Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens: Womanist Prose (1983)

It is, in the end, the saving of lives that we writers are about

This collection reminds you just what a great writer Alice Walker is: a novelist, a writer of short fiction, a poet, and a tremendous essayist as well.  She writes the kind of prose that just carries you along.

The book is a varied collection of essays and short pieces held together by common themes of writing, literature, black women’s experiences and creativity, feminism, civil rights and economics.  There are so many pieces in the collection that all I can do here is mention a few of the ones that stood out for me.

My favourite essays are the ones about writing and literature. In ‘Saving the Life that is your own: the importance of models in the artist’s life’, Walker pays tribute to the models who have had a ‘life saving’ impact on her work, in particular Vincent Van Gogh, Flannery O’ Connor, Zora Neale Hurston and Jean Toomer. ‘Beyond the Peacock: the Reconstruction of Flannery O’ Connor’ is a fascinating essay about O’ Connor enacted through a visit that Walker and her mother took to O’Connor’s house.  Walker’s writing is hugely influenced by O’ Connor and they come from the same area, but the racial and economic differences in their positions causes Walker some ambivalence.  ‘The Divided Life of Jean Toomer’ looks at a black writer who struggled to accept his identity and yet wrote Cane, a groundbreaking prose-poem about the lives of black people.  There are two essays about Walker’s idol Zora Neale Hurston, ‘Zora Neale Hurston: A Cautionary Tale’ and ‘Looking for Zora’ which explores Walker’s belief in the importance of rediscovering and valuing forgotten black women writers and artists.  Her efforts in this area led to an important reappraisal of Hurston’s work.

One of Walker’s great skills is her ability to use autobiographical material to illustrate political points. The title essay ‘In Search of our Mother’s Gardens’ is a really powerful piece that bounces off Virginia Woolf’s essay ‘A Room of one’s own’, taking the example of Walker’s own mother to talk about the ways in which black women’s creativity has been repressed but also how they have found ways around that repression.  Walker’s mother married a poor sharecropper at seventeen, had eight children and very little time to herself, but managed to find some space for creativity in her life by growing flowers in her garden:

I notice that it is only when my mother is working in her flowers that she is radiant, almost to the point of being invisible – except as a Creator: hand and eye. She is involved in the work her soul must have. Ordering the universe in the image of her personal conception of beauty,

Her face, as she prepares the Art that is her gift, is a legacy of respect she leaves to me, for all that illuminates and cherishes life. She has handed down her respect for the possibilities – and the will to grasp them. (p. 242).

The essay ‘Brothers and Sisters’ is another much anthologised piece in which Walker uses the different treatment of her male and female siblings to critique the behaviour of black men in the family – Walker herself received a lot of criticism in return for raising these issues. ‘Beauty: When the Other Dancer is the Self’ is a moving account of how she came to terms with the accident that disfigured and blinded her in one eye when she was 8 years old.

In ‘Writing The Color Purple’ she gives us an insight into the processes that created her most famous novel.  In general, though, I think this book is best read alongside the collection of short stories In Love and Trouble because it contains a lot of background to the stories collected there.

A writer who uses so much autobiographical material in her political writing is bound to experience some tensions and for Walker these seem to be particularly evident in her relationship with her family.   Her brothers and sisters can’t have been too pleased about the way she depicts them at times and I got the impression that her relationship with her siblings is ambivalent to say the least. But more discomforting is Walker’s ambivalence about motherhood and her decision to write about this ambivalence so publicly, apparently without giving much thought to the effect doing so might have on her daughter Rebecca when she grew up.  Walker and her daughter are now estranged and Rebecca has written about how hurtful she found it to read essays like ‘One child of one’s own’.  If you have a difficult relationship with your own mother, this essay is probably not a good place to start as it’s likely to cause strong feelings!

Overall, though, Walker comes across as an incredibly driven woman for whom writing is paramount and everything else in her life has to give way to her art.

‘Be Nobody’s Darling’

Be nobody’s darling;
Be an outcast.
Take the contradictions
Of your life
And wrap around
You like a shawl,
To parry stones
To keep you warm.

Watch the people succumb
To madness
With ample cheer;
Let them look askance at you
And you askance reply.

Be an outcast;
Be pleased to walk alone
Or line the crowded
River beds
With other impetuous

Make a merry gathering
On the bank
Where thousands perished
For brave hurt words
They said.

Be nobody’s darling;
Be an outcast.
Qualified to live
Among your dead.

Alice Walker, In Love and Trouble (1984)

In Love and Trouble contains thirteen haunting stories about the inner lives of black women in which Alice Walker sets out to undermine black female literary stereotypes.   It’s a powerful and, at times, horrifying collection with persistent themes of cruelty, betrayal, mutilation, vengeance and death.

‘Really, Doesn’t Crime Pay?’ tells the story of an aspiring female writer who goes mad after being betrayed by the male lover who steals her work and publishes it under his own name.  The stolen story, which is about a woman who loses her leg in an accident caused by her neglectful husband and who then hangs herself, seems to be a metaphor for the mutilation and destruction of black female creativity within a racist, patriarchal world.

‘Her Sweet Jerome’ is a horrible story about a working-class black woman who marries a teacher.  He neglects her and she becomes obsessed with discovering the identity of the ‘other woman’, only to discover that he hasn’t betrayed her for a woman at all, but rather for a revolutionary politics that she doesn’t understand. So she burns his books and sets fire to herself in the process in an ending symbolic of the self-immolation that was her devotion to a cruel and arrogant man.

