Details: (c) Alice Walker 2000; Pub 2001 The Women's Press; ISBN 0-7043-5077-7
Verdict: The way forward is with a broken heart is extremely effective.
Reasons for reading it: I had been putting off reading it because Walker is such a painful writer. The combination of feeling guilty about not being brave enough for it, and not having much else around that I haven't read once led me to overcome this reluctance.
How it came into my hands: One of the Dundee charity shops; yes, it's been sitting around preying on my conscience for about three years now!
The way forward is with a broken heart spoke directly to my heart. It's a really potent mixture of painful stuff with love and sensuality and exquisitely observed little character details, and it's political but only incidentally so, it doesn't rant or preach. It's practically poetry, with every word and every sentence weighing, and each piece as well as the collection as a whole has a very precise overall structure. I think that impression is reinforced by the fact that it's a series of short, though linked, pieces. It's not even a short story collection in the traditional sense; there are some short stories but a lot of them are just vignettes or essays, with almost no plot.
I was shocked to read a contemporary writer reminiscing about living through a time when it was not only illegal but physically dangerous to be married to a white man. Then I felt really stupid for being shocked by that; I had enough knowledge that if I'd stopped to put things together I would have realized that the whole segregation thing was not confined to the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. I'm ashamed to write down that until now I was so oblivious I thought all that violent racism stuff was from long ago history. But having the timescales straight means that a lot of stuff about American race politics that was previously opaque to me now falls into place.
The subject matter is extremely distressing but the book manages to be positive without any false optimism or trivializing the suffering of its characters and their historical counterparts. One of the pieces starts out with a passage that seems at first like the absolute worst of Walker's stuff, with a detailed account of a teenaged slave being raped by her owner. But the story goes on to discuss the effect on the protagonist of growing up hearing that kind of story from her older relatives. Unlike Possessing the secret of joy, tWFiwaBH keeps the almost impossible balance of writing about the most horrifying history without falling into despair. There's a lot of really excellent stuff about people being people in ways that transcend their external circumstances, love stories, failed relationships, explorations of sexuality and ageing. So it's sad and poignant and angering, but not emotionally manipulative or depressing or ranty, but rather inspiring.
A long time ago, my good friend PM gave me a blank book in which to write down things I found to be unquestionably true. I've never dared to write anything in it, but I'm considering starting with this:
We have reached a place of deepest emptiness and sorrow. We look at the destruction around us and perceive our collective poverty. We see that everything that is truly needed by the world is too large for individuals to give. We find we have only ourselves. Our experience. Or dreams. Our simple art. Our memories of better ways. Our knowledge that the world cannot be healed in abstract. That healing begins where the wound was made.
Now it seems that we might begin to understand something of the meaning of earnest speaking and fearless listening; something of the purpose of the most ancient form of beginning to remake the world...