ECOFEMINISM IN ALICE WALKER’S ‘THE TEMPLE of  MY FAMILIAR’

Shayeree Ghosh

In the rising upsurge of the feminist movement during the 1960s, there came a serious parting of ways when Black Women writers decided to call their writing “Black Feminist”. Being relegated to a marginalized position as a deviant race and gender, these women voiced their dissent on being represented as “types”. Claiming to be different from the white female aesthetic and concerns, the black women not only decided that they had a different aesthetic but also put forth the contention that being both black and female they could write about their own experiences from an insider’s view point. Amidst this schism between the mainstream female writers and the black women writers, Alice Walker solidifies the position of the black women by terming “Black Feminism” as “Womanism”. Her concerns are the same as those of any other black female writer, but by attributing some specifically immanent qualities to the black women she makes them not only different but better. 

Alice Walker’s preoccupation with the black woman is evident in all her writings. Her writing reflects her political and social concerns regarding the treatment of the black woman in literature and life. Walker’s fiction especially shows the development and transition of her black heroines into “women”. Her novels bear testimony to the changing faces of the Black Eves. Right from her first novel where she portrays the black woman as a helpless victim to a winner and a “woman” in spite of all odds, Walker delineates the black woman’s journey successfully. The concept of Womanism as she defines it in her book, In Search of Our Mother’s Garden (1983), marks the black woman with distinct qualities. “A womanist is one who is outrageous, audacious, and courageous and willful”.1 Walker’s protagonists exhibit these qualities as they undergo the transition and change to become “women”. Every single female character in Walker’s novel at least makes an effort to change her situation. Whatever the outcome maybe, what is applaudable is their willingness to change.

Alice Walker identifies herself as “author and medium”, at the conclusion of her 1982 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Color Purple. By denoting herself as medium, Walker gives credit for her novel to both the spirit of the African American women who wrote before her and who inform her writing, as well as the magic implicit in the craft of writing. With the publication of The Temple of My Familiar (1989), her conclusive acknowledgement increase to include an even larger entity: the “Universe”: “I thank the Universe for my participation in existence.” 2 This acknowledgement suggests, The Temple of My Familiar is grand in scope, not only for its attempt to embrace the multiplicity of life in the universe, but also for its effort to coalesce the themes found in her earlier works namely, the African-American woman’s search for identity and spiritual redemption through connection with the natural world and through empathy for animals, concerns that can found in many texts written by African American women writers and that place her within the ecofeminist camp.

Described by the Walker as “a romance of the last 500,000 years”, this work by itself is one indication of the breadth of Walker’s project. Her purpose, in this work and in her body of works is to promote her womanist perspective. By intermingling the past and present, realism and magic realism, animal and human, Walker proposes an alternative vision, a “dream memory”, in which notions of self, history, and other are reinvented. Through the character Lissie, whose names means “the one who remembers everything,” the reader has access to the stories and myths of a previously inaccessible prehistory in which women, men, and animals lived in harmony, a time that the novel suggests, can be relived in the present.

In the novel, Walker uses the “quilted”, non-linear narrative form commonly found in the folk aesthetic. Divided in to six parts, the front page of each part is graced with the image of a different animal familiar. Walker frequently shifts between various perspectives, characters, and eras, all expressed within chapters that range between dream-like episodes to long monologues. Each of the men and women in this novel attempts to find meaning in their present dislocated lives and the stories of the past provide these characters the key with which to harmonize the self. By placing their individual stories together we arrive at a narrative that tells the story of us all, human and animal alike. Barbara Christian, famous critic calls this multivalent narrative structure a “quilt narrational mode” 3 in which pieces of lives and stories are interwoven together, and indeed by the conclusion of the novel, one finds that the characters across continents and lifetimes are pieced together to form the universe of this novel. 

