I read Alice Walker’s The Color Purple during my recent trip to Arizona. My return flight was delayed just long enough for me to finish reading the book before arriving at my destination.
For each trip, my hope is to start as one person and end as another, or at least undergoing some transformation. This lofty ambition seems relatively easier to achieve when I am traveling alone and I love visiting new places for work or leisure. What we so much take for granted in our settled way of life can be so freshly dear to us when we are in a new environment without them. My soul was aching for greenery during my one week stay in Phoenix for computer science conferences. This is largely my own doing though, for only spending time in the convention center and the hotel adjacent to it. I could not possibly expect Arizona to deliver its beautiful landscape as room service, could I?
The Color Purple was recommended to me a few years ago. I did not pick it up back then. Recently, at the Waterstone bookshop in Piccadilly, London, I randomly came across it and flipped through a few pages. Whatever evil creature occupied my mind at the time, I do not know. Retrospectively it did not make sense for me to want to read it around that time, for my peculiar obsession for the English language and my absolute love of properly reading, writing and speaking. Flipping through this book, the most immediately noticeable feature is its language. Much of it is written with the voice of Celie, illiterate with nearly no formal education. I picked it up and planned to read it anyway. Geoffrey Hinton delivered half of a Turing lecture in the FCRC conferences I attended. One audience member asked him about scientists not necessarily being able to interpret machine learning models. Geoffrey answered that we do not understand our own reasoning that well either, so to some extent this is not necessarily much worse. I think that could be rather a good thing and means we all have a lot ahead of us to accomplish. I do not understand why I chose to read The Color Purple. I am very glad that I did.
Two outstanding characters to me are Sofia and Shug. I admire the fighting spirit they have. To me, Shug is the key inspirational figure in the book. She helped the main character Celie to discover herself, to find her own strength and a real life with the love that Celie was deprived of and so much deserving. I like when Mary Agnes stood up for herself to state her name as Mary Agnes rather than Squeak. It reminded me of the shame I felt and bore with silence when someone insisted on calling me Donna for a short while some years ago. Celie, the main character, has left me very angry with her at times, perhaps more for her capability of enduring the physical and emotional pain, which I would never want to imagine for any one.
We transform the world around us from within. One’s view of oneself, people, and the world, is where the change begins. Shug, Nettie, Mary Agnes, Sofia, and Celia are all very memorable characters, with uniqueness in each. How few books are centered around women and their struggles? We need more.
Some of my favourite passages from this book:
I know this to be true, and yet it remains difficult to imagine.
In fact, a “Pa” and/or a “Mister” are likely to turn up in anybody’s life. They might be wearing the mask of war, the mask of famine, the mask of physical affliction. The mask of caste, race, class, sex, mental illness, or disease. Their meaning to us, often, is that they are simply an offering, a challenge, provided by “God” i.e., the All Present and All Magical, that requires us to grow. And though we may be confused, even traumatized, as Celie is, by their historical, social, and psychological configuration, if we persevere we may, like her, eventually settle into amazement: that by some unfathomable kindness we have received just the right keys we need to unlock the deepest, darkest dungeons of our emotional and spiritual bondage, and to experience our much longed for liberation and peace.
I believe God is everything, say Shug. Everything that is or ever was or ever will be. And when you can feel that, and be happy to feel that, you’ve found it.
…to celebrate “God” as Life and Love, Perseverance, Hope, Creativity and Joy.
But I don’t know how to fight. All I know how to do is stay alive.
But one thing I do thank her for, for teaching me to learn for myself, by reading and studying and writing a clear hand. And for keeping alive in me somehow the desire to know.
Hard to be Christ too, say Shug. But he manage. Remember that.
Try not to hold her fears against her. At the end she understood, and believed. And forgave—whatever there was to forgive.
She say, Celie, tell the truth, have you ever found God in church? I never did. I just found a bunch of folks hoping for him to show. Any God I ever felt in church I brought in with me. And I think all the other folks did too. They come to church to share God, not find God.
God is inside you and inside everybody else. You come into the world with God. But only them that search for it inside find it.
Try to think like you got some sense. Why any woman give a shit what people think is a mystery to me.
I’m pore, I’m black, I may be ugly and can’t cook, a voice say to everything listening. But I’m here.
…her verbosity produced in him a kind of soberly observant speechlessness.
God is different to us now, after all these years in Africa. More spirit than ever before, and more internal. Most people think he has to look like something or someone—a roofleaf or Christ—but we don’t. And not being tied to what God looks like, frees us.
…What I love best bout Shug is what she been through, I say. When you look in Shug’s eyes you know she been where she been, seen what she seen, did what she did. And now she know.
I think us here to wonder, myself. To wonder. To ask. And that in wondering bout the big things and asking bout the big things, you learn about the little ones, almost by accident. But you never know nothing more about the big things than you start out with. The more I wonder, he say, the more I love.
Alice remembers her mother as a strong-willed woman who never allowed herself or her children to be cowed by anyone. Alice cherished both of her parents “for all they were able to do to bring up eight children, under incredibly harsh conditions, to instill in us a sense of the importance of education, for instance, the love of beauty, the respect for hard work, and the freedom to be whoever you are.”