The Temple Of My Familiar by Alice Walker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
“Obenjomade, clean out your ears: THE WHITE MAN IS STILL HERE. Even when he leaves, he is not gone.”
“Obenjomade, cup your endearingly large ears: EVERYONE ALL OVER THE WORLD KNOWS EVERYTHING THERE IS TO KNOW ABOUT THE WHITE MAN. That’s the essential meaning of television. BUT THEY KNOW NEXT TO NOTHING ABOUT THEMSELVES.”
“If you tear out the tongue of another, you have a tongue in your hand for the rest of your life. You are responsible, therefore, for all that person might have said.”
Folk Memory, Matriarchy and Writing Back
Through the Black woman Lissie and the Latina/First Nation woman Zede, Walker speculates about pre-colonisation African and American societies, with anarchist and matriarchal or segregated organisations. She does this in a beautiful, poetic, magical realist style, freely imagining and reimagining myths and relationships between groups and even species. I think a number of reviewers have not understood or enjoyed this aspect of the book. I think it’s about opening human possibilities into a space of folk-memory rather than a utopian future. Since kyriarchy has constructed human history we should not accept its interpretation. If myths and meta-narratives shape us, we urgently need to rewrite those that have deformed us. In particular, I love her rewriting of the Adam and Eve story to address the racism of Western Christianity and remove blame from Woman. This writing back is Walker’s answer to the quote above. The White man is still here even after he has left, so we have to replace him with something. We need an antidote to his poison.
Beauty and Play
I love the way Alice Walker sees the beauty in everything and always chooses the beauty, without censoring the painful truth. I love the simple values she upholds: love & care & pleasure & health & spiritual wholeness. It’s so un-elitist and sensible compared to (usually really privileged) authors and their characters who are sunk in malaise and can find nothing to satisfy them in a comfortable existence. Walker’s mode of description and appreciation of bodies, especially Black women’s bodies, is radical because it dismantles the Whiteness, thin-ness and general hegemony of beauty. The contrast becomes explicit when a male character Suwelo describes a woman who Walker earlier described in a totally different way: his conventional description of her performance of femininity in terms of male sexuality is exactly what we expect. He reads Carlotta’s high heels sexually, in contrast to Walker’s earlier description of dressing up as play.
When I read about the life in which Lissie was an African child/woman sold into slavery I had to slow down, I was sitting on the tube and I found myself stopping to stare into space repeatedly. The story of the nursing mothers whose babies had been taken or killed offering their milk to feed children and salve wounds is so moving. On reading to the end of this chapter, to the part about women being raped and impregnated on the middle passage and the slavers being paid extra for pregnant women, I could not continue with the book and had to sit still on the train until I got to my stop. Although I have read about this before, Walker’s folk-memory telling brought it inside me for the first time – it is inside all of us, in the sense that memory and memes inhabit us communally, and in the sense of history creating us and the circumstances of our lives: in my case, the wealth and comfort I enjoy rests on the backs of those women and men who were stolen and enslaved.
Health and Environment, Colonialism and Academia
I think this book, in many ways is about how to live, and Walker is obviously angry about the way Black people in particular have been cut off from health and harmony with the Earth by poverty, slavery and the theft of their lands.
“’Like the Hopi in your country, most ancient Africans thought of the earth as a body that needs all its organs and bones and blood in order to function properly. The ore miners were forced out, the theory goes. They went north.’ ‘Yes,’ said Fanny, frowning, ‘and unfortunately in about 1492 they continued West’”
One of my favourite characters in the book is Fanny Nzingha, the granddaughter of Celie, protagonist of The Colour Purple. She is involved in many serious conversations about colonialism. In a way, she is the book’s criticizer, while Lissie is its source of hope and restoration. She represents the awakened, angry consciousness of injustice for me. I was happy that she found her African sister Nzingha Anne.
“’In the United States there is the maddening illusion of freedom without substance. It’s never solid, unequivocal, irrevocable. So much depends on the horrid politicians the white majority elects. Black people have the oddest feeling, I think, of forever running in place’”
This is an incredible book that successfully synthesises a huge wealth of ideas. It’s really beyond me to do it justice in a review.
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