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About this book

Alice Walker, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of 'The Color Purple', is one of America's major and most prolific writers. She is also among its most controversial. How has Walker's work developed over the last forty years? Why has it often provoked extreme reactions? Does Walker's cultural, political and spiritual activism enhance or distort her fiction? Where does she belong in the evolving tradition of African American literature?

'Alice Walker, second edition':
* examines the full range of Walker's prose writings: her novels, short stories, essays, activist writings, speeches and memoirs
* has been thoroughly revised in the light of the latest scholarship and critical developments
* brings coverage of Walker's work right up to date with a new chapter on 'Now is the Time to Open Your Heart' (2004), and discussion of her recent non-fictional writing, including 'Overcoming Speechlessness' (2010)
* traces Walker's lineage back to nineteenth-century visionary black women preachers and activists
* assesses Walkers prose oeuvre both in terms of its literary and its activist merits and shortcomings.

Ideal for students and scholars alike, this established text remains an essential guide to the work of a key US author as it explains her unique place in contemporary American letters.

Table of Contents

1. Alice Walker’s Life and Work: An Introduction

Abstract
You ask about ‘preoccupations’. I am preoccupied with the spiritual survival, the survival whole of my people. But beyond that, I am committed to exploring the oppressions, the insanities, the loyalties, and the triumphs of black women. … For me, black women are the most fascinating creations in the world.1
Maria Lauret

2. The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970)

Abstract
It is always tempting to read an established writer’s first novel either as the founding text of a coherent oeuvre, or as a youthful experiment in which the older writer’s powers can perhaps be glimpsed, but are not as yet fully realised. By 1970, when her first novel The Third Life of Grange Copeland came out, Alice Walker was twenty-six years old and already a published poet and short story writer.1 Her first reviewers therefore were able to read the novel on its — and their — own terms, unhindered by the benefit of hindsight, but also unprejudiced by the writer’s youth and gender.2 Some forty years later it is not so easy to read The Third Life of Grange Copeland in this fresh and open-minded way. This is partly because of its apparently radical difference in form from such later works as The Color Purple or Possessing the Secret of Joy, but in part it is also because Walker’s critique of African American gender relations is now so familiar that its erstwhile novelty and daring are easily obscured by the mists of time. Yet it is useful to remind ourselves of ‘the risks that many African American women writers took during the period of black nationalism’, especially ‘when writing about intimate violence’, in Amanda Davis’ words.3
Maria Lauret

3. Meridian (1976)

Abstract
As if to take up where The Third Life of Grange Copeland left off, with Ruth on the threshold of a new life with the Civil Rights movement, Walker’s second novel is all about a young African American woman’s activism in the deep South of the 1960s. It revisits the question Alice Walker asked in her earlier essay ‘The Civil Rights Movement: What Good Was It?’ by exploring the case of the eponyrnous Meridian, whose life as a young, black, unhappily married woman with a baby in a small Southern town, is turned upside down by the arrival of voter-registration activists, and then transformed beyond recognition.1 Among those activists is Truman who, with the charm of his conviction that political change is necessary and possible, draws Meridian into the movement. She leaves her husband and gives up her child, distances herself from her devout Christian mother, and dedicates her life to activism. As a result of her involvement with Civil Rights she is given the opportunity to go to Saxon College in Atlanta on a scholarship provided by wealthy white Northern sympathisers, and takes it. She finds the college environment, designed to make young black women into ladies ‘chaste and pure as the driven snow’, stifling and hypocritical, however (89).2
Maria Lauret

4. The Color Purple (1982)

Abstract
In 1970, two women — one white, one black — get together to collect money for a headstone to mark the grave of Bessie Smith, blues singer extraordinaire, who had died in 1937. One of them, Juanita Green, attends the unveiling of the stone, but the other stays away so as not to detract attention from the commemoration of ‘the Empress of the blues’. That absent woman is Janis Joplin.1
Maria Lauret

5. The Temple of My Familiar (1989)

Abstract
‘Last night I dreamed I was showing you my temple’, Miss Lissie said. […] ‘Anyway, my familiar — what you might these days, unfortunately, call a “pet” — was a small, incredibly beautiful creature that was part bird, for it was feathered, part fish, for it could swim and had a somewhat fish/bird shape, and part reptile, for it scooted about like geckoes do, and it was all over the place while I talked to you. Its movements were graceful and clever, its expression mischievous and full of humor. It was alive! You, by the way, Suwelo, were a white man, apparently, in that life, very polite, very well-to-do, and seemingly very interested in our ways’ (138).1
Maria Lauret

6. Possessing the Secret of Joy (1992)

Abstract
Tashi, the young African woman who appears briefly in The Color Purple as Celie’s daughter-in-law and Adam’s wife, gets a novel of her own in Possessing the Secret of Joy. Her story traces individual and cultural motivations for female ‘circumcision’ in Africa and systematically charts the deleterious effects of that practice upon women, children, and ultimately society as a whole. Told through the multiple voices of Tashi and members of her family, as well as those of the anthropologist Pierre and the psychotherapists Jung/Mzee and Raye, the story begins with Tashi’s African childhood and ends with her death. She is executed at the hands of the post-colonial government in her country of birth, for murdering M’Lissa, the woman who ‘circumcised’ her and her sister Dura, who bled to death after the operation.
Maria Lauret

7. The Later Fiction: By the Light of My Father’s Smile (1998) and Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart (2004)

Abstract
Writing about By the Light of My Father’s Smile, Lovalerie King observes that Walker ‘employs recurring motifs of the spiritual journey or questing self, rebirth and transformation, the universality of pain and suffering, and a holistic view of life that brings her idea of connectedness into full relief’.1 Because this goes for Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart as well, the two novels can usefully be discussed together, because they are both distinctively part of Walker’s later work. From The Temple of My Familiar (1989) onwards, described by herself as a ‘wisdom tale’, and ‘a romance of the last 500.000 years’, she begins to develop what we might call a ‘spiritual activism’ that is communicated through storytelling.2 Writing about real and invented tribes, whether it is the fictional African Olinka in The Color Purple, the Dogon of Mali in Possessing the Secret of Joy (1992), the Mundo of Mexico in By the Light of My Father’s Smile (1998) or the Mahus of Hawai’i in Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart (2004), Walker draws on the creative and spiritual insights and practices of peoples all over the world. Her interest in writing about or creating such tribes is not merely ethnographic, however.
Maria Lauret

8. A Writer’s Activism — and its Critics: An Epilogue

Abstract
A footnote to ‘Recording the Seasons’, an essay about leaving Mississippi written in 1976, states that whenever Alice Walker was called an ‘activist’ or ‘veteran’ of the Civil Rights movement, she ‘cringed’ at the inappropriateness of these epithets. The true activists and veterans, she said, were the young people in SNCC or women like Fannie Lou Hamer and men like Dr Martin Luther King Jr, people who risked their lives for freedom.1 Although Walker had been writing since the early 1960s, leaving Mississippi did mark the start of her professional writing career and her withdrawal from activism as defined by the Civil Rights movement: putting your body on the line, campaigning under dangerous conditions, living at the grassroots without the possibility of retreat. Activism and writing, both of which require one’s full concentration and commitment, are usually seen as antithetical, and in practical terms they would appear to be incompatible.2 Like the author and the medium, the activist and the writer seem mutually exclusive identities, temperamentally opposed to one another. And yet, as noted in Chapter 1, Walker has sought to maintain both throughout her career.
Maria Lauret
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