The People's Muse or literary diva?
Over 200 people are expected to flock to Block E Borders to hear Alice Walker read from her new book, "Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart," Wednesday, April 28, according to area Marketing Director Shelly Grokowsky.
However, a Borders cashier with Kool-Aid-red dreadlocks and multiple piercings, Marissa Bremer, 21, ("Freak Magnet" according to the nametag), said 200 seems conservative. "Everyone I've talked to is jumping out of their skin about it, people of all ages," Bremer said.
And although she tries not to pay too much attention to individual purchases, Bremer couldn't help but observe a recent increase in Walker-authored purchases. (Grokowsky couldn't verify this trend as Borders headquarters prohibits the release of sales information.)
Poetry and prose by the epic author, best known for her Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Color Purple," is available everywhere from Borders to Wal-mart. The popular writer is predominantly embraced as a literary heroine dedicated to worthwhile women's and environmental causes. However, every icon has her critics, and some see Walker as a diva in down-to-earth clothing.
On the shelf
Walker's books are housed in the 600 Hennepin Ave. S. Borders' "African American Literature" aisle. There's "Anything We Love Can Be Saved," two copies of "The Color Purple" (one hardcover, one soft), "Meridien," "Alice Walker Banned," "Possessing the Secret Joy," "The Same River Twice; Honoring the Difficult" and "The Way Forward Is with a Broken Heart."
All speak to bruised experiences, a strong network of female support, spiritual luminescence, and physical and emotional healing. Discord is recycled for enlightenment. Through sexual conflict, disfigurements, addictions and other abuses, Walker espouses a message of survival with troubled but strong-willed characters.
Vintage Walker themes emerge in "Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart," released April 20. Central character Kate Talkingtree is a 57-year-old successful author (like Walker) who, after a dream about a dried-up stream, organizes an all-woman whitewater-rafting trip down the Colorado River.
The excursion soon becomes a religious quest. Talkingtree exorcises her past -- broken marriages, familial disappointments and lost voices -- and embraces celibacy on her path of spiritual transformation. After notifying her boyfriend, Yolo, of her "womanist" change, she leaves her semi-understanding partner for another river in the Amazon. (Walker coined "womanist" in a 1983 essay collection, "In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose." Essentially, it means "black feminist" or "feminist of color.")
During her tropical excursion, a shaman gets Talkingtree hooked on a hallucinogenic beverage, yag (which a corporation later packages for mass production). Meanwhile, a Hawaiian shaman instructs Yolo to honor his ancestors and break his dependency on "white" substances, such as coffee, sugar and tobacco.
Borders browser, Jodi Anderson, 24, a reading teacher, described herself as a devoted Walker fan and claimed an affinity for "The Color Purple" and "Meridien." Anderson said Walker "has a lot of guts. She puts out issues of incest, domestic violence, abortion, lesbianism, womanism -- the whole gamut. It's not rosy."
Anderson praised Walker's elemental works as undeniable and profound. "Walker's images are so pure and simple that they're impossible to ignore," she said. What impresses her most, though, is the hospitality the author conveys through her prose and poetry, "I love her idea of setting a place for someone at the table, acknowledging them that way."
Poet Angela Shannon, 40, met Alice Walker at a 1995 Chicago conference that featured the famous author as keynote speaker. They shook hands and Shannon was impressed by Walker's sincerity. "She had such a wonderful, warm spirit. She invited me to come and visit her."
Shannon, who teaches poetry and literacy classes at The Loft Literary Center, 1110 Washington Ave. S., (and whose husband, Rohan Preston, is a Star Tribune theater reviewer), just published her first book, "Singing the Bones Together." She admires Walker's moral toughness and literary finesse.
"When you hear Alice Walker, you think of her as a whole, as a person and a writer. She has a lot of integrity. The truer you are to yourself, the stronger your work will be," Shannon mused, while reaching for one of Walker's titles on the bookshelf.
Although Walker's books seem to have universal appeal (they're chock-full of ironies, at least according to Walker's critics) not everyone is enthused about the author's one-night Minneapolis visit.
Kathleen Kearney, 32, director of Planned Parenthood and an Elliott Park resident who belongs to four book clubs, wrinkled her face in disapproval at Walker's choice of venue.
"She's reading at Borders? She should be doing Amazon [an independent women's bookstore in South Minneapolis]," Kearney said.
Calling Walker a "queen," Kearney criticized the hypocrisy of the event, considering Walker's earthy, grassroots image in contrast to that of corporate book giant, Borders. "Drawing large crowds is a royal thing to do," she said.
Kearney herself planned to skip book club when confronted with the possibility of reading and discussing Walker's "The Temple of My Familiar." She finds Walker's writing "didactic" and "selfish," and dislikes how the author uses stories of class, racial and gender-based struggle, not to mention her Mother Earth image, for profit -- for herself and literary but nevertheless large corporations.
Kearney did attend a crowded Walker reading once. While she noted that the author was a very good reader, she added, "Something was wrong with the sound system. The microphone wasn't working very well. You could tell she was pissed off about it, if you know what I mean."
While the prolific author is noted for her massive reach -- establishing herself as an author of the people and not just the presses -- and an overarching grassroots message of oneness and openness, the author herself prefers her privacy.
A Random House spokesperson not only made it quite clear that Walker was unavailable for interviews, but could neither divulge the number of cities on the two-week promotional tour's itinerary nor how specific venues were chosen. He did note that the Block E Borders is one of Walker's first stops.
Grokowsky said Borders' home office coordinated the reading and she wasn't sure what specifically brought about Walker's appearance in Downtown Minneapolis or how the Block E Borders was selected.
And although there are some accolades posted to "the goddess" online, there's no www.alicewalker.com. Not even the Random House site has much to offer.
Walker will be in the area for one night only and won't appear at any other venues. At the reading, Walker will say a few words, read a passage from her book, take some questions and then sit down to sign books.
There'll be some seating, but mostly standing room only.
Alice Walker will read from and sign copies of "Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart," Wednesday, April 28, 7:30 p.m. at the Block E Borders, 600 Hennepin Ave. S.