A sistah’s love fest

2010-09-11 10:21

A spirited evening of song and poetry with Alice Walker.

The Color Purple catapulted Alice Walker from obscurity to ­international acclaim and unrelenting scrutiny.

Prior to the publication of the novel in 1982, which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1983 and which was adapted to a film by Steven Spielberg, Walker was a reclusive poet, writer and civil rights activist.

Much has happened to Walker since The Color Purple.

A prolific writer who excels in a myriad genres – poetry, essays, short stories and novels – Walker is also a teacher, an editor, a publisher and an activist.

The Color Purple made Walker the first African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

But it also unleashed a firestorm of criticism from black American men outraged by Walker’s unsympathetic portrayal of the male ­characters in the novel.

More hullabaloo followed ­Walker’s 1993 collaboration with filmmaker Pratibha Parmar on the documentary Warrior Marks, about female genital mutilation in Africa.

Walker produced the film and her profile raised global awareness of the issue.

But the film got a roasting from African feminists as a “colonialist narrative that depicted African women as victims of their own ­culture” while one critic lambasted Walker for being on a “post-colon­ial civilising mission”.

A 2007 memoir penned by her daughter, Rebecca, entitled Black, White and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self, was described by the New York Times as a chronicle of her “efforts to cope with being hot-potatoed from city to city in the wake of her parents’ divorce and what she perceived to be her mother’s ambivalence about her existence”.

The book resulted in the ­estrangement of mother and daughter.

Walker has seen her fair share of controversy, but not enough to dim the critical acclaim garnered by her numerous novels, essays, memoirs and poetry collections.

She’s harnessed prodigious ­creativity to penetrating political commentary on a range of issues including spirituality, freedom, civil rights, free expression, love and preserving Earth.

For weeks prior to her visit, ­social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook vibrated with ­ecstatic paroxysms posted by old and young black women literati for whom Walker’s visit was a dream delivered.

Walker’s Gauteng-based acolytes had their dreams fulfilled at An evening with Alice Walker at the State Theatre in Pretoria on ­Tuesday.

Hosted by the Steve Biko Foundation, the arts and culture department and the American embassy, it featured Walker, Simphiwe Dana, Sibongile Khumalo, Ladies in Jazz and poet Natalia Molebatsi, who was the master of ceremonies.

Walker, who embraces paganism and a love of the earth, and who contracted Lyme disease from ­lying on the ground, was not only game, but completely comfortable with the spiritual rituals conducted by a group of sangomas.

Barefooted, she sat cross-legged on the floor as impepho was burnt and the spiritual healers went about their business.

“Can there be any doubt that I am home?” asked Walker as she took her place at the podium, still barefoot and now brandishing the ceremonial induku gifted to her by the sangomas.

Her audience, comprising a ­considerable chunk of local ­feminists, womanists, writers, ­poets and other women of letters, were not immune to the phallic symbolism of the traditional knobkierie and tittered in appreciation as she held it aloft.

Walker recited poetry mixed with commentary about a range of issues: the danger of forgetting one’s past, America’s lust for war, the ascent of Evo Morales and ­Hugo Chavez in Latin America, her love of Fidel Castro, the Dalai ­Lama and Aung San Suu Kyi.

She also unleashed lyrical broadsides no doubt intended for local ears, speaking about conspicuous consumers who “buy cars, cars, cars, for every day of the week”.

Soft-spoken and incisive, Walker balanced her razor-sharp analysis with humorous asides.

Dana and Khumalo held their own against the literary superstar, who gamely joined them on stage for a ­boogy during the finale.

The smell of impepho hung in the air throughout as if to give an ancestral nod of approval to an ­unequivocal sistah’s love fest of ­literature and song.

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