The novel’s central character, Miss Lissie, is a goddess from primeval Africa who has been incarnated hundreds of times throughout history. She befriends Suwelo, a narcissistic university professor whose marriage is threatened by his need to dominate and sexually exploit his wife. Through a series of conversations with Miss Lissie and her friend Hal, Suwelo learns of Miss Lissie’s innumerable lives and experiences from the prehistoric world in which humans and animals lived in harmony under a matriarchal society to slavery in the United States and regains his capability to love, nurture, and respect himself and others.

The novel is the ultimate expression of womanism. There is virtually no subject that escapes Walker’s womaninst commentary. The book speaks of homosexuality, racism, religion, marriage, and death. Within all the stories dignity, honor, and grace are ruthlessly denied to those in spiritual, mental, or physical bondage, making it nearly impossible for them to achieve wholeness. Present in each story is the suppression of individuality by rules of morality and by the power one culture (usually white) that wills over another. Although the novel demands respect for the instrument of change it does not insist that change is always positive. According to Zede`, the moment prehistoric man sought to emulate woman, deconstruction, disorder, and death were conceived. With these stories and multi-faceted characters, Walker communicates that in every other person, our entire past exists. She communicates the Jungian philosophy of the collective unconscious being connected back through time and culture in significant ways.

In this novel, without abandoning her prior interests to explore the oppressions, the insanities, the loyalties and the triumphs of black women, Walker expands her vision of ‘womanism’ to broader concerns: the awareness of a global ecological crisis and her environmental concern for the future of the planet. Walker’s planetary concerns, her awareness of a “heightened global consciousness, and as a result, her search for a solution that would work “for the good of all” clearly indicate that Walker extends her prior commitment to her race to consider the rest of creation, including the non-human world. Walker’s novel is an apt example of this.

In the novel, Walker focuses on her fundamental belief that to experience the ‘whole’ self, one must reunite and realize the full capacity of both the physical body and the spirit, which are, in reality, inseparable. At the end of The Temple of My Familiar, Fanny and Arveyda, after having experienced an ecstatic orgasm, “lie cuddled together in sheer astonishment. ‘My spirit’, says Fanny, at last, her face against his chest. ‘My flesh’, says Arveyda, his lips against her hair” (TM,F409). The words of two characters encapsulate the essence of Walker’s belief stated above. Moreover, they explain Walker’s conviction that such a reunion can be achieved through the sexual act. 

In the West, the soul was separated from the body, which then became a mere mechanism. The heart, once regarded as the center of the human soul, became subordinate to rational mind. But for Walker, the spirit cannot be rationalized; neither can it be separated from the body. Contrary to the Western dualism of spirit and matter, Walker reclaims the body as a carrier of the soul/ spirit and celebrates its infinite potential and beauty. In the course of an argument with Fanny, Suwelo suddenly exclaims: “I’m flesh, I’m blood…Human, the same as woman” (TMF, 332). Unfortunately, Suwelo’s realization and acknowledgement of the equality of the sexes, based on our common humanity, have not been generally espoused by the patriarchal system, which has taken note of the differences in physical bodies and used them as a rationale for the subordination and oppression of women. Through the means of control and ownership, the female body has become the object of ownership, the female has become the property of men, to be used primarily for the purpose of ensuring their comfort and sexual pleasure.

In her writing, Walker exposes the global scope of the objectification of women’s bodies, while differentiating the racialized exploitation of black women’s bodies under the institution of slavery in the United States. In the novel, through the character of Miss Lissie, Walker enumerates the physical horrors of the female slave experience: their hair chopped off, their bodies branded with pieces of hot iron and put on display, as well as subjected to repeated violation, physical punishment often leading to death (TMF 66-70). Although slavery has now been abolished in most parts of the world, Walker points out that many forms of women’s enslavement and bodily abuse still persist. The most common among them, justified by either religious or cultural traditions, is the exploitation of women’s childbearing potential that has proven not only to be damaging to women’s health, which, under the patriarchal system, has become secondary to the well-being of men and children, but also an obstacle to women’s spiritual growth.

