which is the ultimate freedom-demanding, humanitarian, visionary sign with a potential dark side of aloofness, almost versus Rebecca’s Scorpio: passionate, emotional and deep, with the potential dark side of extreme possessiveness and grudge-holding.
As the mother of two (almost) adult daughters, and a person who has personally struggled with my relationships with them, my roles as a woman, wife, and writer; and how to balance the needs of each, I wonder where the truth in this story lies… and how Alice Walker’s writing and fictional creations fit in with the actual translation into today’s society. Is Walker’s dream for the world just a dream— do we still live in a world where we must choose work or family? Is Alice and Rebecca’s relationship, if in fact is as described, a societal failing or a personal one?
I wonder what we can each learn from Walker’s writing or her personal challenges that can help to transform our world into a place of greater love—“tolerance” seems a milquetoast expectation indeed, in the larger picture of what the world needs for everyone to feel connected to each other in a loving, positive way, to transform our real world into the ideal created in the fictional world.