Alice’s Literary Wonderland
Walker, at 60, is Still Independent and Defiant, but More Fulfilled
The front yard of Alice Walker’s house in the Berkeley hills is a wonderland. Buddhist statues, yellow roses and trees lead to a virtual gateway to her front door: a spider web that’s been intact so long, visitors duck beneath it to spare the spider’s life. Anywhere else, the thing would be carelessly swept aside. When Walker is not at her Mendocino County home, she tends to her plentiful garden here. Her Labrador, Marley, stretches out on the kitchen floor of her private oasis — a combination fortress and retreat — while she enjoys her solitude hanging in a hammock, gazing at her collard greens and tomatoes.
It sounds like a perfect life. But Walker’s apparent peace comes just after an exhausting book tour for her latest novel, “Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart,” the story of a woman awakening to the mystical powers of aging, and just before two milestones for the 60-year-old author and activist. Last week, a Broadway-bound $10 million musical adaptation of “The Color Purple” opened in Atlanta after several years in the making. And this week, “Alice Walker: A Life,” her first full-length biography, written by Oakland author and journalist Evelyn C. White, will be published. The meticulous and thorough overview of Walker’s career is nearly 500 pages and took a decade to complete. What all that means for Walker is that “there’s no hammock in sight for another month, at least,” as she put it, plopping down on her couch, legs folded.
She lets out a half-weary laugh, but she then sighs with a bright smile. Walker does not look like the same woman who, just a few years ago, said she had plans to stop writing. Alice’s mother, Minnie Lou Walker, used to tell the story of how her youngest daughter in a family of eight started her writing career. When Alice disappeared, a relative could usually find her writing somewhere with a twig in the dirt. “Writing for me — if there are past lives, and why shouldn’t there be — is what I came in doing,” Walker said, her silver dreads barely obscuring long, beaded earrings. “The movement with the stick is really just the primordial movement of the artist. Instinctive. That’s really why so many kids are artists before it’s trained out of them. You’re taking your stick and transforming the universe before someone says, ‘What are you doing? You’re making a mess.’ ”
She continued writing as she went to Spelman College, transferred to Sarah Lawrence and later married Mel Leventhal, a civil rights lawyer, while they were active in the movement. They had a daughter, Rebecca, who is now 34, lives in the Bay Area and is an author herself. As Walker juggled her writing career with activism and motherhood, she also maintained an independent streak. She redefined feminism as womanism, a term meant to include women of color and men in the feminist paradigm. Walker was also an avid environmentalist and anti-war activist. She was arrested for blocking railroads where arms were being transported through Port Chicago (now Concord Naval Station), for protesting against apartheid in South Africa and just last year, for protesting outside of the White House with Code Pink, a local organization led by Global Exchange’s Medea Benjamin. “That was a good moment,” she said, smiling. “Actually, it was a great moment. I have to say there’s nothing quite like it … as gestures go. Shows that you are serious.”
Walker began publishing widely in the 1970s. She wrote two ground- breaking short-story collections exploring everything from pornography to music in the lives of black women. She published a collection of poetry, “Once, ” and two novels. For a time, she was an editor at Ms. magazine.
Walker was well on her way to becoming one of the most celebrated writers of the 20th century, even before she wrote “The Color Purple,” the epistolary novel that changed her life. Her third novel won the American Book Award and the first Pulitzer Prize awarded to a black woman. She makes all of these worlds seem as if they fit seamlessly together. Yet Walker has been the target of many barbs. “Alice is invested in the light, in illumination, and is infinitely curious about the world; she is an explorer on many levels,” said biographer White. “And explorers and trailblazers are often misunderstood and criticized.”
This may be what Walker meant when she wrote about honoring the difficult. Much of her life, the respect and admiration of many have been coupled with personal wounds and the angry criticisms of some. Her first physical scar came at the hands of an older brother. During a game of cowboys and Indians, she was shot in the right eye with a BB gun and partially blinded. The injury allowed her to go to college with a scholarship for the disabled. Though “The Color Purple” not only won prizes but was made into a film by Steven Spielberg in 1985, the accolades were offset by controversy. A woman in Oakland wanted the book banned. Prominent African Americans derided Walker for what some considered a negative depiction of black men.
Walker’s take on that particular criticism is: “All of my work affirms men; to say the truth about a situation doesn’t mean you’re not affirming human beings. How can it be that I just don’t love black men? That criticism is not about what I think about black men. It’s about what black men think of themselves.” But Oakland novelist Ishmael Reed called the novel “a sentinel book, exposing the depth and hatred of black men in this country. … White feminists and white men took the fictional character Mr.___ and used him to represent all black men, something they would never do with a book written by a white.” Reed was considered by many to be one of the most vocal opponents to “The Color Purple.”
In a recent interview, he maintained, as he did then, that white middle- class feminists were using Walker’s work to take out their frustrations on black men. Moreover, “anyone who says I was the leading critic of ‘The Color Purple’ is just illiterate and insane,” says Reed, adding that he purchased 20 copies of Walker’s novel “Temple of My Familiar” and believes that she is a gifted writer. “That’s just outsiders and the media trying to start a fight between black men and black women.”
