As the women in Alice Walker's books approach puberty, they also risk obliteration as human beings. Innocent and ignorant black girls, preyed on by men, seduced and impregnated, they face a future empty of choice.
In her latest book, "The Color Purple," Walker begins with the rape of her main character, Celie, as a teen-ager, by the man she believes is her father. One reviewer said the book begins where Greek tragedies would climax.
"The first three pages are very difficult," Walker said during a recent visit. "But why shouldn't I be tough on men? This is a country in which a woman is raped every three minutes. Where one out of three women will be raped during their lifetimes, and a quarter of those are children under 12.
"If I write books that men feel comfortable with, then I have sold out. If I write books that whites feel comfortable with, I have sold out."
But Walker is no polemicist. Her three novels, short stories, poems and essays speak to an audience that includes even those who might not "feel comfortable." The reviewers raved over "The Color Purple"; Newsweek, for example, said it was "an American novel of permanent importance."
Walker, 38, is a small but solid woman, with a pretty, immensely thoughtful face, hidden partly behind wire-rimmed glasses that give her a professorial look, a counterpoint to the maroons and purples she is wearing. The reviews have claimed for her a new maturity, a peaking of artistic powers, yet she speaks of her characters in words one might use to describe irrepresible family members. She sounds as though she is hardly taking responsibility for creating them, as though they came to her as spirits would to a medium.
They talk to her still. They were one reason she moved to northern California in 1978 after beginning the novel in Brooklyn. "The people in this novel really needed to be in the open spaces," she said. And later: "These people are so real they can't stay in the book. There are times when I feel Celie is still talking . . . they have a life that is not confined to the book. For example, Celie said once -- it was during a long flight -- she was talking about visiting a sick person who was very self-pitying, and she said the person was 'upstairs, trying to look dead.' That's a wonderful line, but it had no place in my book."
This is not a mystical experience, she hastened to add. It is rather the effect of "total concentration," and a conscious effort to free herself from distractions in order to hone in on the world she was creating. That world included not only the characters, but a special language that she calls Black Folk English. (She refuses to call it a "dialect," a word she finds patronizing and pejorative, like "primitive," for which she substitutes "ancient.") The language is jarring at first but ultimately has a strangely poetic and powerful effect.
I spend my wedding day running from the oldest boy. He twelve. His mama died in his arms and he don't want to hear nothing bout no new one. He pick up a rock and laid my head open. The blood run all down between my breasts. His daddy say Don't do that! But that's all he say . . .
"I'm not saying forget standard English," she said. "I wanted access to my own memories . . . this is the language I spoke as a child, the language my parents and grandparents spoke. In another culture the people I come from would be called peasants -- plain folk. So that's why I call it Black Folk English."
The book is written in the form of Celie's letters, written out of loneliness, to God. Later in the book there are letters from her sister, Nettie. Celie has helped Nettie escape a life of certain marital servitude, allowing her to continue her education; she, as Celie does eventually, triumphs over her adversities. Nettie becomes a missionary in Africa and writes letters to her sister for 30 years, letters that are unanswered because Celie's husband hides them.
"I just waited until it became clear what form it should take," said Walker. "It took a long time. Sometimes I felt anxious that it would never come. But when my mind was still, it started."
"The Color Purple" is, she said, her happiest work. Not only because writing it was "fulfilling," but also because the characters break through the nearly overwhelming obstacles of race, sex, class and poverty to the simple joys of companionship and freedom. Even some of the men mellow -- including the man to whom Celie is, in effect, sold.
"I don't think of it as an angry book," she said. "The people are conscious of the choices available, and they make good ones. They look at everything and they choose each other."
Celie's happiness comes through her friendship with Shug Avery, who is also her husband's longtime girlfriend. Their love is physical as well as spiritual, a relationship that seems a bit unusual between two essentially rural southern black women in the 1940s.
"There may be some people who are uncomfortable with the idea of women being lovers," Walker said. "But I feel they should outgrow that. Being able to love is more important than who you love. If you love yourself as a woman, what's to prevent you from loving another woman? I think many women feel a sense of liberation about that part of the story."
Not surprisingly, Walker has a strong following among lesbians. She is also a firm feminist and a "womanist," a word she coined to include in the idea of feminism the black culture from which she comes. "The word feminist is fine, but it leaves out the particular background and culture of black women. Also, womanist is a word I thought the women in my community would understand. I remembered when I was child if I got dressed up sassy in high heels or perfume, someone would say, 'She looks like a womanish woman.' So it sounds something like that."
She is a veteran of the civil rights movement, which she wrote about in an earlier novel, "Meridian." But her activity and thoughts these days are with the peace movement, a cause that for her transcends race and sex.
"When the movement was just beginning and everyone realized we could just blow ourselves up, I was in grief," she said. "I said goodbye; life was over. After that I got really angry. How dare they! The next stage is to realize that things are not changed with more anger, but with more love . . .
"The poems I have been writing lately are looking at specific friends, and particular moments, and seeing how much I treasure the smallest events. Like I have a very good friend who has a very particular way of saying hmmhmmm. I like the way she says that, it really pleases me. And somehow the thought that some white man could just push a button and wipe out my friend's hmmhmmm . . . I can't take that. But the first step in getting him to not push that button is for him to appreciate my friend."
Her move to northern California came after her divorce from Mel Leventhal, a white lawyer she met during the civil rights era. They have a daughter, Rebecca, who is 12, and who crosses the boundaries of her mixed cultural heritage with what her mother views affectionately and proudly as total aplomb. Walker has temporarily left her San Francisco home to be the Fannie Hurst professor of literature at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, an interlude she is finding both exhausting and rewarding.
"They write very well," she said. "And so much."
Walker's father was a sharecropper in Georgia, and her subsequent entry into America's literary mainstream would seem a triumph over forces leading her in another direction. Yet she always felt somehow chosen, a person to whom opportunities came.
"My mother tells me that when I was a baby she entered me in baby contests to raise money for the church. I won every one. She says, 'Even as a baby you'd go to anyone'; I guess I liked people and was not too shy to let them know. I fell in love with the school bus driver when I was 6, and he always let me sit in the front seat."
More significantly, her community supported her by raising $75 for her bus transportation to Spelman College in Atlanta. Later she got a scholarship to Sarah Lawrence, and when she slipped a book of poems under poet Muriel Rukeyser's door, they ended up in the hands of an editor at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, who are still her publishers. Luck?
"I wonder what it is, actually. I think it's a love of life, and a real allegiance to it."
A spirit of affirmation begins to assert itself in the book as the friendship develops between Celie and the independent Shug. The title comes from a conversation between them on the subject of God. "I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don't notice it," says Shug. "People think pleasing God is all God care about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back."