'The Color Purple' Author Alice Walker On Writing Black Women Author Alice Walker describes the spiritual experience of writing The Color Purple.

Men Are Not The Center Of Alice Walker's Universe

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FAITH FANCHER, BYLINE: Reviewers say of author Alice Walker that she is exceptionally brave. She takes on subjects that would scare off most writers. Her latest novel, "The Color Purple," explores the survival of Black women in a harsh world of rape, incest and domination in the Deep South. But Walker says that "The Color Purple" is more. It's a story about heroic lives and love as well. I asked her how the main characters in the book - Celie, Nettie and Shug - developed.

ALICE WALKER: I was living in Brooklyn, and I kept thinking that I wanted to write a story based on some things that, you know, had been interesting to me, some things that had happened, you know, in Georgia, some things that were happening to me. And I wanted very much to get in touch with sort of the spirits of these people. And I knew they existed, but they wouldn't come in New York. They just really didn't like New York, and so I had to move. So I moved out here. And they like San Francisco a little better, except they didn't like earthquakes.

FANCHER: (Laughter).

WALKER: So I had to take them up to a little town called Boonville in Northern California. And it looked so much like Georgia that they loved it.

FANCHER: I see.

WALKER: And so they started coming. And we started having a wonderful time.

FANCHER: Did they talk to you?

WALKER: Oh, yes. Well, you know, the characters do. I mean, they talk to me. They talk to each other. They grow bit by bit. But I was mainly, you know, doing a lot of swimming and a lot of just hiking in the woods and a lot of lying about in meadows and dreaming and gardening. And - you know, and they developed.

FANCHER: The entire book is written in letters. Celie, the main character, starts to write to God the day that a man she thinks is her father rapes her. She finds out later it's her stepfather. But through most of the book, she thinks the man is her father. And she starts writing to God, and the whole book is a series of letters, either Celie or her sister Nettie - after Nettie runs away, writing to her. Why did you pick that particular structure?

WALKER: Well, it had a lot to do with understanding the character of Celie and understanding that someone in Celie's position - her position is very similar, for instance, to slave women who would - if something like this happened to them, would have to write or pray to God. They would have no one else to rely on, no one else to tell. And Celie is very much in this tradition.

FANCHER: The women in your book are people that you cry over, you identify with, you want to love, you want to care about. The men in your book are, for the most part, despicable (laughter). Were you writing for a particular audience with this? Are you - don't care if men read this at all? Is this a woman's book you're writing?

WALKER: Well, I think that the book really accurately reflects what is happening in the world today and what has always happened in the world today. In fact, women are dominated by men. I think that many men will read it and rejoice. I think that there are men who really are not, you know, blind to what is being done to children and who will see in the character of Albert someone who becomes transformed. I think only very, you know, rather easily threatened people will be turned off by the men in this book. I think that Samuel, for instance, is a wonderful man. I don't see that he's despicable.

FANCHER: That's the preacher.

WALKER: And I don't see that Adam is despicable. The one who is really despicable is the man who raped Celie. And Albert is despicable until he changes. But this is life. People do become and are despicable, and they are capable of change.

FANCHER: But what I meant was the women - none of the women in your book, even though they do go through changes, are evil like a lot of the men are. I mean, the women seem to be more characters that you understand why it is they are the way that they are. The men, I didn't understand why they were the way they were. They just seemed to be background noise more so for the women to interact with each other and with them, rather than any one of them standing out. And you can say, oh, here's a character and I can understand why he's going through the changes he's going through.

WALKER: Well, you know, I think in any book, you choose your main characters, and the main characters in this novel are Celie, Shug and Nettie, and it is about the bonding of women. And these are women for whom men are not central. I say of myself and I say of them that men are not the center of my universe; I am the center of my universe. So I think if you look at it from that perspective, you can understand the structure of the book and the characters of the people.

FANCHER: So the book is about some strong women and the bonding they go through but is not necessarily written only for a woman audience.

WALKER: Oh, definitely not, you know, any more than Tolstoy would write just for Russians.

FANCHER: (Laughter) Are you worried at all that the strong themes in your book - rape, domination, even lesbianism - will be a big turnoff for a large audience?

WALKER: Not at all. You know, I think that one of the reasons I wanted to have strong, beautiful, wonderful women loving each other is because I think that people can deal with that. I have no fear whatsoever. I think that the people who are uptight and bigoted and afraid in their own lives will have difficulty. But Black people, for instance, you know, the majority of them, I really don't think are small-minded and bigoted. I think that they can easily understand anybody loving anybody. And this book is an excellent opportunity for them to try it if they don't already.

FANCHER: You say at the end of the book, I thank everybody in this book for coming - A.W., author and medium. Did you feel like this was a spiritual experience?

WALKER: Oh, definitely, yes. And I felt very chosen by the people in the book, and I truly thank them for coming. I enjoyed them so much the whole time I was writing. I was - I felt as if I was in the most delightful company imaginable.

FANCHER: Alice Walker, the author of "The Color Purple."

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