But Walker expresses her belief that despite being physically damaged, one can still strive for wholeness by living one’s life fully, not giving up the gifts of one’s spirit. Walker here insists that we must reclaim what we have lost or what has been taken away from us, asserting that we have right to be whole.

For Walker, to reclaim our spirits is to reclaim our desires, feelings, and emotions, as they are the expressions of our soul, our spirit, and to suppress them is to be dishonest with ourselves, to deny part of ourselves, and to close ourselves off from our freedom. In the novel, the character of Zede` clearly demonstrates the awesome power of emotions leading not only to liberation, but also to a healing and a new life filled with joy.

I was broken, utterly: in that I could trust no one that I could never again reach out to love… (TMF, 74)

Zede` is a wounded person whose spirit has been broken to the point of not being able to trust anyone and to reach out to love. The only man she ever loved, and made love to, was brutally killed. Violated in every conceivable way, he was thrown dead into a hut nailed shut with her, after she herself had been raped by a group of men. Zede` has not been able to tell the story of her pain only daughter, who came from this union; her story remains buried deeply within her heart until the day when she meets Arveyda, her daughter’s husband, who reminds her of her dead lover. The memory is so intense that she cannot control her feelings of “deep longing for him” (TMF,21). Aware that he is her son-in-law, and much younger than she is, she is trying to hide her emotions and repress her longing, but her own spirit, oppressed for so long, betrays her.

Arveyda looked at her…Longing was like a note of music to him, easily read. He knew. …His voice shook.” We can’t do anything about it, right? “No,” she said, her voice also trembling. She tried to laugh…“I love you though,” he said, “like a woman. Zede`. I love Carlotta; don’t worry. I also love you.” “Nothing we can do, yes,” she said, firmly. But glowing point of light, hot, growing in her heart, and between her legs she was suddenly wet. Her hand trembled as she touched his hair…...She prayed Arveyda wouldn’t turn and look at her. He did…“And you Zede`?” he asked. “Am I just the son-in-law? I know we can never do anything… but I want to know.” “Ah me,” she said, attempting a little laugh that denied the hot heart and the light in her womb, the wetness nearly on her thighs. The laugh, so false, so incapable of all the deceit required of it, turned into tears. Arveyda took her face in his hands. It had become younger since he’d known her… Only the sadness of the dispossessed of love remained. He would kiss it away. (TMF, 21-22) 

Arveyda, blessed with the gift of sensitivity, can read both Zede`’s grief and longing in her face and give her back what was brutally stolen from her: her right to be loved and to love. His love for Zede`, manifested through the tenderness with which he makes love to her, enables Zede`’s rebirth, which liberates her from her past and the present death-in-life in which she has imprisoned herself. Through a “sacred encounter” that illustrates the powerful correlation between the body and the spirit, Zede` is able, once again, to feel herself as a whole person and heal her state of brokenness:

Now it was as if she had a new body…Under his lips she felt the flowering of her shriveled womb and under his tongue her folded sex came alive. The hairs on her body stood like trees. In truth, the light that she felt inside her in womb and heart now seemed to cover all of her; she felt herself dissolve into the light. (TMF, 23) 

Consequently she is able to tell the story of her pain and begin a new full life, in which she can blossom as she travels, reconnect with her mother, and even finds her love to claim as her own. Suwelo summarizes her transformation in the following words: “It is a happy ending” ( TMF, 400).

Walker also deeply believes that love is the most beautiful passion of the human heart, one that makes life worth living. Pamela Smith, in her essay “Green Lap, Brown Embrace, Blue body: the ecospirituality of Alice Walker”, poignantly describes Walker’s ability to capture the complexities of love by saying that for Walker, love is “never an unconflicted garden”. 4 Smith further points it out that, for Walker it is inevitable because for her, human beings are made to fall in love and are meant to have their hearts broken.

