Bringing American culture closer to new immigrants
The Temple of My Familiar by Alice Walker, published in 1989, is a sequel to The Color Purple (1982). The narrative is complex and multilayered. The six central characters coincide in modern time North Carolina, yet their stories span through thousands of years in human history. Each of the characters is searching for his/her true identity, and their past serves as both an obstacle and the key to knowing their real place in history, society, and the world. The book portrays three main relationships: Carlotta, a Latin American woman who had to flee her country, and Arveyda, a rock star; Lissie, a goddess who has lived hundreds of lives and Hal, her life-long companion; and Fanny, the free-spirited African woman and Suwelo, a man who teaches American history. Throughout the narrative, these characters touch one another lives, directly or indirectly. Carlotta, for example, gets massages from Fanny when trying to find an escape from her broken marriage. Fanny who falls in love with spirits has been fascinated with Arveyda’s music to the extent that she doesn’t want to go to his concert avoiding disappointment. And finally, Miss Lissie manages to change Suwelo’s perspective on life and women when she tells him about her lives in the pre-historic times.
The main themes in The Temple Of My Familiar are racism, the history of black people, white and male oppression, art, and female friendship. Most of them are effectively conveyed through Miss Lissie’s monologues as she recounts her centuries of reincarnation. Being an ancient goddess, Miss Lissie shares the stories of being a slave and a slaveholder, a woman and a man, a white man, and even a lion. She symbolizes wisdom and the true knowledge of human history, which might seem magical or even Utopian. According to Walker’s novel, there was a time when men and women lived apart and no concepts of private property existed. Women enjoyed close friendship with animals, including lions and apes, and lived a balanced peaceful life until men started to claim ownership over them and separated them from animals, their beloved familiars.
Miss Lissie’s explanation is closely connected to another major theme – the one of male oppression and the role of women. She emphasizes that Africa is the true beginning of civilization and a woman is the true beginning of spirituality, despite the counter information in history textbooks. Throughout the whole novel, history is equated with wisdom, and the importance of knowing the history of Africa and black people is stressed:
“The life of my people is to remember forever; each head granary is full. The life of your people is to forget: your thing granaries, and not yourselves, are full.” (Walker)
Every single character in the book has to go through reconciliation with the past, be it painful childhood memories, their own mistakes, betrayal of the loved ones, or the way the society treats them. Fanny is the character who struggles most with racism. She suffers from nightmares where she tries to kill white people and seeks a therapist’s help to find a solution:
”It had become like a scale or a web over her eyes. Everywhere she looked, she saw it. Racism turned her thoughts to violence. Violence made her sick.” (Walker)
Just like Fanny, many characters go through the stage in life when they are traumatized by racism and later try to exclude white people from their lives or suppress the memories. Walker’s portrayal of white prejudice is exceptionally vivid and detailed, yet the message that she sends to the readers is not aggressive. Through a line from “The Gospel According to Shug,” a booklet that gave answers to all the characters, the author says:
“HELPED are those who strive to give up their anger; their reward will be that in any confrontation their first thoughts will never be of violence or of war.” (Walker)
The novel’s narrative is both its strength and weakness. The interwoven stories of seemingly different time and space enrich the novel and eventually give a complex, yet whole picture. It’s hardly possible to describe the novel in one word as it has elements of a fable, a myth, a historical narrative, and a spiritual teaching. However, the variety of life stories expressed mainly through dialogues is often confusing and fails to engage the reader. Many ideas expressed in the first chapters make little sense out of the context of the very last chapters, which makes the book a difficult read. Overall though, reading The Temple Of My Familiar is a rewarding thought-provoking experience that perfectly fits in the tradition of African American Literature. Walker explores the themes of slavery and racism in at times conventional and situational (Fanny’s racist neighbors), at times highly-metaphorical way (the first albino in a black tribe).
For me, the novel left a lasting impression of sadness. Despite the fact that all main characters found the inner peace they were looking for, the problem of racism still remained. Partially due to the stories of Miss Lissie, who witnessed many centuries of white dominance, you can feel Walker’s sense of hopelessness toward racism. Not that she doesn’t fight it, but she seems to have little hope that one day white people will be their better selves. Given the context of the 21 century, I find her sentiment unsettling, yet, unfortunately, still relevant. I also liked her emphasis on Africa, including modern African history, because slavery and colonialism created similar power dynamics in different parts of the world.
Have you read The Temple of My Familiar? What did you think?