To experience the full flavor of Alice Walker's fourth novel, The Temple of My Familiar, a reader must allow him- or herself to expand and collapse within an intensely provocative expression of a womanist world view. In fact, calling The Temple of My Familiar a novel is a misnomer. The book, published in 1989, is anything but a novel. It is a collection of loosely related stories, a political platform, a sermon, and a stream of dreams and memories bound together by definitions of (and explanations for) the present state of human affairs.
The book explodes with imagination and presents a past (and a present) in which all things are possible through change, respect, and self-awareness. This optimistic view of the world is presented through the memories of Miss Lissie, a woman who has experienced several incarnations; Zedé and Carlotta, a mother and daughter who share the intimate affections and love of one man; Fanny Nzingha, granddaughter of Celie from The Color Purple (1982); Suwelo, an American history professor; and an array of other characters (including Shug Avery from The Color Purple).
The Temple of My Familiar is the ultimate expression of womanism. There is virtually no subject that escapes Walker's womanist commentary. The book speaks of homosexuality, AIDS, drug abuse, racism, religion, parenting, marriage, and death. A cascade of memories (ancient and contemporary) connect these issues to the various stories and messages of the book. 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. Regardless of financial standing, throughout time the “enslaved” have endured an endless struggle for gracious living. The importance of this theme is summarized by the character Fanny Nzingha who comments that “all daily stories are in fact ancient and ancient ones current…. There is nothing new under the sun.”
Present in each story is the suppression of individuality by rules of morality and by the power one culture (usually white culture) wills over another. One clear message of this book is that although suffering is not new, it is inflamed by ignorance and freed by determination and change. Although The Temple of My Familiar demands respect for the instruments of change (self-awareness, freedom, equality, love, and respect), it does not insist that change is always positive. According to Zedé, the moment prehistoric man sought to emulate woman (and produce life through a physical opening that he did not possess) destruction, disorder, and death were conceived.
If this concept sounds somewhat mythic, that is only because it is. The entire book is a myth–a rewriting of history so that her story, or at least Walker's version of it, can surface and shine. In this book, an acknowledgment of the sacredness of woman, love for her essential nature, and respect of her power is the key to finding healing in a world that has gone wrong.
Ikenna Dieke, “Toward a Monastic Idealism: The Thematics of Alice Walker's The Temple of My Familiar,” African American Review 26.3 (1992): 507–514.Clara Juncker, “Black Magic: Woman(ist) as Artist in Alice Walker's The Temple of My Familiar,” American Studies in Scandinavia 24.1 (1992): 37–49.
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Alice Walker (b. 1944) American writer and critic