In a Wide-Ranging ‘Herstory,’ Novelist Alice Walker Takes On the Universe : The Color of Conviction

Times Staff Writer

The caller from St. Louis, Mo., has just finished telling radio talk-show host Michael Jackson that he is proud to be white and that he is “tired of taking the rap and hearing their bull about how we owe ‘em something.”

Then Alice Walker, the black author of “The Color Purple,” suggests that the man actually read her latest novel, “The Temple of My Familiar.”

“You will see that I go to great lengths to prove that you and I have the same mother,” she tells him.

Her voice is quiet, unwavering, with a gentle lilt to it. She sounds as if she wants to relieve the caller of his anger.


“Yeah, well . . . ,” he says, momentarily flustered. “Everybody can have their beliefs on, um, hereditaries (sic) and spirits. I mean, nobody knows for sure on that. But, you know, I just don’t like the put-downs (in the book) on how we got run out of Africa because of our pale skins . . . . I’m glad to be in America.”

She Doesn’t Try to Offend

And so is Alice Walker.

It is a point that she makes repeatedly, in nearly every one of her public appearances.

She speaks, and writes, of racism, sexism, oppression and callousness. Her words are stark and raw, her emotions unfiltered.

“I don’t go around trying to offend (people),” she says in an interview later in her Beverly Hills hotel room. “But, in fact, I do have a particular history and a particular point of view. And I express that.

“Once you feel loved by the universe,” she says, pulling off her shoes and socks and then folding her knees close to her chest, “you’re already accepted and you’re not really concerned about offending people.”

That’s the way it is with Walker, 45, widely regarded as America’s premier black woman author, a gentle, impish woman with the same “reggae singer’s locks” as one of the characters in her new novel.

On first blush, she often shocks, then she will astound, but always she will move people. While some may be disquieted by what they see as her radical dogma, harsh and slightly kooky, others find her message inspirational.

She is one with the universe, she says. And so are you.

“You don’t always have to be doing something,” she says. “You can just be, and that’s plenty.”

But being for Walker, these days and always, doesn’t mean being idle. She writes--poems, short stories, essays, children’s books, biographies and novels--and she marches--to protest apartheid, the poisoning of the environment and to protect women’s right to abortion, to name but a few of her causes.

The latest expression of Walker’s point of view can be found in “The Temple of My Familiar,” released today by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. The novel, which Walker calls “a romance of the last 500,000 years,” flutters in and out of the lives of three principal pairs of characters and, ultimately, weaves them all together.

There’s Suwelo, a middle-aged professor of history, and his former wife, Fanny, in search of herself and in love with spirits. Another pair is Arveyda, a rock star, and his Latin American wife, Carlotta. And then there’s Miss Lissie, a woman of countless past lives, and her companion, Hal.

Miss Celie and Shug, late of “The Color Purple,” also put in appearances, as do a host of other characters, some of them speaking from as far back as primeval Africa. Parables, about everything from loss of innocence, to sexual exploitation, to geopolitics, are tossed about freely. Eons come and go in a few pages.

Walker’s voice, and her messages, come from the mouths of nearly all her characters.

“The fact is that when you do something from your heart,” she says, “you leave a heart print.”

Walker was in Los Angeles late last week on the first stop of a national tour to promote “The Temple of My Familiar,” which has a first printing of 175,000 copies, and which, like all her works, she first wrote in longhand--often while sitting in bed.

“I have to do it first in longhand. It’s just more real, more organic, and I feel that I get to be with it more.”

Walker says she’s never done a book tour, being a private person who likes to garden and putter around her Victorian house in San Francisco and not enamored of media hype or letting strangers poke around where they haven’t been invited.

Criticism Can Sting

Her partner of 11 years, writer Robert Allen, is making the trip with her.

“I’m really just checking it out,” Walker says, “and I may not last, you know, because I get really tired easily. But I wanted to see what it was like.”

And how it was, in the beginning at least, was not entirely felicitous.

The radio caller from St. Louis, for instance, was reacting to a Time magazine review that dismissed “The Temple of My Familiar” as “a novel of allegations,” where the principal narrators “reveal themselves as dictators manque , people who believe that the truth is whatever they happen to say and who will tolerate no dissenting opinions.”

The New York Times, meanwhile, found the novel--her first since “The Color Purple"--ideologically tendentious and grating, with “the same feeling of over-ambition about it that one sees in a batter so determined to hit a home run that she swings before the ball is even pitched.”

Such criticism stings, of course, but doesn’t appear to penetrate the spiritual core of Walker, a woman powered by her own convictions much like Shug is when she imparts The Gospel According to Shug in “The Temple of My Familiar.”

“I don’t think it has much to do with me actually,” Walker says of those who disparage her work. “I think it has more to do with how they feel when they read me, if they read me.”

