The Color Purple: Understanding Alice Walker’s Womanism

Many African American women have preferred the term womanism to black feminism. The term is taken from the Southern black folk expression of mothers to female children “you acting womanish”. Womanish girls acted in outrageous, courageous, and wilful ways as opposed to frivolous, irresponsible, and ‘girlish’. Womanism is rooted in the black woman’s historical experience of racial and gender oppression and consciously set itself apart from the white feminist movement. The Color Purple read in this context is a powerful, womanist narrative of the personal development of Celie, an African American woman living in early twentieth century rural Georgia.

The 1982 novel is written as a collection of letters she wrote to God and later, to her sister Nettie through her teenage and adult years. This epistolary form has been used repeatedly in women’s writings owing to its subjective nature. These letters are Celie’s expression of the violence and abuse she is regularly subjected to, first by her father, then by her husband. Written through the sensibilities of a teenage girl, it is an honest and brutal rendition. It is a novel that has been praised for breaking the silence around domestic and sexual abuse by narrating the lives of women in all honesty. Simultaneously, it has been subjected to numerous protests from some African American church groups and male writers who disapproved of showing love between women and violence against women within their community. Such is the politics of the African American woman, their voices are attacked both by the white supremacists and men within their community.

The narrative goes beyond a documentation of discrimination, as Celie tells us her story she also grows and changes. Celie’s transformation happens with the support of other black women giving importance to the black women’s sense of community, an important idea within womanist theory. Her interactions with Sofia, her stepson Harpo’s wife, shape her. Sofia is absolutely different from Celie, she would never let Harpo beat her but fight back. Through her interaction with Shug Avery, Celie begins to explore her sexuality, Shug also protects her from her husband. They are both ‘womanish’ role models for Celies. They are also women Celie nurses and aids, forging relationships of mutual support. We see colored women supporting each-other throughout the novel, even women who are otherwise shown to be at odds with each other. The Color Purple is about Celie exploring her sexuality and gaining autonomy, not her seeking a conventional marriage. This makes The Color Purple markedly different from the earlier 18th century woman centred novels which ended with the protagonist’s marriage and wealth acquisition or death.

It is a beautifully imagined journey of emancipation. Celie is soon disillusioned by the white Christian God. That is when she decides to stop writing letters to God and write to Nettie instead. Shug says, “When I found out I thought God was white, and a man, I lost interest.”(175)

Celie and Shug together explore an answer from within their own culture. The lives of the natives still living in Africa are also explored through Nettie’s experiences and her own attempt to negotiate between the Christian and Olinka traditions. The novel itself is written in the Black English vernacular questioning the hegemony of the language spoken largely by whites.

Celie’s quest for self development is hindered by both sexism and racism. Later, she also discovers that she is marginalised from dominant society by her sexual preference. According to the premise of intersectionality, race, and gender oppression does not merely ‘add up’. The Combahee River Collective Statement of 1977 helps us locate The Color Purple within the Black feminist (and womanist) struggle. It declares that Black women’s ‘liberation is a necessity not as an adjunct to somebody else’s.’ The novel is about Celie’s individual experience but can be seen as establishing the universality of a female and racial quest for selfhood. To read Alice Walker’s work outside this political context would be a gross act of unseeing. It is a novel that documents pain and suffering and yet it is essentially an optimistic work. There is the possibility of overcoming barriers, emancipation and even reconciliation. However, a positive ending does not mean an end to the conflict that drives the novel. The power structures of race, class, and gender are still in place. Would we say then that it is a book giving us a false sense of hope? Maybe, but being a part of Celie’s journey of emancipation sensitizes the reader. The novel engages in a transformation of the reader as the protagonist transforms. This power to move its reader is the revolutionary potential of The Color Purple. That is what makes it, in Peter S. Prescott’s words “A novel of permanent importance.”