Indeed, the physical love between Zede` and Arveyda has painful consequences for Carlotta, Zede`’s daughter and Arveyda’s wife. It “emptied her of knowledge” (TMF, 27) and broke her heart. To suppress the pain, Carlotta disconnects herself from her body to the extent of being unaware of her physical abuse by Suwelo, for whom she becomes a sexual outlet while his wife is gone. Only Fanny, who is able to feel Carlotta’s pain as she massages her body, understands that the pain is Carlotta’s substance (TMF,320). While Fanny can help to heal Carlotta’s body, she cannot heal her spirit. It is only Arveyda, whose music speaks to the human heart, can heal Carlotta’s broken one.

Arveyda, whose name connotes ancient philosophy of health and healing, ayurveda, has the divine power of a true healer: “[He] and his music were medicine, and, seeing or hearing him, people knew it. They flocked to him as once they might have to priests. He did not disappoint them. Each time he played, he did so with his heart and soul” (TMF, 24). Now, sitting in front of Carlotta, he tries to heal her. Walker is a firm believer in the healing quality of art and its life-saving power. The power of Arveyda’s song reveals to Carlotta her mother’s pain and her cry for forgiveness, enabling Carlotta’s numbed heart at last, to break to the point of being able to open up again, thus facilitating her healing. As the spirits of Arveyda and Zede` touch Carlotta’s heart, each feeling the pain of the other, Carlotta comes to understand that forgiveness is her sole remedy. After hearing Arveyda’s song, she constructs a necklace made from the red parrot-feather earrings her mother had given her: “It was after she began wearing the new necklace that she started, for the first time in years, to dream” (TMF, 200). And Carlotta’s dream leads her to reject vestiges of gender, to express herself through the art of music, and to live in egalitarian harmony with Arveyda. Thus Walker suggests here that sexuality as a means of reuniting our body and spirit enables us to experience the embodied whole self. 

For Walker, our wholeness is in oneness and harmony, balance with nature and universe. Walker summarizes her understanding of human existence on the Earth in the essay “Everything Is a Human Being,” as:

Our primary connection is on the Earth, our mother and father; regardless of who “owns” pieces and parts, we as sister and brother beings to the “four-leggeds (and the fishes) and the wings of the air,” share the whole….Our thoughts must be on how to restore to the Earth its dignity as a living being; how to stop raping and plundering it as a matter of course. We must begin to develop the consciousness that everything has equal rights because existence itself is equal. In other words, we are all here: trees, people, snakes, alike.5

 

Karla Simcikova suggested that these comments by Walker are deeply rooted in the Native American belief that all creation is one substance, and that Earth is our mother, encapsulates Walker’s conviction that in order for us to be whole, we must reclaim our lost original connection to the Earth and see ourselves as part of the natural world. Only then we will experience a sense of being a part of a larger living whole and a sense of oneness, in which everything is in balance and harmony, breathing together. 6 

Walker’s concept of holistic vision intertwined with that of equality in existence, in which humans, animals, and plants are all related as members of one family, is posited against the mechanistic worldview and Christian belief that humans stand apart from the natural world. In the earlier days, before the Cartesian revolution, all religious traditions believed that the soul includes the entire cosmos. Thus plants, animals, planets, as well as the sun, the moon, and the stars, were always considered as living beings. However, in western dualistic concept, the soul was withdrawn from nature. The nature soon became an object in the hands of superior, rational beings, available for exploration, which, in most cases, turned into exploitation, devastation. In Walker’s assessment of the current environmental situation, resulting from Western materialistic consumerism and dehumanizing capitalism that brings destruction in the name of progress

Earth itself has become the nigger of the world…While the Earth is enslaved, none of us is free.7 

For Walker, the fate of Earth/nature is inseparable from that of humans and cannot be considered outside of the spiritual realm, as she believes that the earth on which we live is the body of God. Rejecting a God who condones the rape of earth in the name of progress and discriminates against women and children, Walker argues that the subordination of the earth as interlocking with the oppression of women, who are considered close to nature. Expressing her anger at white people, whom she sees as responsible for the continuous destruction of the earth that affects people’s health, Fanny confesses to Suwelo:

