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Alice Walker, the Inner Mysteries Unraveled: The author focusing on nature and self in her temple
By Donna Britt
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 8, 1989
The kinky coils of Alice Walker's hair shimmy like playful eels around her face, winding around her ears, skimming past her shoulders, coming to a fitful rest on her back.
It is hair with a history, straight from what Walker terms the "pre-comb" era — unmindful of fashion, contemptuous of control, daunting to even the most determined grooming instrument.
It is hair that explains better than anything why life these days for the controversial author of "The Color Purple" is "mostly ecstatic"; hair whose knottiness symbolizes the acceptance of nature and self that is the basis of Walker's new novel, "The Temple of My Familiar."
Before her hair assumed its current state of grace, Walker — who like many black women is a veteran of straighteners, Afros and braids — says she spent a good deal of time "trying to figure out why it was that I seemed a little out of focus. And I realized that it was because my hair was still something that I thought about in the sense of 'How can I make it something else? How can I change it?' But when you relate to the natural world and see that it is perfect, there's no point in changing your hair, in doing anything to it except keeping it clean. I understood that my hair is perfect, just as it is."
She smiles. "I mean, I couldn't make it. If somebody said to me, 'Here, go sit in that corner and make a head of hair,' I couldn't do it. … It's better than anything I could have come up with."
Walker may not be up to creating a mane of hair, but the author of the novels "Meridian," "The Third Life of Grange Copeland" and several volumes of essays, short stories and poetry certainly has a gift for mining magic from the mundane. This is a woman who calls the iridescent flaw in her right eye's pupil — the result of an accident during her childhood in Eatonton, Ga. — her "crystal ball." A woman who, asked what she likes about herself, replies, "I like that I exist in this form. … But one thing I've understood for years was that the things that make me happy as a human being would make me happy as anything else. I could be happy as a flower or a tree or … a pebble in the middle of a stream, feeling the sun coming down through the water."
This is a woman who, in the early stages of writing "Temple," searched for reasons why people would be willing to give over their spirituality to sources outside themselves. Somehow, that search resulted in an inexplicable urge to immerse herself in the colors coral and turquoise.
"I couldn't understand why it was these colors, why I had to see them," she says. "But I came to understand that I was in this kind of shamanistic space where I knew I needed to create one thing to make it possible for me to create something else."
She bought scarves, boots and dresses in the shades. No good. She splashed coral and turquoise on canvas. Didn't work. Then she bought a couple of gallons of house paint.
"I painted my bed first, painted it turquoise. Then I got up on this chair and started painting the ceiling coral. So here I was with my turquoise bed and my coral ceiling. And I started painting my door. … And when I went to bed, I dreamed the answer. Which was that … the real temple of the spirit is not a church or synagogue, but freedom."
The air around Walker seems rarefied, steeped in the magic she casually refers to in conversations with both friends and near-strangers. Certainly her three-story Victorian townhouse feels enchanted — sunlight wafts through tall windows, bouncing off blond wood floors, varicolored Mexican throws and Native American art; the fresh-cut irises on her redwood deck seem almost cartoonish in their perfection, the biggest, purplest flowers in creation.
In the midst of this peace sits Walker, 45, an amiable brown buddha whose pretty face moves as easily from girlishness to mature womanhood as her new book — which she describes as a "romance of the last 500,000 years" — spans centuries.
"Temple" is the story of six characters whose lives intertwine, moving from Northern California to Baltimore to prehistoric Africa with several stops between. Similarly, critics' comments have roamed all over, from admiring ("Richly told and full of wonder," from Kirkus Reviews) to accusatory ("a novel of allegation," from Time) to disappointed ("The confused viewer is left admiring [Walker's] individual brush strokes, nonetheless dismayed that the overall picture seems so lacking," from the Boston Globe).
Like many authors confronted with less-than-ecstatic reviews, Walker shrugs. But she's convincing in her assertion that she's indifferent to other folks' opinions — particularly those belonging to her mostly white, mostly male critics.
"I can see why some would feel [negative]," she says. "They can't think of God as a woman, certainly not God as a black woman. I think for white men in particular, it would be hard not to ridicule."
Walker has her own agenda, one that — depending on where the listener is coming from — may seem either puzzling, silly or the ultimate in sensible thought. The former college professor and Ms. magazine editor talks reverently about discovering "the goddess in myself," and says she hasn't watched TV for eight years ("I mean, I've seen 'Cosby' three times") because the tube is "a pallid representation of life. … For black people it means getting lost in a reflection that's not even your reflection."
Life, she ventures, is too precious to waste on trivialities. In fact, it's a lot like her hair. Undeniably knotty, and perfect in its knottiness.
Take writing. While some writers anguish over every word, Walker's words flow as gracefully as the hands that trace arabesques in the air when she speaks. The hard part, she says, is the knot-untying that precedes writing them.
"The patriarchal world — meaning the white man, basically — deals with knots by just cutting through them, which never teaches you anything," she says. "Whereas untying a knot teaches you because you have to really work at it."
The most difficult part of writing, she says "is living through the knots. … For instance, the cardinal sins — greed, lust, gluttony, whatever. When you're afflicted with one of those, you just feel like this is not going away, you feel terrible. But if you keep at untying the knot, you get to the place where the knot started. And you can dissolve it, untie yourself. That's where, as a writer, I work hardest — in my psyche.
"After untying the knot, the freedom is so great, the joy is so strong, that the actual writing is ecstatic."