Reference: WHAT’S IN A NAME? Womanism, Black Feminism, and Beyond by Patricia Hill Collins

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On Maps, Borders, and Nationality: Reading Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines

In writing The Shadow Lines, Amitav Ghosh has penned an eventful narrative of a young boy who stays in Calcutta and yet his world includes many parts of the globe. These are not places he has visited, but places he has read and heard about from his uncle Tridib and cousin Ila. One can easily relate to his longing for travel and his fascination with Ila’s luxurious life, who has moved across a number of foreign cities over the years. We learn of his family’s friendship with the English Price family, a bond born during the British Raj and spanning generations. We follow him as he visits London as an adult, meets the same people he met as a child, revisits the places he visited in Tridib’s stories and eventually gains an agonizing closure over a childhood trauma.

Beyond this personal story is a rich historical backdrop, we hear Tha’mma passionately recount her memories of the Swadeshi movement, we follow Tridib to London where he meets intellectuals during the Second World War and even explores a bomb site, the story of the Partition of British India is retold through the partition of Tha’mma’s childhood home, and the Communal riots of 1963-64 (Dhaka and Calcutta) are the setting for the novel’s climax. The Shadow Lines asks us to delve a bit deeper in history, understand how human lives have been affected, often tragically, by nationalist politics and the creation of borders. 

Amitav Ghosh’s metaphorical retelling of the partition is a divided house, a recipe by two brothers to avoid constant quarrels that in reality creates a sense of bitterness and hostility. The children who cannot recollect what lives on the other side can only imagine what the other half of the house looks like. They conceive the people on the other side of the border to be completely different from theirs, when in reality they are not so different, being their extended family. A seemingly quirky section, it does more than add a touch of humour to the story, it tells us the story of nation formation as Ghosh sees it. As India became a country, Pakistan became its ‘other’, its complete opposite. For Ghosh, the differences between the people of the two countries is imagined, a result of the bitterness that partition has created. 

The Shadow Lines explicitly defines the borders that mark territory as  artificial divisions created by politicians, calling them ‘shadow lines’, and implying that the nation itself is a social construct. The arbitrariness of borders is perhaps best conveyed in the journey undertaken by Tha’mma, the narrator’s grandmother, to bring her uncle, Jethamoshai, from Bangladesh to India. To Tha’mma, a Hindu man’s home is in India, but for Ghosh, the sense of belongingness, of having grown up somewhere creates ‘home’ and the Partition cannot change that. Travelling from Calcutta to Dhaka she expects to see a physical border between India and East Pakistan from the plane. To Amitav Ghosh, the drawing of borders on a political map cannot distance two nations that have a shared history and culture.  In fact, by showing different characters stuck in the same riot, the narrator in Calcutta and the others in Dhaka, The Shadow Lines gives us two cities, in two different countries that are as closely bound to each other as images in a mirror, one reflects the other. 

The ‘shadow lines’ that divide people can be overcome, by understanding each other. The narrator is able to connect with England when Tridib tells him stories about his travels. When Tridib points out places in the Bartholomew’s Atlas, the young boy gets a chance to relive Tridib’s experiences. He creates detailed image-maps of these places he has never visited. So much so that when he arrives in London, he astonishes the others by his knowledge of the city’s geography. He looks for the places Tridib described, recollects the stories Tridib told. He is capable of finding Mrs. Price’s house without a map, owing to his memory of an A to Z street atlas of London that his father had brought him as a child. As Yusuf Mehdi says in his critical analysis of Ghosh’s book, the ‘shadow lines’ between nations can be surpassed only through emotional bonding between people.
We often tend to see the political as distant from the personal, Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines is a reminder that very real people are affected by what we read in the news. It has the potential to build sensitivity in its readers and offers a critique of the mainstream understanding of nationalism.

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Toni Morrison’s Beloved Brings Back the Ghosts of More Than 60 Million Victims of Slavery in America

B-e-l-o-v-e-d, these were the only seven letters Sethe could get engraved on the tombstone of her two year old daughter, letters she thought would be enough. It is the spirit of this dead baby girl that haunts 124, Bluestone Road- a house that had no visitors- colored or white, newspapermen or preachers, speakers or friends. It’s not simply the house they are avoiding but the people in it.

