In 2016, Early Bird Books partnered with Alice Walker to celebrate Black History Month by reading and discussing The Color Purple. Alice Walker announced the impromptu online book club on February 1, which also happens to be Langston Hughes’s birthday.
Though he was more than 40 years her senior, Alice Walker was lucky to know Hughes toward the end of his life. As she wrote in the post below, Hughes was “gentle, almost courtly, a great storyteller (and smoker!), as well as a sensitive man.” She then asked readers to keep both Hughes and her friend Zora Neale Hurston in mind as they began reading The Color Purple.
As promised, the end of the month yielded a wonderful discussion between Alice Walker and her readers about her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. You can read the entire conversation here, though we’ve highlighted some of our favorite questions and answers below.
Amy Jo Burns: This is my favorite book. When did that killer first line come to you?
Alice Walker: Every story has to start somewhere! We need to understand her silence. We need to understand how a man can make a child that he has abused remain silent about an atrocity. This is happening all over the world: just tell them something that makes them afraid, that they will lose their mother, their sibling, and you have them.
Suzanne Smith: I’m a quilter. Can you speak a bit to Celie's communication through quilts as well as the bond she and Mr. may have shared via handwork?
Alice Walker: The quilting that she does with Sophia actually is reminiscent of the quilting that happened when I was growing up, it was very popular. Women would get together [to] quilt. I realized this only later when I began to host women's circles in my house that quilting was in fact a women's circle. It was the only space where women could get together and exchange information. When Mister begins sitting with Celie he realizes that he can sit with women and not try to take over what they are doing.
Josie Rangel Pacheco: As a retired school teacher, I am interested to hear about your early education. Did a teacher inspire you to become a writer?
Alice Walker: In a way, yes because my teachers always gave me books. My birthday came around and my parents were very poor. We had very few books even though we all loved to read, but my teachers gave me books. I read really amazing books when I was quite young. I read Jane Eyre when I was 11 or 12 and loved books that really made me feel what the characters were going through.
Shannon Harrington: What inspired you to expound on Tashi's story? It has always intrigued me.
Alice Walker: When you have a character who has suffered a trauma as severe as Tashi, genital mutilation is such huge suffering, I could not leave her without exploring her story with the rest of humanity, as it's a problem that humanity will have to solve. Governments cannot do it alone.
[Editor’s note: Alice Walker explored Tashi’s story in her 1992 novel, Possessing the Secret of Joy.]
Debra Ellis Beck: Thank you for getting me to read The Color Purple again. In fact, I read it twice back to back. It means something different to me than it did when I read it as a young mother. Do you revisit works of literature and find a new point of view in yourself? I loved it before, but I feel more depth in understanding now.
Alice Walker: I always re-read books that mean a lot to me because I understand they are speaking to me in a way that they are guiding me in a direction and we are on the same path. As the path changes, so will my response and my relationship to the book, and I love that.
Jenea Johnson: I feel like I'm at a table sipping tea and just throwing these questions out! Does Shug's ideology and spirituality reflect your own? Where, in your opinion, [are] your personality and views most present in the book?
Alice Walker: I think I'm kind of everyone! I really do of course love Shug, and of course Celie, of course Sophia, and I really do love Mister. When I see the play it is truly Mister that I hug the longest and deepest. In some ways he has been the most abused because it took him so long to free himself.
Dee Dee Lefrak: What inspired you to have Celie become a pants designer?
Alice Walker: The notion that women in that period were often condemned to wearing dresses no matter what work they were doing, even milking cows or manual labor. Pants are liberating. I think that's why so many women since then have opted to wear jeans. She wanted her women to feel as free as she was beginning to feel. She was done with wearing dresses.
Tina Ann Forkner: I would like to know about the writing process behind The Color Purple. Thanks for writing such an important story.
Alice Walker: It started with getting a divorce from my husband in NYC. I was an editor at Ms. magazine and trying to write this book in NYC. But then I realized that none of these characters had ever heard the sound of traffic, so NYC was the wrong place to write this book. So I moved to a little town in northern California to surround myself with the sounds of nature.
Jenea Johnson: What is your connection with the actual color purple? Shug says she thinks God gets angry when you walk past a field and don't notice the color purple, what does that mean?
Alice Walker: It actually could be any color you don’t notice—anything!
Anything could be the color purple.
It’s a symbol.
It speaks to our blindness about the wonder of this place. This earth we live in.
People walk by amazing things [every] day and don’t notice it.
The Color Purple is chosen because [it] seems so rare, but it’s everywhere. It’s in the shadows of rocks, it’s in the shadows of many things.
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Featured photo courtesy of Warner Bros.