The Temple of My Familiar
By Alice Walker
I first read Alice Walker at college when I was studying English Literature and one of our books was The Color Purple. I absolutely loved this book, and believe that the moment I read about Celie and how she was raped by her ‘father’- turned out to be her stepfather- was a moment that would define the rest of my life.
It had recently been revealed that my cousin went through a similar ordeal, at a similar age, so that probably had a lot to do with it.
So it was with some excitement and some trepidation that I picked up my second Alice Walker novel- In the Temple of my Familiar. From a feminist point of view it is incredible- the way she constructs the story of many women from many places and times, and the subtlety in which their numerous sufferings are revealed. It is compassionate but never patronising and makes the reader feel such an array of emotions.
From an anthropologists point of view it is fascinating. The character of Lissie is indescribable in few words but I will give it a shot! Lissie is an old black American woman who can remember all her past lives- right back to when she was a pygmy in Africa and was living with her ‘big cousins’. Every single story she reveals about these times has something interesting to say about the present situation today. Had the book been only about her I would have been enthralled!
But there are so many different characters- male and female, spanning continents: Latin and North America, Africa and Europe, spanning time zones: the 1980s, the colonial age, the slave trade. Our wonderful Celie and her lover Shug, from The Color Purple, even make their appearance. The way Walker weaves the web of these stories throughout the book is wonderful.
And every now and then, right in the middle of one of these stories, the reader comes across a spider in the web, that jumps out at you unsuspectingly. A little snippet of wisdom that hits you full on and you think ‘yes! Exactly right!’ Covering so many issues: sexism, racism, government corruption, religion. I have included a few quotes below to give you an idea- but without the surrounding story they do not have the same effect.
Throughout the book one question kept popping up in my mind:
How can one writer be so wise? Give me more Alice Walker!
‘’The religion that one discovered on one’s own was a story of the earth, the cosmos, creation itself; and whatever ‘’God’’ one wanted could be found not down the long road of eternity, but right in one’s own town, one’s home, one’s country. This world. After all, since this world is a planet spinning about in the sky, we are all of us in heaven already!’’
‘’ ‘I realise,’ she whispered to Nzingha,
‘that there is not a single government in the world I like or trust.
They are all, as far as I’m concerned, unnatural bodies, male-supremacist private clubs.’ ‘’
On the male view of sex:
‘’And I was brought up on Playboy, in which the goal of every red-blooded man is to pierce as many women as possible, to think of their minds, their creative gifts, and their professional abilities as added sexual stimulation, nothing more. I loved that joke inspired, I’m sure, by the Playboy mentality: What did you do with the female scientist who discovered a cure for the common cold? You screwed her. Yuk, yuk.’’
‘’ Besides, in her view, joining with another was such a sacred affair there was almost no way it could be done with other people present, a good number of them strangers, friends of friends, relatives you didn’t like, and others who couldn’t possibly appreciate the significance of the moment.’’
On white supremacy:
‘’ …black is a colour the sun loves. The African white man could not blame the sun for his plight, not without seeming ridiculous, but he could eventually stop people from worshipping it. He could put a new god in its place that more closely resembled himself: cold, detached, given to violent rages and fits of jealousy. He needed to create a new god, since the one the rest of his world worshipped was so cruel to him. Burned him. How fortunate that he finally stumbled into the Mediterranean, into Europe. The coolness must have felt exquisite.’’
‘’She thinks of white feminists she knows who are happy that they can at last express their anger. In their opinion, this is something white women have never done. They think the ability to express anger is something the white woman has to reclaim. But this seems like a delusion to Fanny. For she knows the white woman has always expressed her anger… against people, often men, but primarily women, of color. And what did that get her? Well, today it made it hard for black women to talk to her, because they not only remember the white woman’s ability to express anger, but they expect a replay of this anger any minute. These same women, interestingly, thinks Fanny, always claim they fear the black woman’s anger, and for that reason say they are afraid to struggle seriously with her.’’
A snippet of wisdom:
‘’ ‘you must live in the world today as you wish everyone to live in the world to come. That can be your contribution. Otherwise, the world you want will never be formed. Why? Because you are waiting for others to do what you are not doing; and they are waiting for you, and so on. The planet goes from bad to worse.’’
And my favourite quote- a man who was checking out a woman’s tits
‘inadvertently read her t-shirt. It said:
‘A Woman without a Man Is like a Fish without a Bicycle.’ ''