“Gathering Blossoms Under Fire”, an intimate account of the creative life of Alice Walker
“Blossoms” was edited by author, college professor, and former Atlanta Journal-Constitution editor Valerie Boyd, whose 2004 biography of Zora Neal Hurston, “Wrapped in Rainbows,” won acclaim. admiration and confidence of Walker.
They worked together for years. Then, two months before Walker’s diaries were published, Boyd died of pancreatic cancer, a disease she had been quietly battling since 2018.
“Working with Valerie has been one of the greatest adventures of my life,” Walker, 78, said in a Zoom call from his country home in Mendocino County in northern California, a rolling valley. with vegetable and flower gardens where she plants peonies, squash, onions and beans.
“When she died, I suffered,” Walker said. “I felt his death, in a way, more keenly than I felt some deaths in my own family, because we had become very close, and I trusted him completely with my diary, with my thoughts. . With me Sentences.”
The journals begin in 1965, when Walker is a 21-year-old student at Sarah Lawrence, an all-women’s college in New York that became coeducational in 1968.
They follow his marriage to Mel Leventhal, a civil rights lawyer; their move to Mississippi; walk with MLK; the birth of a daughter; subsequent divorce; her tenure at Ms. Magazine; his essays, his short stories, his poems, his novels and the rise of his brilliant literary career.
They continue through 2000, as Walker confesses “I’m 55. I don’t mind looking my age – that looks great, as far as I’m concerned.”
In an afterword, a 77-year-old Walker promises a volume II. But it was written before Boyd died. During her Zoom call, she is not so sure, because “Valérie is not there. I don’t know if there will ever be another Valerie, to match her integrity, calm and grace.
Walker’s diaries, 65 notebooks filled with his tidy, compact, half-script, half-print notebooks, went to Emory University’s Rose Library in 2007, embargoed from the eyes of scholars and fans until 2040.
But Walker decided to publish some of that bounty, and Boyd was tasked with selecting passages from those diaries for “Gathering Blossoms.”
Although there were some excisions to protect her friends’ privacy, Walker said the goal was not caution but brevity: Nobody, she said, wants to read 1,000 pages of a newspaper.
On the cautious side, she does not hesitate to comment on the shortcomings of her friends and lovers. “Today all I thought about was how bored I was in this marriage,” she wrote, in an undated entry from the mid-1970s, of her marriage to Leventhal.
Later, after the end of her marriage and a romance with author Robert Allen, she also gives him a hard time. “Robert,” she wrote on March 15, 1984. “I still don’t trust him. Often I don’t even like it.
His colleagues also fall prey to his acid pen. In a May 1979 entry, when the paperback rights to Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon” novel sell for $300,000, Walker examines his own jealousy and decides that Morrison deserves good fortune, “even though I have the impression that his characters never go anywhere”.
Was she worried about hurting some feelings among friends and fellow authors when publishing the journals? “They could be very upset. Who knows? I write about my life, and they were part of it. We have been through many struggles together and I love them all.
“I feel grateful and satisfied with who I am. People might have a hard time if they expect something other than who I am. The world is big.
Walker is also outspoken about her bisexuality, her romance with pop singer Tracy Chapman (whom she’s been wary of in the past), and an unconsummated mutual infatuation with music producer Quincy Jones.
There is entertainment value in his tour through Hollywood. There is also magic in seeing the birth of his fictions, short stories, poems and essays. This often happens offstage. Sometimes right in front of us.
In an entry from July 27, 1977, we see her sketching the beginning of “The Color Purple”, with characters based on her grandparents. In an undated page from 1980, we see a transcribed conversation with his daughter Rebecca, which begins:
“Mom, why are you so sad?
“Because I can’t write the book I need to write.”
“Why can’t you write the book you need? »
“Because it would be painful.”
Later, as she crafts a script for “The Color Purple”, she offers a thumbnail of each character to aid Steven Spielberg in his film adaptation.
“I forgot it was in there,” Walker said on Zoom, dressed in casual clothes, her graying hair wrapped in a scarf. “Forty years later, 40 years! – there, I leafed through the book.
Keeping a journal since she was a teenager has helped her as a person as much as a writer, she said.
“I think the reason you keep a journal is to find out who you are, as you grow,” she said. “Often, if you don’t make some sort of record, you forget: you crossed that river, climbed that mountain, rolled down that hill. I do it partly because I don’t have a great memory for everyday things.
Some everyday things are fascinating.
From the start, she offers an account of the meager earnings of her first novel, “The Third Life of Grange Copeland” from the 1970s, which she says she sold on the streets.
In a November 22, 1978 entry, she wrote: “Grange sold 845 hard copies. It makes me $42. I can not believe it. Hardcover sales: 77. Earns me $61.22. Definitely better to have hardcover sales.
“It was a lesson,” she says now. His efforts to earn a living, save, buy a house, are reflected in columns of numbers and goals. In an undated entry from 1977, she totals her income from Ms. Magazine, lecturing, teaching a course at Yale, and concludes, “I probably make about $20,000 a year, and that’s is a lot. My goal, by December 1978, is to have saved $30,000 to pay for a house!
Speaking from her California home, she says: ‘I want young people who are reading this or not to know that you have to be very practical. You need a place to live, where you’re not necessarily afraid to walk your own block, your own way.
When Walker visited Agnes Scott in 2018, she told the audience that reading newspapers reminded her, “I hate debt.”
Debt, she said, has forced many artists to do things they hate and then drink themselves into the twilight zone to feel better.
She wants her readers to avoid these pitfalls. “You have to figure out how to support yourself,” she said on Zoom. “I’m offering this piecemeal in the early days, mostly about how it feels, going out into the world, leaving a comfortable marriage where I didn’t have to worry about anything. Going my own way, figuring out how to do that. We had 11 rooms. I moved into two tiny ones. I worked these jobs that paid very little.
Walker includes an afterword in the book, questioning whether his political activism achieved much. She also handed in some entries with soothing words about friends she might have criticized. “After being a lot tough on Robert, I wanted to get over the times when we were so close,” she said. (“With Robert,” the afterword reads, “I feel at rest, as if my spirit, not just my mind or my body, has found rest.”)
And on the topic of political activism, Walker said the current era, with its banned books and efforts to reduce discussions of race in the classroom, doesn’t worry him.
“I can’t let myself get too discouraged, because what we want in people is the thirst to know as much as possible, about how a lot of people are trying to push us away.”
Activists need a certain “muscle” to uncover the truth, she said, the kind of muscle you build by confronting resistance. Such resistance is therefore useful.
“It’s hard to make me feel intimidated.”