For Walker, the notion of perfect happiness is as real as the teacup she sips from. In fact, her next project, she says, won't be a new book but taking the time to "sink into ecstatic oblivion for a long time. … I don't see my life as being about writing books. It's about living."
She seems quite a different Alice from the one who, in the 1960s, was so furious about racism that she traveled from New York to the Deep South to work for voter registration. She doesn't seem at all like a woman whose unflinching — some say gratuitous — depictions of black men's brutality toward black women in "Purple" caused a furor when the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel was published in 1982.
But Walker has always liberally mixed love and anger, in life and work. She recalls how, back in Mississippi, she confronted one of her civil rights co-workers, a Jewish lawyer named Mel Leventhal who was "as white as he could be," and demanded, "What are you doing here?
"He just kind of smiled and then proceeded for the next seven years to absolutely astonish me. … He's an incredibly wonderful human being." Walker eventually married Leventhal (they're now divorced) and they had a daughter, Rebecca, now a 19-year-old Yale freshman.
"He stopped being white real fast and started being, just, well, himself. So much so that when people say things like, 'How did you marry this white man?' I feel this great weariness. He helped teach me you can't really just dismiss [whites] because as long as they have life, they can surprise you."
One thing that surprised Walker was some folks' vehement reaction to the book "The Color Purple" and the 1985 movie version of it, particularly to their depiction of black male characters. She says she would have better understood their point "if all black men were in the book. We're talking about two or three black men at the most. And common sense would tell anyone that three black men do not represent a race."
She cocks her head to one side. "And you know, I can't help actually liking men. That's a tough one because they make me so mad, almost as mad as black people sometimes. And yet, there'll be that one that's so wonderful. And the other thing is, you know I … "
Walker pauses; for once, the words don't flow quite so easily.
"Although some people think of my work as being really harsh, I tend to see it as an expression of my love. I think that it is really because I care so deeply that I do try to put my real feelings out, to say, 'This is actually how I feel about what you're doing; this is how you look to me.' And it's a great risk; black men are so used to always being battered, they think that whatever you say that is not flattering is battering."
She stares for a moment at her hands, which are curled gently around her teacup. She looks up.
"I'm sorry that they feel that way. All I can ask them is to try to believe that what I'm saying is not about attacking, but an expression. It's a plea."
However much "Purple" disappointed some readers, Walker felt that the "ancestors" for whom she wrote it — "the old people I had known, lived under" — were satisfied.
"I wanted to express their real life, without any gloss, to express sort of the passion and the complexity and the juiciness of it," she says now. "I felt I had done everything I needed to do for them, and that I was free. And what I discovered … was that when you think the door has closed, a bigger one opens. So now rather than feeling in contact with ancestors that go back a hundred years, I find I'm in touch with ancestors going back 500,000 years."
Still, Walker's most obvious sources of strength, of love, are a bit more earthbound. One is Rebecca, a strikingly pretty young woman who three years ago — while still in high school — decided she should find a new house for her busy mother.
"That little woman — she said, 'What do you require in a house, Mom?' And I told her 'Light, lots of light. And to not see buildings when I look outside.' " After school, Rebecca and a real estate agent scoured the Bay Area, eventually settling on this house, which sits at the base of a hillside park.
Walker's face is almost embarrassingly soft when she describes Rebecca, who makes films and, her mother says, writes beautifully. "You know, this great friendship of ours is pretty eternal. And one thing that I often tell her is that no matter what, I will always be with her. It's my sense that the real reincarnation is not necessarily coming back as someone else but, just as you inherit your mother's brown eyes, you inherit part of her soul."
Then there's Robert Allen, a black writer Walker met back in 1962 when she was a student at Spelman College in Atlanta, the man who has shared her life for the past 11 years. Now her voice gets conspiratorial, takes on a "let's us girls just chat" lilt.
"His sister and I were very good friends. … Robert and I met in class, but nothing happened. Then he married somebody and I married somebody. But we never really forgot.
"So when I came out here, he was living here." The eyebrows rise knowingly, her smile broadens. "Well, he came to visit. He was always doing that — you know how they do, they come to visit to 'see how you're doing.' " She guffaws.
"And he finally came one time when I had finally decided that I was getting a divorce. And I mentioned it to him — of course I would, right? Well, he was married, had a baby. It was a big knot. But we untied it. And I think we have learned just that if you struggle together sincerely and honestly, try to bring your real, best self to every encounter, that you just keep reaching higher and higher ground."
Of course, none of this should suggest that Walker doesn't still have plenty to get angry about.
"Look at what's in the water, our poisoned air, plutonium in the food chain," she says. "People have assaulted the earth and made things really bad. The least we can do is make it right, to heal it. We can do it, but will we do it?"
Sometimes, the work that needs to be done, the chasms that require bridging, seem overwhelming, even for a spirit as positive as Walker's. And not everyone, she realizes, can understand the hallowed ground on which she treads.
"I know this is not what our culture is about," she says slowly. "I feel very connected to the planet, to the cosmos. … And when you really find out what is the real thing, you know, the rest doesn't really sustain you."
And, she hints, it isn't as if other folks can't get there.
"Ten years ago, I had started learning to meditate. … And I was having a really hard time, with my divorce, with moving, an incredibly painful time. But I remember my teacher — who was good at teaching meditation but not at much else — I remember the last day, she took me through a practice and I finally understood. And I started to laugh.
"It felt so good. And in a way, I haven't stopped laughing."