She seems saddened, and mildly annoyed, that readers might focus on what she calls “quote messages” in “The Temple of My Familiar,” and in the process, lose sight of the novel as a whole.

“I don’t really think of myself as writing messages,” she says. “I think that all I wanted to say is said by the total novel. I’d like (readers) to learn something about connection and something about feeling for the Earth and for the animals and trees and other human beings on the Earth. And I’d like them to enjoy it.

“I’d like them not to feel defensive, not to feel that they are being attacked, not to feel anything but, you know, ‘Here is a novel. It stretches over a great number of years. This may not be how I see the world, but this is how someone sees the world and it would be very nice to just give myself over as I read this book and feel whatever I feel without fear.’ ”

‘The Color Purple’

If Walker herself has felt any fear of expression, it all but vanished after the phenomenal success of her 1982 novel “The Color Purple,” which sold 4 million copies, garnered the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award for fiction.

“It’s quite different now,” Walker says, breaking into a huge grin that peals off into a belly laugh. “It’s very nice. I like it. I do. I do.”

And it was Steven Spielberg’s movie adaptation of the novel, Walker acknowledges, that led millions of people to discover her as a writer.

“That’s how my family read me in the first place,” she says. “They’d never read me. But when they saw the movie, they thought, ‘Gee, there must be something to this.’ . . . And what was important to me was being able to have a movie that would actually show in my hometown, Eatonton, Ga., population 4,000 . . . and would reach all of my readers who don’t read, who can’t read.

“It’s wonderful because . . . I think I really felt my first rush of happiness about the commercial success when someone told me that the people on the IRT subway in New York were reading it. Now that made me happy because I had ridden that subway from Brooklyn to Manhattan for many years myself and all the women--mostly women reading, you know--were reading these escape, romance novels. . . . And I used to think, ‘Well, gee, I would like to write a book that would be so riveting that they would be reading it instead, and it would be about them.’ ”

But Walker adds that even she was stunned at what she calls the “level of connection . . . the sheer this-is-my-story-ness” of the way people, men and women, reacted to “The Color Purple.”

“I mean, the men who have written to tell me, ‘I am Celie,’ and then they go on to tell me their story. And sure enough, you know, there are so many male Celies, who feel abused and who overcome. Because I hated that many people think it’s about abuse and drudgery and sadness, when, in fact, it’s about transcendence.”

As the protagonist of her own story, Walker has transcended beyond a life of rural poverty in central Georgia, where she was born the youngest of eight children to a sharecropper and his wife, who worked as a maid.

With a state scholarship, Walker attended Spelman College in Atlanta and, from there, Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y. After college, she won a fellowship to Africa, where she traveled for a summer in Kenya and Uganda. Her first book of poems, “Once,” was written there.

Back in the States, Walker went home to Mississippi in the late 1960s to register voters, work for welfare rights and begin recording the stories of the people she met along the way. And it was during those seven years that she met and married Mel Leventhal, a civil rights lawyer. Their daughter, Rebecca Walker, now 19, is a history major at Yale.

But it was long before womanhood that Walker began her odyssey inside her imagination.

“My sister tells me this, and I think it’s true. She says I used to always, from the time I was 2 or 3, talk to imaginary people and beings at length. And I think what that means to me now, as someone who, you know, still does that, who writes novels with these characters, it’s just that I always did have a sense of connectedness to everything.”

Started Writing Early

By the time Walker was in fourth grade, she had started to write, keeping a notebook and writing poems. One of her favorite authors was the Russian novelist and social theorist, Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy.

“I grew up on Tolstoy, and there’s nobody more different from me than Tolstoy, one would think. A white, upper-class Russian man, and I love his work (because) it’s true. And he has a real soul, and he’s able to, you know, to care so deeply about issues and human beings, that he can get into them and really share his own feelings about them with the reader.”

Which is, of course, what Walker says she aims to do herself.

“You know, it’s a tragedy in a way that Americans are brought up to think that they cannot feel for other people and other beings just because they are different. They think they’re different. It’s very limiting.”

It was a similar shortsightedness, Walker believes, that caused the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to deny the movie version of “The Color Purple” even a single Oscar, despite 11 nominations.

“I don’t think they could accurately judge ‘The Color Purple’ because I frankly think they were intimidated by the controversy (about the film’s portrayal of black men) . . . . If they had real integrity they would take a stand if they thought it was good. And the work was good.”

And Walker’s latest work, too, is bound to engender controversy. It lays bare her own spiritual beliefs--"Actually, my full title that I’ve given myself at this juncture is a ‘pagan agnostic ecstatic,’ ” she says--and it depicts God as a black African woman.

“And that will be very good news for some, and very bad news for others,” Walker says. “But it should be interesting.”