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Reviews from the 1983 National Book Awards
Anna Clark writes:
I picked up my copy of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple to jog my memory of it for this review. I found myself swallowing it whole, reading it cover to cover in one day, and not merely remembering why I liked the book, but loving it once again.
Walker accomplishes a rare thing: She makes an epistolary novel work without veering into preciousness. Rather, Celie’s full-bodied voice emerges, a moody and honest voice, in an inherently intimate literary form. While she is the protagonist of the novel, she is not the protagonist of her world — and so, she writes letters to God that no one is expected to read. Celie’s letters are written in broken dialect, resulting in surprising juxtapositions and lyricism. As she evolves over the forty years that the novel takes place, so do her letters evolve in nuanced observation and authority. Reading the novel, you don’t merely watch Celie change; you feel it in the beat and rhythm of her words.
Celie’s letters carry the tale of isolation and love, of violence and sexuality, of poverty and ambition, of domination and independence, of self-awareness and community, of the chafing relationships between black men and black women, and of an inward spirituality that’s not easily contained.
While centered on Celie’s life in a small Georgia town, and later in Memphis, the scope of the book widens with the strange and hilarious characters who people the pages. From the proud singer Shug Avery to Sofia, whose bluntness in punished, to Harpo, who eats constantly so he can be sure to be bigger than his wife, The Color Purple is a strong contender for offering the best secondary cast of characters in twentieth-century literature. As well, the novel takes a global turn in the second half of the book through the letters and life of Nettie, Celie’s sister, in Africa. Such vividness and variety of characters eases the burn of what might have been a claustrophobic earnestness in the novel.
The Color Purple –winner of both a National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize–remains a frequent target of censors still today, nearly thirty years after its publication. The intimate location of the reader in the scenes of violence and sexuality have troubled many. But it is through the uneasiness — and the lure of Celie’s voice and the surrounding cast — that we are disarmed.
The Color Purple is about the search for joy. Reading my copy of it again, I found joy myself.
Anna Clark is a freelance writer and the editor of Isak. She lives in Detroit.
Tayari Jones writes:
Some novels contain characters—folks that can live only within the confines of a book—but The Color Purple features people—folks that exit the pages and move in with you like relatives from out of town. We know that a work has thoroughly permeated the culture when the names of the characters become a complex shorthand. I have a friend who calls me “Celie” after the down-but-not-out heroine of Alice Walker’s masterpiece. In return, I call her “Nettie” to let her know that we are like sisters. When a woman turns the table on an abusive spouse, she is said to have “got all Sophia on him.” And when you can figure out how to be strong and sexy at the same time, then you’re in Shug Avery territory.
Alice Walker walked through the fire to give us The Color Purple . Essence magazine is said to have refused to run an excerpt, and Ishmael Reed led the charge to brand her as a man-hater. Literary discussions inspired by the novel often devolved into shouting matches, split along gender lines. Nevertheless, like Celie herself, Alice Walker persisted. The Color Purple was adapted into a film that I have seen no fewer that a dozen times. Sometimes, late at night, someone in the twitterverse will condense a meaningful scene into 140 characters: “I may be black. I may be ugly. But I’m here.” Shortly thereafter that one message will be re-tweeted all over the place by those of us who want the world to know that we, too, are still here—in the world, and on the pages of an enduring classic work of American literature.
Tayari Jones is the author of the novels Leaving Atlanta and The Untelling , as well as an Assistant Professor in the MFA program at Rutgers-Newark University.
Video Commentary on The Color Purple from the New Jersey Performing Arts Center