When Alice Walker was eight, growing up in Georgia, her brother shot her in the eye while playing with a pellet gun. A passing white motorist in the Jim Crow South refused to stop, and by the time she reached a doctor, her right eye was blind. Yet she came to see the wound as a gift. “On a spiritual level it’s as though with my sighted eye I see what’s before me, and with my unsighted eye I see what’s hidden,” she says. “It’s illuminated life more than darkened it.”
Now 60, Walker has created an oeuvre of more than 27 books, of poetry, novels, short stories, essays, memoirs and children’s writing. For her admirers she is a seer who shatters taboos, from violence within black families and love across the US ‘colour line’ or between women, to female genital mutilation. With The Color Purple (1982), her most famous novel, which has sold more than five million copies in the US and been translated into 26 languages, Walker became the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer prize for fiction. Set in Georgia between the wars, the tale of Celie, sexually abused as a child by a father figure, then by her husband, before she finds a healing lover in his blues-singer mistress Shug, also provoked controversy. Fury at its portrayal of black men was amplified by Steven Spielberg’s 1985 Hollywood adaptation, with Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover and Oprah Winfrey.
A student of Buddhism for years, she says, “I don’t call myself a Buddhist. I’m a free spirit. I believe I’m here on earth to admire and enjoy it; that’s my religion.” Brought up a Methodist, she feels herself “born a pagan; my family were country dwellers. I love the natural world - it comes from my culture, which grew out of a people enslaved”, where succour was found in spirituality and nature. She sees her pagan roots as a link between her African, Cherokee and Scots-Irish lineages.
Her mother, Minnie Tallulah, was an “artist whose palette was a flower garden”. She picked cotton and worked as a maid, sewing quilts (also a passion of her daughter’s) and canning fruit. They were “hardworking people, very moral”, and “great storytellers; so full of richness and dignity that poverty, till I looked back, didn’t seem restrictive”. Defying the landowner, four-year-old Alice escaped the cotton fields by going to school. The scar tissue on her eye, not rectified by an operation until she was 14, left her feeling “disfigured and ugly”. Yet she believes her bookish solitude, and sense of being an outcast, honed her powers of sympathy and observation.
She was fascinated by the violence around her, the shootings and beatings of wives and children, though not in her own house. “My mother was very strong. Once, she picked up a coconut and smashed it against my father’s head. It taught me about women defending themselves and not collapsing in a heap.” Yet Walker, who adored her grandfathers, was aware of their past. “My mother’s mother was beaten by her husband; my father’s father was a batterer; an admirer of my grandmother Kate shot her down in a churchyard and she died in my (11-year-old) father’s arms. I wanted to understand why there was violence in the community — in all communities — and in my family.” Her first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970), traced three generations of a sharecropping family in Georgia, from the 1900s to the 1960s, with the murder of a woman by her husband based on a real case in Walker’s hometown.
Walker had a crisis in the mid-90s, enervated by undiagnosed Lyme disease, a tick-borne infection that can precede arthritis, and hit by her mother’s death in 1993 and the end of her relationship with Allen. She also acknowledged her bisexuality, or “homospirituality”.
“I always loved women and men, but I had to understand that,” she says. “I’d fall in love with couples. I can’t understand why more people don’t just love the spirit and what it arrives in.” She adds, “I’ve never understood why people hide. You have to give others the opportunity to love who you love. If they don’t accept it, it’s their loss.”
“I love learning more than almost anything,” says Walker, who recently took up African drums. “I’m fairly fearless about entering into relationships or travelling because, for me, it’s about curiosity.” She enjoys walking and swimming in the sea. “I hang out with my sweetheart: dancing, eating, driving around looking at the water.” Music is the art she most envies, and she cooperated on the musical of The Color Purple.