I hate white people …I visualize them sliding off the planet, and the planet saying, Ah, I can breath again! (TMF, 301)

In her imagination, however, as Suwelo points out to her, Fanny does not realize that “actually [in their behavior] they come closer to…causing all of us to slide off the planet… because we share [it]” ( TMF, 301). In their view, whites do not realize that, with their deadly actions, they are destroying themselves, as they destroy the Earth and the rest of the people trying to survive. Fanny’s mother, Olivia, is confident that white people will soon become aware of their harmful behavior. She tells Fanny, they may not know, as yet,

What they are doing, when they treat us so badly…. When they suck all the oil out of the earth on one side of the world and complain about earthquakes on the other… when they fill the sky with space junk and rockets whose important ‘missions’ to spy on the other planets are meaningless to ninety-nine percent of the people and to absolutely all of the plants and animals on the earth. When they invent the things that make us sick…things that kill us. (TMF, 307) 

Unlike Fanny, Walker does not hold the entire white race responsible for the Earth’s destruction. She explains throughout her essays in Living by Word, borrowing the Oglala Sioux term “Wasichu”, which means fat-eaters or fat-takers, she denounces those who are environmentally insensitive, racist, sexist, and greedy. Martin Delveux in his essay, “Transcending Ecofeminism”, declares that Walker’s simultaneous indictment of the damage done to the ecosystem and white man’s racial aggression against a colored people; she proves that she is not only an ecofeminist but, rather, an ecowomaninst writer.8

In the novel, listening to Arveyda’s story about his life, Carlotta “laid herself full length against his comforting warmth, the sheen of his skin seeming to add a shimmer to her own. She nestled against all this goodness, which felt to her to be the very flesh of the earth” (TMF,16). Carlotta’s perception of Arveyda’s body as the body of the earth clearly indicates Walker’s belief that we are the flesh of earth because we are of earth. For Walker, we are coconspirators with the earth, inseparable from her, returning to her arms at the end of our lives. 

According to Walker, the Christian religion has destroyed our connection to Mother Earth by proclaiming the worship of her, or of any part of her, as incompatible with the worship of its patriarchal God. This destruction has occurred in conjunction with the systematic dethroning of matriarchal societies, resulting in suppression of the sacred feminine. As Miss Lissie explains in the novel: 

There were, in the earliest days, raids on the women’s temples, which existed in sacred groves of trees. The men had decided they would be creator, and they went about dethroning woman systematically. (TMF, 63)

With the obliteration of the Goddess symbol, Fanny’s sister, tells Fanny, “the great Mother, creator of All, Protector of All, the keeper of the Earth, The Goddess” (268), the original harmony and balance in the world were disrupted. Unlike the Goddess, who protected and cared for all – men, women, children and animals – patriarchal religion has attributed benefits and privileges mostly to man, who became the dominator. 

Thus, while in the Goddess/Earth/Mother worshiping religions everything was sacred, the patriarchal religion has created a divide between the God and the world. While the ancient religions celebrated life, honored women as life-givers, the patriarchal religions have considered life on earth as secondary, doomed women as evil, giving them very little or no agency and autonomy, or simply eradicating them as witches, fearing their powers. Miss Lissie shares with Suwelo: 

We were witches; our word for healer. We brought their children into the world; we cured their sick; we washed and laid out the bodies of their dead. We were far from evil. We helped Life, and they did not like this at all. Whenever they saw our power it made them feel they had none. They felt themselves the moon to our sun. And yet, as every woman knows, the moon also has great power. We are connected to all three planes- past, present, future-of life; so is man, but he will not let himself see it. (TMF, 196)

Karla Simcikova points out that Walker’s redefinition of witches suggests that the original spirituality of women embodied oneness not only with other people but also with time. Walker revives the concept of the sacredness of the feminine, positing concert with nature, against man invented religions, suggesting that its non-hierarchical structure, which celebrates life-giving and nurturing, may have had a potential for a harmonious existence on the earth.9

