GATHERING BLOSSOMS UNDER FIRE: The Journals of Alice Walker 1965-2000. Edited by Valerie Boyd. Simon & Schuster. 560 pages. $32.50.
Over the course of her prolific and decades-long career, Alice Walker has published more than 30 books, including volumes of poetry, novels, short story collections and essays. She has a lot to say, and her words from her have cracked open worlds and moved and entertained us. Ella’s body of work is a generous contribution to American letters, and the recent publication of her journals, titled “Gathering Blossoms Under Fire,” is an extension of this gift.
The journals, compiled and annotated by Valerie Boyd, are divided into four parts, each covering a decade from the 1960s through the 1990s. She has given us her experiences of ella as a woman and a writer, and related health challenges she has faced. And she has shared her stardom from her. The result is a wonderful, intimate glimpse of being Alice Walker.
Walker grew up in Eatonton, Ga., and returned to the South as an activist in the civil rights movement after attending Sarah Lawrence College. She is a young writer in these journal entries, finding her voice de ella, struggling with money, and falling in love. She met her husband, Melvyn Leventhal, who was a law student working for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. She marched with Martin Luther King Jr., watched Nixon take office, witnessed the Vietnam War unfold. She wrestled with the South as a home that had hurt so much. And she started publishing her work by her.
Walker’s daughter Rebecca was born at the end of 1969, and the entries from the 1970s reveal an artist dedicated to her craft who is struggling with the demands of motherhood, the weight of depression and the confines of marriage. After returning to New York, Walker worked as an editor at Ms. magazine and confronted the white American brand of feminism that excluded black women. In the pages of her journal, she also works through her complicated and often troubled relationship with her parents and siblings. She expresses her feelings about love and thinks through her romantic involvements of her. And she creates an early outline for the novel that would bring her into the spotlight of fame.
Walker’s most famous work, “The Color Purple,” was published in 1982.
The novel, which centered on an abusive relationship based on her grandparents, won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, and was adapted for screen and stage. It is widely considered an essential work of American fiction.
But the book has also stirred controversy. “The Color Purple” appeared on the National Library Association’s list of 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 2000-2009, and Walker’s journals mention a few banning efforts. Perhaps the most difficult criticism for Walker came from within her own literary community. Acclaimed author Ishmael Reed criticized her portrayal of black men as rapists.
About his reaction, Walker writes, simply and with her characteristic sharp, generous wit, “Could this have been the sum of his profit from reading ‘The Color Purple?’ Astonishing!”
“Gathering Blossoms Under Fire” is filled with delightful literary gossip, including what she thought of Toni Morrison’s six-figure advance, and countless friendships with other writers and artists.
Fans of ’90s music will appreciate Walker’s entries involving her relationship with Tracy Chapman.
Boyd’s organization and annotations add helpful context to the journals, which were kept in various notebooks, often with large gaps and jumps in chronology. Boyd, who passed away earlier this year, also was the author of “Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston.” The most recent entries in “Gathering Blossoms” are dated January 2000, but the journals feel immediate and timely.
Walker wrestles with issues of racism, feminism, sexuality and book banning — all still pressing today.
In the latest entries, Walker’s journals reveal a woman who has fully stepped into her power and fame. During this time in her life, tourists took pictures of her front porch, and her people were fielding calls from news anchors Connie Chung and Tom Brokaw. Walker records how she copes with these challenges, the weight of being Alice Walker, but she also comes full circle from the young woman readers met in the beginning.
She has seen so much. On the page she seems to achieve peace with her parents, her sexuality, her faith in her, her role in her as a mother. She meditates and eats better and tries to get enough exercise. And despite the never-ending struggle that constitutes any life, she arrives at hope.