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You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down is a collection of 14 short stories by Alice Walker, written from the viewpoint of African American women, celebrating their experience, history and the triumph of their spirit over racism and sexism. At times shocking, at other times amusing but always powerfully written, these stories prompt readers to question their existing values and open their eyes to truths that are sometimes disturbing yet often enlightening.
Alice Walker is an African American author and poet, born in Georgia in 1944. She is probably most famous for her novel, The Color Purple, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, the story of a young black woman's dual struggle against the racism of white society and the patriarchy of black culture. Walker's early experiences of racial prejudice in the Deep South, where her family worked as sharecroppers, led her to become an activist in the Civil Rights movement. The black woman's struggle against oppression is a prominent theme in Alice Walker's written work, which includes novels, short stories, essays and poetry.
The stories in this volume explore many different emotions in the context of marital relationships, motherhood, political activism, growing old, education, friendship and sexuality. I found most stories readable and compelling, but some were frankly boring. Plot-wise they are not the most entertaining stories I have ever read and in some cases I don't think it is accurate to use the term 'story' at all. For instance, Petunias is only half a page in length and merely sets out a woman's diary entry, discovered after her death. This particular piece is not so much a story, in my view, as a statement, albeit a powerful one. I couldn't help but feel that it would have been yet more powerful if it had been expressed through the medium of a 'proper' story. Maybe I missed the point of it, but I felt a bit cheated to see that included in a book of short stories, although it was moving in its own way.
At times Alice Walker's narratives read more like a political manifesto or an essay than a story and, whilst she has powerful points to make, it does feel somewhat laboured in places. I think it is more accurate to think of these stories as snapshots into the lives of different women, all linked by their African American roots. If your idea of a story is something with an interesting plot, you might wonder what the point is of this collection. I will comment on the stories that made the biggest impression upon me.
Nineteen Fifty Five is about a woman called Gracie, a veteran blues singer. She is approached by a white man, Traynor, who wants to buy one of her songs, a song that makes him into a very rich, successful rock 'n' roll star. Clearly the character of Traynor is based on Elvis Presley, who became famous by recording other people's music and whose uniqueness came from the fact that he combined a 'negro' voice with a white body. The theme of white exploitation of black music is explored in this story and it reminded me of The Color Purple, which also features a blues singer amongst its characters. Alice Walker uses the blues singer to symbolise the black woman's freedom of expression, her spirituality, creativity and her connection to her roots. (Indeed, the title for this volume of short stories comes from a song by Bessie Smith, the Empress of the Blues, who became the highest paid black entertainer of her day.) I enjoyed this story, partly because of its Elvis-similarities and also because it made me think about how much imitation there is in the music business today (and society in general) and how this is often prized over the original.
The Abortion is a story about a married, middle-class black woman who is considering a termination. She already has one child but feels she cannot cope with another. The story focuses on what she perceives as her husband's inability to give her the support she needs. I found this story quite difficult to read. It was quite depressing to read about a deteriorating marriage and a termination but also I felt Alice Walker's portrayal of the husband was unfairly harsh. To me it seemed that he was between a rock and a hard place. If he told his wife he wanted her to keep their child, he would have been condemned as being out of touch with her feelings, but by leaving the decision to her, he was also seen as being remote and disinterested. Alice Walker's tendency to always present the black woman as the most sympathetic character in her stories did make me lose a bit of patience with her and I wished she didn't always come across so partisan. Nevertheless, this was a thought-provoking read.
A Sudden Trip Home in the Spring was quite an uplifting story. Sarah, a black college student at a prestigious women's college in New York, goes home to the south for her father's funeral. Sarah has been frustrated, fearing that she is not reaching her potential as an artist and has tended to blame this on the negative image of black oppression in the south. However, by re-connecting with her family, she realises just how inspiring and strong they are, particularly her grandfather and her brother. I loved the way this story told us that you don't have to let your identity be defined by just one set of people or one place and that you can go back and re-open the doors that you thought were closed to you.
In The Lover, a woman poet spends 2 months at an artist's colony where she meets a man, Ellis, and they begin an affair. The story describes the woman's elation, but her lover becomes unnerved by her intensity, failing to see that she "wanted nothing from him beyond the sensation of being in love itself." Not a lot happens in this story, but I thought it was a beautiful account of a woman's sexuality being awoken and how, far from being the 'be all and end all' of her life, the lover opens her mind to the prospect of new, exciting opportunities with or without him.
Alice Walker writes in an edgy, provocative style and most of her stories leave a lasting impression. The fact that they are short stories means this book can be dipped in and out of. I think it would be difficult to read the whole book at a single sitting. It certainly raised my awareness of some of the issues facing African American women and how the black women's experience of feminism is actually quite different to the white woman's.
I do feel that the gender debate has moved on considerably since these stories were published (in the 1980s). Nowadays, although women's issues are still high on the agenda (and rightly so), the writings of Warren Farrell and others have widened the gender debate to look at the discrimination men face in certain areas of society. Whilst men are undeniably still in positions of power in many areas, it is clear that women hold the balance of power in other spheres. Alice Walker's consistently negative portrayal of men felt a bit dated in the light of this.
The best way to view this collection is as a series of cameos, which are usually insightful and at times poignant. If you like stories with twists and turns and lots of things happening, these won't be for you. They focus more on the exploration of themes and conflicting emotions than plot, but are fascinating in their own way.