While Walker celebrates mother/Earth/Goddess worship to exemplify original spirituality, she does so to glorify not matriarchy, but rather the sense of being in touch with natural order. Walker reclaims paganism as her spiritual tradition, confessing that “in day-to-day life, I worship the Earth as God – representing everything – and nature as its spirit.” 10

Walker believes that we must strive to be who we are, to develop trust in ourselves, our inner feelings, and our intuitive knowledge, and reject the confining conditions of patriarchal gods and of western rationality. In the novel, the character of Miss Lissie, has multiple selves/lives; she is an artist, and loves fiercely. She embodies the almost-lost-from-the-world sacred feminine; she is goddess. While Rafe recognizes her true nature, Hal wonders about the source of her power: “where did it come from? This particular concentrated form of energy that was Lissie?” (TMF, 44). The energy that Hal struggles to understand comes from within, form the soul, the innate basic nature of women.

Her vision of the future… was very broad; it would include everyone, and everything…even the monkeys. (TFM, 305)

As the above quote emphasizes, Alice Walker attempts, in her work, to restore the original harmony between the human and the natural worlds, offering visions of peaceful coexistence between the two. In her imagination, she lets herself be guided by her dreams and intuition, as well as by living in concert with nature and in contentment with oneself. In the novel, through Miss Lissie, the messenger of wholeness, unity, harmony, and the embodiment of the connectedness of all, Walker reaches to the ancient past to reclaim the time of a peaceful co-existence between men and women, different peoples, and animals and humans, the time when the whole universe was one.

Miss Lissie has three different memories of harmonious human co-existence with the natural world, all of them from the pre-patriarchal times when women and men lived separately from each other. In one of them, she was a pygmy woman whose clan lived in trees in the forest, visiting back and forth with their ape cousins from a nearby forest. And she recalls:

It was an arrangement in which the children live with the mothers and aunts; our fathers and uncles are nearby, and we visit…We are in a forest that, for all we know, covers the whole earth…The trees then were like cathedrals, and each one was an apartment building at night. During the day we played under the trees…Our aunts and mothers foraged for food… sometimes leaving us in the care of the big trees. When you knew every branch, every hollow, and every crevice of a tree there was nothing safer; you could hide from whatever might be pursuing you. Besides, we shared the tree with other creatures who… looked out for us. (TMF, 83) 

Human life was simple then, in tune with nature that provided shelter and food. There was a sense of mutual, respectful coexistence, a sense of equality and freedom, of peace and enjoyment. Yet Miss Lissie was not satisfied. She did not want to live segregated, as was the people’s custom, from her mate with whom she was expecting a child. She wanted to live like her ape cousins, as a family, where “the fathers and uncles lived with the mothers and aunts, and all of them played with and looked after the children” (TMF,83). Lissie admires:

They seemed nearly unable to comprehend separateness; they lived and breathed as a family, then as a clan, then as a forest, and so on. If I hurt myself and cried, they cried with me, as if was magically transposed to their bodies… There was no violence in them-that is to say, they did not initiate it, ever- only thoughtfulness. I used to look at them and wonder how we, so little, so naked, so easily contentious, had splintered off. (TMF, 85) 

One day, however, the peaceful co-existence was shattered by a human tribe who raided the forest, killed the apes, and drove the pygmies away in fear. Lissie and her mate did not forget “what we learned from the cousins. We brought up our children to be as much like them as possible; and we stayed together until death, just as the cousins did” (TMF,86). Like Lissie’s memory of the patriarchal takeover described that men took control of women, chasing away their familiars, this memory also suggests that the natural harmony in the world was disrupted because of men’s desire to dominate both women and nature. Here the living arrangement of apes proves that it is possible to live as a family, or a clan, or even an entire forest, without a need for domination; ironically, it also proves that human qualities such as gentleness, care, and thoughtfulness are qualities that people need to learn from animals. 