One of the most horrific, and yet poetic stories, is ‘The Child who Favoured Daughter’, in which a father mutilates his daughter when he finds out that she has a white lover.  The ending is going to stay with me for a long time.

‘The Revenge of Hannah Kemhuff’ (based on Alice Walker’s mother’s experiences during the depression), is a tremendous story about an old black woman who attempts to use voodoo to get revenge on the white woman whose mean refusal to give her food stamps resulted in the deaths of her children.  The story makes the point that guilt itself is the real curse on the white woman; it’s the guilt that makes the voodoo work.

In ‘Strong Horse Tea’, a desperate woman with a dying child is forced to fall back on the folk medicine she’s rejected when she realises that her requests for a doctor have gone ignored. And in ‘The Flowers’ a little girl loses her innocence when she comes across the bones of a lynched man, stepping (in a sickening moment) ‘smack into his eyes’.

I think my favourite story is ‘Everyday Use’.  A poor female sharecropper has two adult daughters. The oldest has left home, gone to university, got involved in the civil rights movement, visited Africa and changed her name.  The youngest has been terribly scarred (more mutilation) both physically and psychologically by a fire that burnt down their house when she was a child.  One day, the older sister comes to visit with her smart boyfriend and demands two handmade family quilts that the mother had been saving for her younger daughter’s marriage.  The older sister argues that the younger girl shouldn’t have them because she’ll only put them to ‘everyday use’ when they should really be displayed on a wall. The mother finally stands up to her daughter and insists on giving the quilts to the younger one — an action that heals their damaged relationship. The two daughters are doubles and the story can be interpreted in various ways.  Is the burned, scarred girl the damaged part of the self that’s been left behind by the educated, fashionable sister?  Do the quilts represent the heritage that woman like the older sister (who got out and got educated) must leave behind? Perhaps the loss of the ‘quilts’ is the price of getting out? It’s interesting to note that Walker herself was scarred in a childhood accident and felt that she was hideously ugly, but that she also got out, got an education and became involved in feminism and civil rights. In a sense, I think that she’s both women in this story and seems to be making peace with the scared, scarred, shy part of herself.

After so much intense, painful stuff, the collection ends with a gentle, moving story called ‘To Hell with Dying’ about a woman’s sense of responsibility for Mr Sweet, the old drunken neighbour who played with her as a child.  She had the job of reviving him whenever he took it upon himself to die, but her magic can’t work forever.

It’s well worth reading this collection alongside Walker’s non-fiction book In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens (1984) where she gives a lot of background to these stories in her essays about her upbringing as the daughter of poor sharecropping farmers, the suppression of black female creativity, the need for black women writers to challenge myths and stereotypes, and the writers that influenced her work — Flannery O’ Connor, Jean Toomer and Zora Neale Hurston in particular.

Alice Walker, Anything We Love Can be Saved

This collection feels like material which Alice Walker wrote and then didn’t quite know what to do with, so she put it all together in one book. That isn’t a criticism, but if you read it, be prepared for an eclectic mixture of writing — everything from her work against FGM and meetings with Fidel Castro, to her relationship with her cat and spiritual reasons for painting her house turquoise and terracotta. I have no idea where to shelve it.

I read the book in a couple of hours on the train and, overall, I really enjoyed it. It’s warm and intimate and Walker is undoubtedly a wonderful writer.

The best essay is probably the first one, ‘The only reason you want to go to heaven is that you have been driven out of your mind (off your land and out of your lover’s arms)’.  Walker seems to be a kind of naturalistic Pagan/Buddhist and spiritual concerns appear throughout the book, but what’s really interesting about this essay is the acknowledged tension between Walker’s rejection of the Christianity she was brought up with and her awareness that it helped her community survive at the same time as it oppressed them.  ‘You Have all Seen’ the essay about her FGM activism is very powerful and ‘What Can I Give my Daughters who are Brave’, a commencement address given at Spelman College is moving.

Some things I do find a little mystifying.  Walker writes as someone who seems to be more or less in exile from her family and community and I couldn’t help but wonder why. One of the strangest accounts is of her return to see her favourite brother after his diagnosis with terminal cancer. This brother supported her while she was at college, but when he gets cancer she’s hardly seen him for years because she never ‘had the time.’ When she does visit, she’s a little amazed to find that he’s got a wonderful family and everyone loves him.  I would like to know why she walked away from her family for so long and didn’t find time for them, but she doesn’t really talk about it.

The entire book does give the impression of someone who’s intensely compulsive.  Work comes first for Walker and other people have to fit in with that. She does seem aware that certain things have been lost along the way, but she is not someone who likes to admit to being wrong. Just read her essay about her relationship with her daughter, Rebecca, in which she really struggles to accept Rebecca’s criticisms of her parenting and only just stops short of saying “Sorry you were upset.”

The one essay that really offended me is the one which describes her visit to Cuba and comes close to agreeing with Fidel Castro’s policy of isolating people with HIV from the general population. She doesn’t seem to see a problem with this because, as far as she can tell on her organised-by-the-government visit, the people with HIV are kept in pretty good conditions. I can totally understand her support for the people of Cuba, but no no no no no no!

Anyway, I think the collection is well worth reading if you want to know more about Walker and the struggles she’s experienced as a black woman writer and an activist on a wide range of issues. It’s also an interesting insight into a highly driven artist. I may disagree with some of the things she writes, but I appreciate her honesty and lack of pretension. I did sense a lot of demons lurking around the edges of the book and, out of curiosity, I would have liked to know more about them, but I don’t really blame her for keeping them out.