Friday, June 14, 2013

heroes: Alice Walker

Until a couple of weeks ago, this is what I knew about Alice Walker:
1. She's a woman of colour.
2. She wrote The Colour Purple.
2. She wrote an article I saved to read ages ago, but still haven't.

Then I read her first novel, which I have already bored you silly about, but I owe it to you to recommend it to you one last time. The Third Life of Grange Copeland. Check it.

The book is loosely autobiographical (and, make no mistake; that is rough). Walker was born in Georgia in 1944, the youngest of eight. Her father, Willie, was a sharecropper, and her mother, Minnie, a maid. At a time when the children of sharecroppers were expected to work the fields with their parents (as in the book), Walker instead went to school from age four. She began writing when she was eight.

You don't need to read the book to know the basic things about growing up black in Georgia, under Jim Crow. (The Montgomery bus boycott didn't happen until she was eleven.) On top of that, when she was eight, little Alice was accidentally shot with a BB gun, and became blind in one eye as a result (the repercussions of which she credits the development of her acute observational skills.)

Walker went on to Spelman College (where she studied under the excellent Howard Zinn, became involved with the civil rights movement, and met Martin Luther King Jr), and then Sarah Lawrence, during which time she was one of the 300 000 who marched on Washington in 1963. After college she went back to the South to continue working for black equality. Walker and her then husband, Melvyn Leventhal, were the first legally married inter-racial couple in Mississippi. And in the '90s, she went out with none other than Tracy Chapman.

She hasn't stopped fighting for social justice. Among other things, she speaks on behalf of the women and children of Iraq, takes part in anti-war protests, and is a long-time advocate of the rights of those in Gaza.

And her writing. Somehow, she manages to take you along with her and show you things, just as they are, in all their awfulness, and yet you don't feel hopeless. In fact, you feel hopeful. You see these things, and you realise that you're part of them; part of the problem, and the solution. Aware that there is good and bad in you, and that you have the power to choose which one is stronger. Her work informs, and it inspires. And it unites. In spite of the deeply personal nature of her subject matter, she manages to involve you in a way that reminds you that, while there are opposing forces, oppressors and oppressed, that we're all still one - an incredible gift. She tells a story that doesn't tell you how to feel, but still seems to know how you will feel; as if she's trusted your humanity, and your humanity has delivered. Am I even making any sense? Do I just sound like a sycophant? I don't know. I just know that her gift for showing something so honestly is rare, and that I value and respect it, and that I'm so happy to have found another incredible woman who hasn't just survived, but survived whole.

Some of my favourite bits from the book:

'A little love, a little buckshot, that's how I'd say handle yourself.'

'he could not clarify what was the duty of love; whether to prepare for the best of life, or for the worst.'

'She felt that she was somehow the biggest curse of her life
 and that it was her fate to be an everlasting blunderer into misery.'

'And never blaming hisself done him weak.'

'She was not pretty, but only a standardly praised copy of prettiness.'

'when they got you thinking that they're to blame for everything 
they have you thinking they's some kind of gods!'

'Each day must be spent, in a sense, apart from any other... 
Each day must be past, present and future...
 Her future must be the day she lived in.'

'Instead of inner rage she had an inner sovereignty,
a core of self, a rock...'

'Survival was not everything. He had survived. But to survive whole was what he wanted for Ruth.'

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1 comment:

  1. Sounds beautiful my dear. I'm gonna read it. In fact am just about ready to move onto a new book. just requested it at library. xXx