Monday, January 11, 2010
The myriad colours of Alice Walker
The distinguished author of ‘The Colour Purple’, on a brief visit to India, spoke about female genital mutilation, racism, the ill-treatment of children, her unconditional love for President Barack Obama and – of course -- her writing
Photo: The author with Alice Walker
By Shevlin Sebastian
Alice Walker is still stunned by the continual success of her most popular novel, ‘The Colour Purple’. “It is so enormous and unexpected,” she says.
The book, released in 1982, has sold millions of copies. In 1995, it was made into a critically acclaimed movie, with Whoopi Goldberg playing the lead role of Celie Harris. In 2005 it was staged as a musical. “It was on Broadway for three years and is now touring,” she says. “Wherever it goes there has been a popular reaction.”
She tries to analyse the reasons behind the success.
“There is a need in people to know that someone sees their silent suffering and endurance,” she says. “And in each of them, just like in the novel, there is an inner voice which says, ‘I don’t care how you grind me down, but I refuse to be destroyed.’”
The book has had a resonance across cultures. In China, ‘The Colour Purple’ was a bestseller. “When I went there they were afraid to tell me it sold well,” she says. “When I asked why, they said, ‘You might ask for royalties.’”
Alice bursts out laughing at this point, as she reclines on a sofa in the lobby of the Taj Malabar at Kochi. She was in India recently on a 15-day trip, as a member of the Distinguished Visitors Programme of the Indian Council For Cultural Relations. Her first stop was Kerala, after which she went to Delhi, Dharamsala, and Bangalore.
In person, she is full of light, but her themes are dark. They include rape, violence, troubled relationships, child abuse, and racism. When asked why, Alice says, “I come across people suffering from this all the time. It is a planetary problem. People are sexist and mean. In India, too, there is domestic violence and child abuse.”
She blames the ill-treatment of children as the root-cause of all the problems. “Hitler was beaten terribly by his father as was Saddam Hussain by his step-father,” she says. “What do we learn from this? Parents should treat children well. Because, later, it swings right round again and hits society on the face.”
However, she says that society in America has been changing for the better following the election of Barack Obama as the first black president in 2009. “Relations between blacks and whites are less strained,” says Alice. “Many white people have felt bad because they knew that black people had never been given a chance to come up. Their guilt has been assuaged. The mental block is gone.”
Of course Alice has been an Obama fan right from the early days of his presidential campaign. “He is an incredibly intelligent, charismatic, thoughtful, well-spoken, philosophical and handsome person. I love him unconditionally, although I don’t agree with him on some major issues.”
War is one subject. “Any war, be it in Iraq or Afghanistan, is a dead-end,” she says. “It is stupid and represents a huge waste of money and lives.”
Apart from wars, Alice has been waging a single-minded campaign against the brutal practice of female genital mutilation, which takes place throughout Africa. “It has been going on for 7000 years,” she says. “But consciousness is changing.” Recently, the practice was stopped in Uganda.
Two years ago, Imams of several African countries met during a conference in Egypt and banned it. But the problem in Africa is that villages are so far apart that people rarely hear the news. “So, it will take a long time for the practice to be fully eradicated,” she says.
When things get too painful, Alice retreats into her writing. “Creativity is magical,” she says. “There is nothing like it.” Like most gifted writers, for Alice, the characters come alive and take over the narrative.
“I can see them clearly in my mind,” she says. “Sometimes, in the middle of the night, when I awaken, I can hear them talking. When you work with them all the time, they grow up, right in front of your eyes, just like children.”
Interestingly, this major writer does not rewrite at all. And the reason is rooted in her childhood.
“When I was little I had terrible brothers,” she says. “They would tear up anything I wrote. So I learnt to do all the corrections in the head. I could not understand how other writers would write something, and throw the paper away. It was only much later that I realised I was doing the editing mentally.”
One result is that Alice has been extremely prolific: more than thirty books of prose, poetry, and non-fiction. And she is charmed by the different genres.
“Poetry is not something you choose,” she says. “It chooses you. I love writing novels because you can live in a whole other reality for a couple of years. Non-fiction is challenging because you have to get your facts right and there is a limited number of words. They are like short stories. You need to say so much in a small space.”
Her deft skills have been much appreciated. She has won numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, as well as a National Book Award.
Whenever she takes a break from writing, Alice is busy traveling, with her partner, the long-haired South Korean, Garret Larson. Recently, she had been to Burma and to the Gaza strip.
“I wrote that what Israel has done in Gaza is similar to the genocide committed by the Hutus over the Tutsis in Rwanda,” she says. “The only difference is that the Israelis do the killing in a high-tech way.”
Alice Walker, a conscience of the world, we salute you!
A doctorate holder meets Alice Walker
“My son used to say, ‘Mom, you are Alice Walker,’” says Sobhana Kurien, an English lecturer at CMS College, Kottayam. “Indeed, my family speaks of Alice as if she is a member of the family. There are so many books by her on my bookshelf.”
Sobhana first came across Alice’s writings in the 80s when ‘The Colour Purple’ was prescribed for the post-graduate course and she had to teach it.
“When I read the novel I became fascinated,” she says. Thereafter, Sobhana did her M. Phil as well as her Ph. D., which she received from Mahatma Gandhi University in 2006, on the writings of Alice.
Apart from ‘The Colour Purple’, Sobhana was moved by ‘Possessing the secret of Joy’, a novel about female genital mutilation in a tribal village in Africa.
“Not many people know that genital mutilation can induce severe haemorrhage and can be the cause of AIDS in some cases,” says Sobhana. “Alice wrote this novel as a plea against this horrible practice.”
When Sobhana heard the news that Alice was coming to a school in Kottayam, she became very excited. She ensured that she was able to meet the distinguished writer. “It was one of the great moments of my life,” she says. “Alice is a sweet, warm and affectionate person.”
When Sobhana told Alice about her 15-year-long study of her works, the African-American said, “Amazing!” Shobhana replied, “I just cannot believe that I am holding the hands of my favourite writer.”
Alice smiled and autographed the dissertation. “Apart from being a superb writer, Alice is also a great human being,” says Sobhana.
(The New Indian Express, Chennai)