Good Reading : March 2005
Pulitzer. For many black male activists, The Colour Purple peddled the message that spir - itual fulfilment for African-American woman is attainable only through sexual relationships with other women and that the best black men can offer is platonic companionship, albeit under stringent controls.With the black com- munity suffering the early pangs of Reagan’s economic cutbacks, many feared her portrayal of abusive black men would be seen to legiti- mise regressive welfare policies. ‘The accusa- tions that I was [against black men] were very painful,’ she recalls. ‘I thought, “How could they misunderstand the love in this book?” You don’t spend so much time and effort and re-arrange your life to create something just because you hate somebody.’ Walker was initially unimpressed by Steven Spielberg’s cautious 1985 film adaptation of the novel: ‘In the beginning I thought, “Oh, where’s the erotic? Why are they being so careful?” They were being careful because a huge part of the African- American community had been very censorious. Finally I liked the way Steven depicted the relationship between Celie and Shug – they kiss and you can imagine, which I love. I’m very happy with it now.The sweetness of it is what I like.’ Despite the tender evocation of lesbianism in The Colour Purple, it was not until the 1990s that Walker came to embrace same-sex lovers in her personal life. ‘It seemed impossible in this day and age to be a human person without having the experience of fully loving women, or earlier a white person. I needed to know that the barriers people put up are really arti - ficial.There are just not that many ways you can make love to a human body, and if you can do that, you can do that with any human body. I find it all pretty much the same.’ Now is the Time to OpenYour Heart represents just how far Walker has strayed from the social realism of The Colour Purple. It is Walker at her most narratively loose and New Age. Based on a voyage Walker herself took, the novel tracks clapped-out 57-year-old writer Kate Talkingtree as she ventures into the Amazon in search of spiritual fulfilment. Her quest is assisted by a mind-alter - ing natural potion known as ‘Grandmother’, which leads to bouts of vomiting and the wear- ing of nappies.The novel is Walker’s attempt to urge women reaching their late middle-age to go ‘walkabout’As she says,‘Because [women] have been so domesticated they feel like if they leave home they lose themselves. But you get to an age where you realise that your duty is really to look outside the house, and look out- side your culture, to see what can you find that is possibly helpful to the coming generation. This book is saying that there is a lot to learn, a lot to be explored and a lot to be brought back and put to use. I wanted to bring into the world as something useful [the knowledge] of the intense and deep connection between people and plants. I wanted to explore this kind of healing, that kind of natural medicine which I had experienced.’ When recently Walker announced her retirement from writing, few people believed her. ‘I was very tired. I was thinking that it was time to stop and do something else, because there’s so much else that’s fascinating. But what I learned was that I don’t get to make that decision. As long as creation − the big whatever it is that we’re here for − wishes to float through me in the form of writing, I will be here to serve that.’ She likens her position as an African-American author to the seed of a plum tree. ‘If we think of ourselves as that one seed that the ancestors have always worked really hard to make sure is there, that seed can continue to produce the entire community of people, just as a plum seed can produce a plum tree. Because many of our people don’t come to fruition, to be held by the ancestors in this way is a great gift. It means that no matter who else has fallen, if you are left standing long enough to become a seed that is a victory.’ Evelyn C White’s Alice Walker: A Life is published by WW Norton, rrp $49.95; Alice Walker’s Now is the Time to Open Your Heart is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, rrp $29.95. As long as creation – the big whatever it is that we’re here for – wishes to float through me in the form of writing, I will be here to serve that.