My family has a strong tradition of Christmas Charades. Well, Charades and beyond. Come, say, 8pm, when we’ve eaten brussel sprouts the only time in a calendar year, cooed over the flames on a burning pudding that not one of us genuinely likes to eat, and are all wearing our tissue paper crowns just a bit askew, we launch into games mode. Who’s in the Bag, Articulate (a description game), Charades – all have their honoured rotation. Every year, to great family uproar, my Father tries to speak during Charades and act during Articulate. And just as reliably, every year, the following exchange takes place when choosing the fiendish clues for “The Boys” to act out.
My mother: “Oh, The Lion King, The Lion King.”
Me [scornful]: “No, no, it’s far too easy – look – crown – roar – done!”
My mother: “Oh yes. You are clever at that. How about… Songs of Praise?”
Me: “No, no, no. (Mimes singing) – Harder! They’ll be giving us AWFUL things. We’ve got to give them something IMPOSSIBLE. We need to be CRUEL. Remember the clues they gave us in 2006?”
My mother: “Oh dear. Yes. The Boys will be mean to us. I know – I’ve got it – The Colour Purple!”
For as long as I remember The Colour Purple has cropped up on an annual basis. It is deemed to pass the extremely high bar for something everyone is expected to have heard of, even though I have for years had no idea what it was (apart from book hand-gesture.) I’ve reached the stage that if my mother is on the other team (on the rare year that we break the “Boys vs Girls” convention), as soon as someone does the “The” hand gesture for word one, I’m yelping it like a terrier stuck in a hole.
So I’ve grown up believing it’s a total classic that everyone has read. Have you read it, internet? My first surprise was discovering that it was written in 1983. The second was that it is written in a heavy dialect – what the author calls “folk voice” – that I’ve mostly found it more experimental modern fiction. The book is about Celie, a black teenager growing up in the mid-20th century in America, crippled by poverty and violence. Repeatedly raped by her father, and the resulting children taken away from her, she’s then married off to an abusive husband totally disinterested in her – in love instead with a mysterious, glamorous woman called Shug Avery (hot tip: it eventually turns out to be short for “Sugar” so think of it as Shoog rather than Shugg.) From such a dark start all seems pretty hopeless, but Walker turns the story into an unlikely story of identity, feminism, faith, family, love and hope as Celie gains self-awareness and strength.
At the most obvious level, it’s about race. The main characters are all black, cruelly treated in past and present by white people. But Benjamin Zephaniah, a black poet who crops up on book jackets all the time, argues it isn’t about race at all. How so? Well, for one thing, it’s not a traditional treatment of race. There’s a total lack of stereotype. This isn’t bad white against good black. Both have both. The women, particularly, are repeatedly abused by the poor, uneducated black men. I’m not sure I’ve seen race and gender taken on at the same time in quite this way before. Walker faced enormous contemporary backlash for undermining the black narrative by showing the dark side of the poor black community. But this refusal to take easy sides and resort to stock definitions is what pushes the book into the realms of the universal, the timeless: whatever the current issue or exploitation, the dark side of humanity is everywhere. That power and its abuse are an inherent human problem, not just an issue of race: it’s the dark side of each of us.
But wait – just when you think I’m getting too down on you: the reverse to this is equally true and beautifully explored in the second half of the book. It is that the light side of humanity is also everywhere. Even in the darkest situations – even from the worst people. And despite the darkness, the book comes down on the side of the light – of hope, retribution, learning, self-betterment. In fact it’s almost a fairytale ending in what is so very far from a fairytale story. It shouldn’t work – it does sort of jar – but you have to embrace it in gratitude.
I can’t review this book without flagging its inherent femininity – in the strongest sense. Throughout the book the strength comes almost exclusively from the women (mentally, and often physically too.) The sisterhood is the strongest structure in this novel, even when it’s a mistress and a wife under the same roof (who even become lovers themselves). The innate FEMALE-ness goes further – even the understanding of the deity is a female one, a fluid, shifting, ever-present, worshipped-through-things-and-nature entity which is denied none of its power this way.
So you can see why Zephaniah says it’s about more than race. It’s about, gulp, the human condition. But you don’t feel that when you’re reading it. It isn’t grand, or pleased with itself. It doesn’t announce itself as taking on the big topics. It’s a single woman’s experience in direct epistolary form, no narratorial messing about, in language just the way she speaks and thinks it. It’s a worthy classic and yes – worthy of our annual Charades tribute.