But resistance to Walker’s writing and activism has not been limited to “The Color Purple.” Her work agitating against the practice of female genital mutilation — cutting off girls’ external genitals without anesthetic, performed on 140 million girls around the world — through her books and a documentary, “Warrior Marks,” has not met with universal praise. Some African women, for instance, have accused her of disrespecting the sanctity of their customs, sometimes deriding her as a “cultural imperialist.” Walker is not swayed by these indictments. “One day in Africa, the Middle East, Malaysia and wherever people do cutting, people will just think it’s absurd. They’ll think, ‘Why would we want to do that?’ And it was wonderful to be a part of the wave that became visible in saying, ‘This is crazy. This is suicidal.’ So much of it is just ignorance.”
And although many consider Walker to be a literary goddess, to others she is one of those bra-burning zealots. The most discussed aspect of her career after the “Color Purple” has been what some see as her New Age persona, a “latter-day hippie,” as one writer put it, and there’s been an increasingly hostile reception to her later work. “She’s written good stuff and she’s written trash, like most writers,” Reed said. Walker does not respond to criticism or reviews publicly. Still, one has to wonder: What does she make of people who expect every book to be like the soul-stirring journey of Celie and Nettie? And what of the latest caustic reviews, among them one claiming that she’s crawled into some strange rabbit hole?
Her response: She doesn’t write for critics. The Pulitzer is in a box somewhere. With or without one, she is content to have done her life’s work. “I think of what I do as medicine … and you can only heal from the medicine that you trust. And if (people) don’t trust it, they should not go anywhere near it. What I’ve noticed is that sometimes people just need time. For instance, when ‘The Color Purple’ came out … there were all these people (against it.) Ten years later, so many people could see that it was medicine. So I’m not in a hurry for people to get the medicine. I have fulfilled my function. The joy was in the creation. It’s not so much in the prescribing, (it’s) to say I made this with the help of angels, and ancestors and devas and … I give it you, knowing that the medicine is very good …” she said, closing her eyes.
She paused, then raised her voice a bit and said, “Then some people will say, ‘I don’t care how good it is,’ ” she says, bursting into laughter. “And then I say, ‘OK. Good luck.’ ” As she speaks, the scar in her eye that partially blinded her looks like a turquoise crescent moon floating beneath her pupil; a painful memory made beautiful by time. It is hard to believe that Alice Walker is 60. Whatever her silver locks tell of her age, her serene features negate. She likes to laugh and sigh like a teenager in love, and when she gets out to her garden to check on her strawberries, Walker is not a fastidious woman in a big hat and bunched-up gloves; she’s a child in shorts and a black T-shirt eating the red berries right off the stem, bunching lavender in her hands as she sticks her face in it.
Could that spontaneous joy be reason to quit writing? So she could see more of her garden? “I actually didn’t stop writing,” she said. “I stopped writing and thinking about publishing. I looked back and realized that I’ve been writing for a long time. I just thought, I can give this life over to (biographer) Evelyn and then emerge into a different way. And I really have.” Well, she had. Then, in 1996, a producer named Scott Sanders showed up asking her if he could turn “The Color Purple” into a musical. From the moment Sanders read the novel, he said, “I thought the piece sang, that it had music in its soul.” That was nice and all, but Walker was tired of “The Color Purple.” “I needed a little peace from it, actually,” she said. “I wasn’t so interested in having another production in my lifetime.”
So began Sanders’ journey to turn the novel into a musical. Part of his mission included sending Walker around Manhattan in a yacht with a small group of celebrities, including Diana Ross and her daughters and Ashford and Simpson. He gave her a list of his “references,” celebrities like Bette Midler, Whoopi Goldberg and Shirley MacLaine. He promised the author he’d do her story justice. Eventually, she agreed. Wasn’t she worried about the controversy that had come with “The Color Purple’s” success 20 years ago?
“By now, I’ve gotten pretty unworried about turmoil,” she said. “Look at the world. There’s enough turmoil that any little turmoil that happens to me is, at least, bearable. It might hurt but … so does dropping bombs on people. So does starving Haitians. I think I’ve suffered more from that than I’ve ever suffered from anything.” The musical’s book has been written by another Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Marsha Norman, the playwright of ” ‘Night, Mother.” The songwriters and musical directors include pop writers and Broadway veterans, and the musical is opening 70 miles from Walker’s hometown through Oct. 17 before it goes to Broadway next fall.
“She is a goddess,” Sanders said from his office in Jersey City, N.J., just after receiving news that he’d won an Emmy for a television special he did called “Elaine Stritch: At Liberty.” “I believe everything she writes comes from her soul. … I feel honored to know her and to have the privilege to take her brilliant work and characters and bring it to a different medium.” So far, it appears that the musical will be a success: The seven days of previews were nearly sold out by the Friday before it opened. Even in the middle of Hurricane Ivan weather, celebrities swarmed to the opening, and the musical’s remaining dates are doing well at the box office. One early review called it “a mixture of marvelous moments and rough edges.”
For Walker, it was another opportunity to see the power of resiliency through the lives of Celie, Shug, Harpo and Nettie. Twenty-two years after she had written their stories of resilience in honor of her mother, Walker saw her homecoming to the musical’s opening as an affirmation of her lasting legacy as a Southern writer often considered in the company of writers like William Faulkner. “I helped change the South into a place where any black person (could prosper), and that’s very important because we have missed the sun,” Walker said of her career. “It is really fulfilling to think that you can give someone back their homeland.”