There is little I can write here that can do justice to the experience of reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved. The horror that resides in its pages is not the vengeance of the ghost living in this house or the inescapable past of its characters. It is the horror of slavery, its routine separation of families, sexual violence and dehumanization. When you read Beloved, words can sting, laid bare before you is pain of the sort real people suffered. It is not an easy read, yet it is a novel you must read.

Being set after the end of the Civil War when slaves were emancipated, Beloved has most of its characters looking back to a time when slavery was not outlawed. The narrative opens in Cincinnati, the town Sethe, a runaway slave had escaped to 18 years ago, from the Garners’ farm in Kentucky- Sweet Home, which was neither sweet nor a home. It is repressed memories of Sweet Home that come back to her like  blood gushing from an open wound, when she finds Paul D, the last of the five male slaves that ‘belonged to’ Sweet Home, waiting for her at her porch.

The ghost that lives in Sethe’s house, leaving hand-prints on cake and shattering mirrors is not an evil ghost but a sad spirit. This spirit comes back in flesh as the ghost Beloved, she is an embodiment of Sethe’s past that haunts her and feeds on her. It is Morrison’s incredible literary genius that has given a mythic dimension to the historical and psychological suffering of slavery. Beloved is a historical novel dealing with slavery at its best and worse: the Garners’ patronizing ‘principled’ slavery, Sethe’s mother being a survivor of the infamous middle passage, the School teacher’s violent and abusive slavery which goes to the extent of studying African American slaves as animals; and Mr. and Miss Bodwin, abolitionists whose attitude to slavery presents an irony.

It is a novel dedicated to the sixty million and more who died because of slavery. It tells you about the personal experience of slaves, their lives, something the history of an institution won’t say. At the heart of Morrisson’s novel are separated families, it is the knowledge of Sethe’s separation from her husband that embitters the sweetness of her love for Halle, a devoted son who worked on Sundays for five years straight to free his mother. Baby Suggs’ eight children are reduced to memory. To Paul D and Sethe, whose loved ones are always vulnerable to slavery, freedom is “to get to a place where you could love anything you chose – not to need permission for desire.” Sethe’s fierce love for her children  gives a new weight to the idea of maternal love. As an enslaved woman, she is willing to go to any extent to protect her children from the inhumanity of slavery.

Slavery is an experience that is different for men and women in a patriarchal society and Morrison represents both in all their complexities. The slavery that devalues maternal care in enslaved women by taking away children, degrades men by denying masculinity. Mr. Garner can call his male slaves ‘my men.’ By presenting both male and female survivors of rape, she foregrounds sexual assault as an act of both gendered and racial domination. To Paul D, his not being a ‘man’ is a source of trauma, his memory of feeling less of a man than a farm rooster is both dehumanizing and emasculating. He is a man whose trauma has forced his memories into a tobacco tin heart. Beloved narrates suffering that no one wants to remember.

However, it is also a novel of resistance laced with a glimmer of hope. Sixo is an embodiment absolute resistance to slavery. He fights the white men even when his hands are tied. An old and drained woman, Baby Suggs, who gives up on living life, still continues to look for colour in the house- blue, yellow, and green. She shows little fear of the ghost living in her house. As she says, “Not a house in the country ain’t packed to its rafters with some dead Negro’s grief. We lucky this ghost is a baby…” Beloved is representative of this collective experience. The act of recording this experience is in itself an act of resistance, an attempt to restore the historical record, revealing history to be incomplete if not distorted. A Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, a Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the Nobel prize in Literature later, the significance of Morrison’s writings and its impact on American literature cannot be overstated.