In her third memory of times when women and men lived separately, and women had their familiars, Lissie was a white man. As she recalls: 

 

In these days…people met other animals in much the same way people today meet each other. You were sharing the same neighborhood, after all. You used the same water, you ate the foods, and you sometimes found yourself peering out of the same cave waiting for a downpour to stop. (TMF, 357-358)

It was a time when people had absolute, perfect oneness with the Earth, one in which “there was everything anyone could imagine, and more than enough for twenty human and animal tribes…The whole tribe climbing an enormous plum tree.” (TMF, 359). This tree of creation, a symbol of diversity and human possibility to co-exist peacefully with the natural world, is the image that Arveyda and Fanny come to see during their climatic moment of cosmic consciousness at the end of the novel. 

The peaceful co-existence is interrupted when Miss Lissie, as the white man, becomes aware of her difference from others; when she notices the anomaly of her white skin. Ashamed and fearful of this unknown characteristic, which she interprets as a lack of her skin, she reacts violently toward her friend, who is trying to comfort her by sharing her grief, chasing her away and causing the death of her faithful animal companion. The incident makes Miss Lissie hide from her people and live in seclusion. Her only companion, for a short time, is her animal friend from childhood, lion Husa, who teaches her “another way of being in the world, away from one’s own kind” (TMF, 363).

The story is instructive in that it suggest while the rest of the people around Miss Lissie could not overlook her difference, they never rejected him. It is because of Miss Lissie’s own dissatisfaction with her difference and desire to be someone other than herself, that she resorts to violence and disrupts the pattern of the universe that supports everybody and everything equally. Not having learned the appreciation of diversity from his animal friends, Miss Lissie, in her life as a white man, fails to accept the gift of original oneness that was given to her. Walker’s understanding of environment is not just limited to nature but extends to the whole web of human relationships. She does not hesitate to include non-human life within her literary cosmology. Her appreciation of nature and her realization that the oppression of women, animals, and the earth stem from the same source, can easily be seen in the novel, The Temple of My Familiar. Infact animals in the novel serve as the trope for Walker’s vision of a woman-centered existence and identity. 

In her collection of essays, Anything We Love Can be Saved (1997), Walker dedicates one chapter to the writing of The Temple of My Familiar. She says that, “the novel is about our collusion with the forces that suppresses and colonizes our spirituality. I saw that our essential ‘familiar’ is our own natural, untamed, ‘wild’ spirit and that its temple is the cosmos, that is freedom” 11. While the novel describes the relationships between men and women, to Walker, the most important relationship is the one between women and animals. In this novel, animals symbolize women’s inner spirit. Animals appear as familiars, as pragmatic tropes for the treatment African Americans received as slaves, and as the voice of morality. 

The novel is “peopled” by peacocks, gorillas, snakes, and lions, and their presence has much to say about Walker’s perception of human beings and their role in the universe. It is through the character from whom we learn most about women’s lives across the centuries and the role animals have played in those lives and the reader, like Hal and Suwelo come to accept the fact that Lissie’s memories extend across the millennia and that in every finished photograph, she appears as a different one of her many past lives including a lion. While animals-as-trope is used on occasion, the novel expresses African American woman’s search for identity via animals. Carol Adams in her book Animals and Women, points out that, the deconstruction of human identity by means of the animal is a very common theme. The reconstruction of human identity by means of the animal is a rare event, which Walker accomplishes in Temple of My Familiar. Adams further explains that characters in the novel work upon their own identities, strive to become complete people at peace with themselves and capable of loving well 12. Walker shows male characters learning how to love women as women want to be loved and does so credibly. Animals come into the story in association with women. The animals do not speak:

 

The animals can remember [says the character Miss Lissie]; for like sight, memory is renewed at every birth. But our language they will never speak; not from lack of intelligence, but from the different construction of their speaking apparatus. In the world of man, someone must speak for them, and that is why, in a nutshell,..goddesses and witches exist. (TMF, 199)

