c/o: Alice Walker
Hoo boy, you are captivating. Even though I’d heard you were a heart breaker and I didn’t know if I wanted to have my heart broken while on vacation (or let’s be real, work-cation), I couldn’t help getting to know you, and then being siren-called all the way into the deeps.
First, there was Meridian’s mother. I loved her, I did. She was a rebel incognito, even as she was stuck in forms of motherhood that robbed her of so much of who she was and what she wanted.
“Her frail independence gave way to the pressures of motherhood and she learned—much to her horror and amazement—that she was not even allowed to be resentful that she was ‘caught.’ That her personal life was over. There was no one she could cry out to and say ‘It’s not fair!’”
And how often does mother-love assert itself in weird ways (that we then blame our mothers for) when it’s otherwise squelched by systems that care little and demand everything from the mother in question? The answer is all the time, and you know it well.
“In the ironing of her children’s clothes she expended all the energy she might have put into openly loving them. Her children were spotless wherever they went. In their stiff, almost inflexible garments, they were enclosed in the starch of her anger, and had to keep their distance to avoid providing the soggy wrinkles of contact that would cause her distress.”
“The starch of her anger”; “the soggy wrinkles of contact”—I can’t get over those images. Your metaphors…they are rich and strike true.
“This curiosity was the way she was, sometimes, with whites. Mostly they did not seem quite real to her. They seemed very stupid the way they attempted to beat down everybody in their path and then know nothing about it. She saw them sometimes as hordes of elephants, crushing everything underfoot, stolid and heavy and yet—unlike the elephant—forgetting.”
The interactions of your characters remind me how, if we want to know the direction that power flows, we pay attention to who is paying attention—who is vigilant; who is careful; who is apologizing; who knows when it’s the other person’s birthday, how the other person likes their coffee, what might make the other person angry, what might make the other person soothed. And underneath all of that, where the resentment sticks and alternative forms of power must be creatively adopted if the imbalance does not ever correct itself.
Even more, how sometimes, oppression has as much to do with ignorance and stupidity as it does selfishness and entitlement.
“They liked her hair, not because it was especially pretty, but because it was long. To them, length was beauty. They loved the tails of horses.”
I really want to change it to Hot Horse Summer now.
Meridian seems to have her own kind of omniscience, seeing all of this and connecting the dots for herself-as-activist, even though she is not the narrator. She is both haunted by ruinous systems and in staunch refusal of being cowed by them. You see the visible effects on her body, and you witness the not-so-visible effects on her mind.
“She dreamed she was a character in a novel and that her existence presented an insoluble problem, one that would be solved only by her death at the end.”
In all of this, she has so much love for the people she is fighting for, if not, at first, for herself.
“‘Did you say somethin’, Agnes?’ asked Johnny, getting up from his chore with the newspapers and coming to stand at the foot of the bed. ‘You hongry again?’
‘I gets full just lookin’ at you, sugah,’ said the sick woman coquettishly. ‘That’s about the only reason I hate to die,’ she said, looking at her visitors for a split second, ‘I won’t be able to see my ol’ good-lookin’ man.’
‘Shoot,’ said Johnny, going back to the other room.”
I adore Agnes and Johnny. I can picture his “shoot” exactly, being from the Appalachian area of Virginia; a bit different from rural Mississippi but close enough to share the sentiment. Their exchange is just one example of the suffering that is entirely common and that people in power refuse to see. This suffering, instead of overwhelming Meridian or causing her to become hopeless, fuels the flame of her resistance.
“She needed only to see a starving child or attempt to register to vote a grown person who could neither read nor write. On those occasions such was her rage that she actually felt as if the rich and racist of the world should stand in fear of her, because she—though apparently weak and penniless, a little crazy and without power—was yet of a resolute and relatively fearless character, which, sufficient in its calm acceptance of its own purpose, could bring the mightiest country to its knees.”
There is no doubt that she could (and has, in many ways). But what is even truer—what makes her the force that she is—is this:
“It was still amazing to him how deeply Meridian allowed an idea—no matter where it came from—to penetrate her life.”
It was a pleasure getting to spend time with you, and with Meridian, and with her mother, and with all the people I met through you. Sometimes fiction rings truer than non-fiction ever could, and you are a prime example.
May we all be penetrable in the right ways.
Note to reader: Remember, books are non-monogamous. If you’re intrigued by this love letter, consider this a personal introduction to Meridian by Alice Walker. I think you might grow fond of each other.
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