She did not even know that Pulitzer Prizes were awarded for fiction. But if Alice Walker was not aware of them, the three-member jury that selected her for the prize was certainly aware of her. Last April they announced that Walker’s extraordinary third novel, The Color Purple, had won the award, making her the first black woman novelist ever so honored. A rare success both commercially (over 25 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list) as well as critically (the novel also won the American Book Award), Purple has propelled Walker, 39, into the front rank of American writers. “It places her,” said The Nation, “in the company of Faulkner.”
The recognition comes only after Alice had toiled 15 years in relative obscurity as an essayist, activist, novelist, editor and poet. “As a culture we are conditioned to name brands,” she observes. “I think to many people I could not be a name brand until I was certified by the Pulitzer people. I understand it and I’m not angry at all.”
The Color Purple is an imaginative tour de force, a painfully vivid and absorbing rendering of the life of an uneducated black woman named Celie growing up in the rural South after the turn of the century. Celie’s story is told entirely through her letters, many of them addressed to God and written in her own language, a lyrical black folk English (see excerpt on page 85). “I had to have a forum that reflected her level of education and sensibilities,” Walker says of the unusual style.
Not all of it is pleasant. Walker writes unflinchingly of the repeated rapes inflicted on Celie by her stepfather, of the hapless girl’s marriage to an equally abusive widower and Celie’s gradual awakening through an affair with her husband’s mistress. While black authors like Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison have also broken through the resistance to any writing that might reinforce negative racial stereotypes, Walker focuses even more relentlessly on the sometimes violent sexual conflicts between black men and women. But she is equally concerned with their strengths. “These are all people who refuse to knuckle under,” explains Walker, who has patterned her characters after the people she has known best. Celie, for example, “is the voice of my step-grandmother, Rachel. I tried very hard to record her voice for America because America doesn’t really hear Rachel’s voice.”
Walker’s sympathy for the unheard derives from her own troubled girlhood. The eighth child born to Georgia sharecroppers, she was partially blinded when a pellet fired by her brother’s BB gun accidentally struck her in the right eye. The physical scar was eventually corrected by surgery, but Walker spent most of her childhood withdrawing from the world because of her disfigurement.
She found her refuge in books and went on to graduate at the top of her high school class, winning a scholarship to Spelman College in Atlanta. She completed her education at Sarah Lawrence in Bronxville, N.Y., worked briefly as a social worker, then joined the civil rights movement registering voters in Mississippi in 1966. There she met and married a Jewish civil rights law student, Mel Leventhal, and went with him to live in New York City. Of those times Walker says, “My own work was often dismissed by black reviewers because of my ‘life-style,’ a euphemism for my interracial marriage.” Now divorced, they share custody of their teenage daughter, Rebecca.
After conceiving the idea, Walker tried to start The Color Purple while living in Brooklyn, but couldn’t. Her Southern characters “didn’t want to be born in New York,” she says. “They’re not New Yorkers.” They’re not Californians either, but Walker headed for San Francisco in 1978, and four years later delivered the manuscript to Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
“Alice is unique,” observes Gloria Steinem, a friend and one of Walker’s earliest literary supporters. “Other people have written about the lives of poor people, but they were always written for an audience of nonpoor people. Alice writes in a way that everyone—including the people about whom she writes—can love and enjoy.” Says Walker of her writing: “I just always tried to do what was interesting to me.”
One of the groups that intrigue Walker is lesbian writers, because “in their view of the world, men are really secondary. And that’s a radical view of life. It’s more radical than anything going because it turns the world upside down.” Still, she admits, “I just happen to be in love with a man. But I choose women as a group over men, culturally speaking.”
Walker shares much of her life with political writer Robert Allen. She lives in an apartment in San Francisco’s Japantown. Weekdays are spent meditating, reading and writing—most recently, an essay about her recent trip to China. Weekends, Walker and Allen escape to a Mendocino cottage where Alice gardens. Though she was once chronically depressed over the events in her life, Walker is happier now—partly because of the emotional catharsis her writing provides and because she has simply mellowed with age. An added bonus was the $350,000 that Warner Brothers paid for the movie rights to Purple.
In October, Walker published In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens. The collection of essays, dating back to 1966, provides glimpses into the life of an earlier Walker—the college student who, pregnant and unwed at 21, considered slashing her wrists until someone gave her the money for an abortion. “Some passages embarrassed me,” she says. “I wavered from time to time and thought maybe I should delete, change things. The point is,” Alice Walker finally decided, “it’s my life and I really respect it. If there are flaws, that’s the way it was.”