For Adams, the very existence of the most powerful cultural identities women can assume depends upon nonhuman animals. Indeed, since Walker’s characters put the question of animal speech in the context of “the world of man,” women are cast as others whose power comes speaking for animals. This text suggest that to express and to assert the African American female identity into the American consciousness is to express and assert the consciousness of others who have also been oppressed and excluded. This ethic of caring that is fundamental to the Walker’s literary definition of self makes it possible to include non-human characters within her text. In fact in the novel, animals are not only new members of this multivocal community, they are the ethical voices that define African American and African American female identity. These animals become not the “other,” but an expression of the “self”. For the immortal character, Lissie, many lifetimes spent as animal and human, white and black, have arrived at a complete, racially healthy identity in which she recognizes that all lives are equal.

In this text, animals do not function only as literary expressions of African American female identity in 20th century America. The relationship between African American women and animals has more depth and emotion than a literary expression. Animals are also the familiars, the companions of African American women. Since they share many of the same oppressions, African American women also embrace animals as familiars, as kindered souls who, like themselves, possess individual identities.

The apes in this novel represent the communal harmony and suggest an ideal that human society could achieve. Unlike the humans who exist in the forest, the “cousins” as the narrator call them, the apes live a peaceful, vegetarian life that is based on peace and non-violence: 

They seemed nearly unable to comprehend separateness; they lived and breathed as a family, then as a clan, then as a forest, and so on. If I hurt myself and cried, they cried with me, as if my pain was magically transposed to their bodies. (TMF, 85)

As no other time did Lissie experience a life as peaceful and kind as she did when she lived with the “cousins”. Although the cousins do not have a speaking role, they do provide an alternative, ethical lifestyle that reflects Walker’s wish for a human society that could re-vision the planet as one united family. Like Walker, many African American woman writers like Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston understood that the survival, even happiness, depends not upon domination and violence, but upon harmony among peoples, men and women, humans and animals, and humans and nature. Within the literary cosmology of these authors, the oppression of even the smallest, most insignificant member of the earthly community is the oppression of us all.

Thus in the novel The Temple of My Familiar, Walker has clearly dealt with the theme of ecological self and eco spirituality and shows us how it help for the development of characters to achieve spiritual unity and balance. Through the novel, Walker reflects and admires the struggle of black women throughout the history to maintain essential spirituality and creativity in their lives. The achievements of characters like Lissie, Fanny, and Carlotta serve an inspiration to others. Thus through the novel Walker speculates upon an unrecorded history in which women were revered because of their spiritual kinship with the natural world. 

Notes:

1. See Alice Walker’s Living By the Word: Selected Writings 1973-1987. United Kingdom; Orion Books,1988, P-48. 

2. See Karla Simcikova’s To Live Fully Here and Now. United Kingdom; Lexington Publication, 2007, P-86.

3. Op cit, P-147.

4. See Martin Delveaux’s “Transcending Ecofeminism: Alice Walker, Spiritual Ecowomanism, and Environmental Ethics.” Ecofeminism Journal. University of Exters, UK, 2001, P-6.

5. Op cit, P-52. 

6. Op cit, P-52.

( This paper was submitted as part of the course requirement Postgraduate Certificate Course in Women’s Studies conducted by the RCWS in 2008-09) 

Condolence

We offer our deepest sympathies to the family of K.G. Kannnabiran who passed away on 30 December 2010 in Hyderabad. In the course of his long career, as a human rights activist and civil libertarian, K.G. Kannabiran used his considerable knowledge of the legal system to fight against exploitative state policies and repression. These included the Naxalites, the Dalits, the Adivasis and minorities. He has been the President of Andhra Pradesh, Civil Liberties Committee (APCLC), the President of Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee, the National President of People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL) and President for the Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners -Andhra Pradesh Chapter.