Colour-me purple

Michele Roberts investigates an annus horribilis; The Same River Twice by Alice Walker, Women's Press, pounds 16.99
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The Independent Culture
Alice Walker is the best-selling and Pulitzer prize-winning writer whose novel The Color Purple, filmed by Steven Spielberg, brought her international fame. Her work, inspired by black American tradition and experience, fuelled by idealistic visions of Africa, has perhaps spoken more strongly to female readers than to male. She has been a feminist icon whose books crash through the barrier separating popular from literary fiction. People felt The Color Purple really mattered. Its heartrending story of black women's struggle for joy and meaning against a background of poverty and abuse was a powerful witness account for many, while it also opened Walker to accusations of badmouthing and betraying black men as violent feckless misogynists. What was clearly a tremendously powerful storm in the black community blew up and bruised many. Because the film of the novel reached millions who had not read the book, the brouhaha was considerable.

This book is Walker's attempt to look back and assess the possible damage. She has sub-titled it "A Meditation on Life, Spirit, Art, and the Making of the Film The Color Purple Ten Years Later." The over-use of capital letters perhaps hints at her anxiety. What she has produced is a self- defence and a self-portrait in which the desire to be honest battles it out with the need to make herself look as virtuous as possible. Her writing is so charged with personal feeling that it invites the reader into a dialogue and seems to welcome a personal response. Mine, I'm afraid, ended up as a compound of uneasiness, embarrassment and irritation.

While Walker's struggles against her attackers command our sympathy, this is then alienated by the way she chooses to present herself as eternally wonderful and wise. Most people would probably find it difficult to cope if suddenly thrust into the limelight of world fame, but Walker hides what I suppose to be her insecurity and fragility under a cloak of such monstrous egotism that her claims to writerly sensitivity and womanist consciousness invite derision. Sometimes, when she keeps it simple, she says it well, as when she criticises the Bible for inculcating misogyny in men and self-hatred in women. When she turns to herself, however, she muffs it: "For that great gift, that I am me, with this spirit, this hair, this skin, this fluid, whose sexuality, this vision and this heart, I dare not apologise. I am too grateful." Self-assertion or protesting a little too much?

While Walker invokes images of shamanism as models for writing, and views her characters as spirits still whispering in her ear, the reader can also call up those problems with a saviour complex that sometimes afflicts female writers accused of being, or choosing to be, spokeswomen for their sex. While writing a novel can indeed feel like being possessed, as voices stir and rise in the imagination and haunt us, this doesn't mean we are messiahs.

Similarly, while I think a mystic's view of life as a breathtaking unity is a valid one, I still prefer this to be expressed elegantly rather than pompously, modestly rather than boastfully. I think you're asking for trouble otherwise.

Walker's book comprises extracts from her diary of the making of the film, which were clearly written with publication in view, her own script, finally abandoned by Spielberg, an example of black male criticism, plus replies defending the film and the book, fan letters from men and women, accounts of her dreams and visions and endless paragraphs of self-justification and self-praise. While modern ideologies of writing put the onus on authors to be either politically correct saints or fascinatingly corrupted sinners, both of which are irrelevant and false when it comes to considering the text, Alice Walker suffers from a subtle variant of this need-to-biographise. If you believe that you're powerless, you may not be able to recognise the power you do have. You may not be able to recognise the middle terrain of femme moyenne sensuelle and may feel obliged to transcend mess, muddle and conflict by becoming "perfect". Yet here and there in this odd book, particularly when she speaks about black people's experience of racism, Walker's voice is clear and calm, and reminds you of the narrative tone of The Color Purple itself. At the end of that novel, I remember a feisty and moving speech by the female character Shug about God being joyfully embodied in all the sensual material delights of this world like love, sex and food. I hope Alice Walker lets herself re-enter that earthly paradise.