A close look at the genesis, impact, and transformation of a beloved novel.

Melding memoir, biography, and cultural criticism, Tillet, a professor, activist, and scholar of African American studies, uses Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple, published in 1982, as a mirror for portraying Black women’s experiences in American life over nearly 40 years. In conversations with Tillet, Walker spoke candidly about her early years, literary influences, and the challenges she faced in getting published; after sending an excerpt to Essence magazine, for example, she received a terse reply: “Black people don’t talk like that.” Although the novel was awarded both a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award, it incited considerable controversy, not only for Walker’s use of Black dialect, but also “its celebration of lesbianism. The harshest criticism,” Tillet discovered, “came from other writers, mainly black men who accused Walker of reproducing racist stereotypes of them as hyperviolent rapists.” It was precisely Walker’s portrayal of violence to which Tillet, twice a victim of sexual assault, responded, and through her research, she found many others—including Oprah Winfrey—“who came across the book at such vulnerable points in their lives that the book became a talisman, with every subsequent return to it a way of marking time and healing wounds.” Tillet draws deftly on published and archival sources as well as interviews, including talks with Oprah, who made her screen debut in Steven Spielberg’s film of the novel, which received 11 Oscar nominations; and Scott Sanders, who brought the novel to Broadway as a musical, where it was nominated for multiple Tony awards. Because of the novel’s groundbreaking themes of sexual assault, same-sex desire, and the linking of sexism, racism, and classism, Walker, Tillet asserts, became “the face of black feminism,” an accolade with which Gloria Steinem, in an appreciative foreword, concurs.

An enriching study for the novel’s many devoted readers.

Pub Date: today


Page Count: 224

Publisher: Abrams

Review Posted Online: Nov. 3, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2020

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