Cover Image: Zarateman, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Weaving Together Magic Realism and Detective Fiction: Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold

If critical acclaim and a Nobel winning author don’t successfully draw you to The Chronicle of a Death Foretold, then let me tell you that it backtracks a murder enveloped in mystery, and yet there is no ‘solving the crime’. An entire town knows that Santiago Nasar is going to be killed by the Vicario twins. The death is so ‘foretold’ that the first line of the novella tells its readers that this is the day ‘they’ were going to kill Santiago Nasar, raising the traditional question of a Whodunnit- Who killed Santiago Nasar and why? What follows this curious statement is a skillful shift to mundane details. We are told that  Santiago Nasar got up at five thirty that morning to wait for the boat that the bishop was coming on. Busy wondering about the relevance of the mundane, we slip into the magical- a world where Santiago’s dreams about timber trees could carry death omens. Therein lies Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s well-known talent of integrating fantasy into otherwise realistic settings.

Magical realism is an untangling of reality, an attempt to discover what is mysterious in real human acts. Marquez was once quoted saying “In Mexico, surrealism runs through the streets. Surrealism comes from the reality of Latin America.” The use of the surreal, makes the Chronicle an extraordinary murder mystery in many ways. It is not a Sherlockian demonstration of scientific reasoning.  ‘Logically’ speaking, Santiago Nasar’s murder is essentially an act of honour killing. The magical realism of the text however goes beyond this logical explanation.

An incredible number of chance occurrences create the perfect conditions for Santiago Nasar’s murder, I will only mention a few. As the plot unfolds, it seems clear that the Vicario twins, who knew Santiago Nasar well, don’t really want to kill him. Why else would they announce their murder intentions to anyone who would hear it? They want someone to warn him.  As a result, almost anyone in the town could have warned Santiago Nasar but they simply fail to take the situation seriously. They are occupied with the bishop’s visit, who does not even step out of his boat.

The text tells us “No one even wondered whether Santiago Nasar had been warned, because it seemed impossible to all that he hadn’t”. Cristo Bedoya, the one friend who does try to warn him, fails to find him on time. Santiago Nasar also fails to notice an anonymous note of warning that has been slipped into his house. How can these be explained by mere chance? His mother fails to find anything odd about Santiago Nasar’s repetitive dreams of trees. She is a very well reputed interpreter of dreams, how could she then miss omens about her own son’s death? Was his death ‘fated’? Could nothing stop Santiago’s murder?

These fatal coincidences lend a sense of cosmic inevitability to the murder. It becomes the stuff of local legend. It is noteworthy that these coincidences baffle the investigative judge, a figure representative of western ideas of justice and governance. In using magic realism, Marquez is shaping an indigenous culture and in playing with the detective fiction genre, he is subverting western literary norms. We do not get a simple investigator but a journalistic figure attempting to ‘chronicle’ the events after they occur. He describes his task to the readers: “… I returned to this forgotten village to put the broken mirror of memory back together from so many scattered shards.”

Memories are indeed scattered in the chronicle, the townsfolk cannot even tell us ‘the truth’ about what the weather was like on the day of the murder. Some are convinced that it was a ‘radiant’ morning while others remember it to be ‘funereal’, foreshadowing Santiago’s death. How can we trust then the rest we hear about the murder? Tarnished memories mean that we may never know the truth. This is in stark contrast to Golden age crime fiction which was particularly obsessed with the idea of the ‘whole truth’ which is bound to come out in the end. 

The Chronicle is not about a simple revelation of the murderer, it is about taking a critical look at society, specifically at the insensitivity of honour killing.  The guilt of this murder is not upon the Vicario brothers alone. The Vicario brothers never feel guilty, they accept that they committed the murder, but maintain that they are ‘innocent’. Their belief that they had to murder Santiago Nasar to protect their family’s honour never wavers. The entire town claims that Santiago Nasar’s death was a tragedy, but all of them fail to warn him. Why? Perhaps, it was an act of social discrimination, they were all jealous of the wealthy, young, and handsome man; especially because he was an Arab, an outsider. Maybe the town also believed that the medieval code of honour had to be upheld. It is magic realism of this murder mystery that allows the guilt of Santiago Nasar’s death to be placed upon all the townsfolk as a whole and the code of honour that reigns in society.