Alice Walker: 'Color Purple' Author Confronts Her Critics and Talks about Her Provocative New Book

By Whitaker, Charles | Ebony, May 1992 | Go to article overview

Alice Walker: 'Color Purple' Author Confronts Her Critics and Talks about Her Provocative New Book


Whitaker, Charles, Ebony


SHE answers the door looking petite and concerned. "Oh you poor dears," she says upon greeting her sopping wet visitors, who have ventured intrepidly through a rainstorm to reach her at this country retreat secreted in the hills of Northern California. "Come in, sit by the fire and dry Off"

She welcomes her guests into the airy, two-story wood lodge and offers them a wide assortment of herbal teas and a pan of freshly roasted peanuts served in front of a mature fire glowing in a stone hearth. Dressed casually in a dark wool pullover and roomy drawstring slacks, she appears to be the epitome of the medern-day Earth mother-- serene, natural. Her heart-shaped face, framed by long coils of reddish-brown dredlocks, is flawless and unadorned by even the barest trace of makeup. Her dark, luminous eyes--including the right one, which was permanently impaired in a childhood accident--invite questions and confidences.

Is this the Alice Walker, the alleged fire-breathing feminist, or "womanist" (to use her term) whose Pulitzer Prizewinning novel, The Color Purple, has, for many, come to symbolize Black malebashing at its worst?

Since the publication of The Color Purple, her third and most acclaimed novel, in 1982 and the release, four years later, of the factious film treatment of that work, Walker has been, in the eyes of many, the local point of an acrimonious debate that rages across the great divide known as male/female relations. At odds are her multi-ethnic legion of devoted fans and an equally large corps of detractors who view Walker as the embodiment of a Black womens literary movement distinguished primarily by its defamation of Black men.

For her part, Walker says the belief that she harbors resentment toward Black men is patently untrue and is based, in large measure, on the hostility engendered by her former ,marriage to a White lawyer.

'There are some people who honestly could not conceive of the possibility that you could marry a non-Black person and still love Black people," she says. "To them it just seems impossible. So they feel rejected. But if you read my work, the love is so clear. There's nothing in my work that would ever support a hatred of Black men or Black people."

But Walker, an intensely private woman, has not responded much to her critics. Though she says she was "griefstricken" by the antipathy with which her work has been received by many in the Black community, publicly she has been practically mute on the subject. "I don't have time to dear up all these peoples confusion," she says. "I'm busy. I'm working on the next things that need attention.''

Those "things" have come to light in her prodigious body of work (16 books, including five novels, several collections of essays, short stories, childrens books and poems) in which she has tackled such provocative topics as child and spousal abuse, fear of death, female sexuality and incest.

In her brand new novel, Possessing The Secret of Joy, she returns to sensitive literary territory, this time taking on some sections of Africa by challenging an ancient and largely unspoken tradition of female genital mutilation called pharaonic circumcision. It is a brutal process--designed to ensure fidelity-- in which everything that can be seen of the vulva is removed and the vaginal opening is sewn up tightly, making both intercourse and childbirth virtually unbearable. Though not as prevalent as the slightly less extreme custom of clitoridectomy (removal of the clitoris), pharaonic circumcision, which dates back to the pharoahs, remains widespread in East Africa, particularly in the Sudan and Somalia, according to Michael Toole, an epidemiologist in the Division of Technical Support of the International Health Program Office in Atlanta.

Walker explores the subject through the eyes of Tashi, a minor character in The Color Purple, who submits to this harsh rite of passage out of a sense of cultural allegiance, and bears the deep physical and emotional scars for the rest of her life. …

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