Pratibha Parmar and Alice Walker

In March, we announced that Something Rhymed would, for the first time, be open to submissions. It is a particular pleasure that the first profile post we received from our call for submissions came from former City University student Alice Fitzgerald. As she celebrates the publication of her debut novel, Her Mother’s Daughter, she wrote for Something Rhymed about the friendship of her literary heroines Pratibha Parmar and Alice Walker

We also spread the word that we were looking for people to help us out with the editorial and administrative side of things. It was wonderful to hear back from Kathleen Dixon Donnelly, who we knew of through her fascinating blog, Such Friends, which explores the early-twentieth century literary salons of the Irish Literary Renaissance, the Bloomsbury Group, the Americans in Paris, and the Algonquin Round Table. Our thanks to Kathleen for editing this post. 

If you would like to get more involved with Something Rhymed, please find further details here.

You might know Alice Walker as the author of groundbreaking novel, The Color Purple. This would make sense; it was off the back of this book that she made history as the first African-American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, as well as the National Book Award, in 1983, gaining more fame when the novel was made into a film directed by Steven Spielberg in 1985. In fact, Walker is a prolific writer, having penned everything from poetry and essays to short fiction and novels.

Born in 1944, the eighth child to sharecropper parents in Georgia during a time of racial segregation, she is also an activist, best known for her work with civil rights, women’s equality and peace campaigns. She coined the term ‘womanism’ in 1979 to describe a black feminist or feminist of colour.

British filmmaker Pratibha Parmar, meanwhile, was born just over a decade later in Kenya to a family who had emigrated from India to East Africa during the period of the British Empire, and migrated again to England in a group that the British media then termed ‘East African Asians’. Hailing from a persecuted people who had travelled across three continents, Parmar’s work is embedded in political complexity, examining themes such as gender, identity, LGBT issues, race and feminism.

It was Walker’s political beliefs and prominent role as an activist that first brought her and Parmar together. Having written Possessing the Secret of Joy, a novel which touches on female genital mutilation, Walker hoped to make a film on this controversial practice of female circumcision. She wanted to put her words into something more visual and accessible, and Parmar was happy to make that a reality.

The 1994 documentary, Warrior Marks, went on to win awards, and ‘that harrowing journey both triggered and cemented our mutual respect and trust’, Parmar told E. Nina Rothe in 2013 of her relationship with Walker. The two women soon went on to co-publish the book, Warrior Marks: Female Genital Mutilation and the Sexual Blinding of Women.

Alice Walker (left) and Pratibha Parmar (right) by Shaheen Haq, the producer of Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth.

Their friendship now stretches over more than 25 years. Like most of us, they communicate over email. Parmar is now based in San Francisco and Walker has a house in Mexico. There have been more fruits of their friendship, too. In 2013, Parmar made a documentary film about Walker’s life. ‘Two exceptional women, talking about one exceptional woman’s life, with the help of a few really exceptional friends’, writes Rothe in her Huffington Post article.

Parmar’s love, respect and admiration for her friend are clear throughout the beautifully-shot documentary, called Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth, which is Parmar’scontribution to filling this gaping abyss of on screen representations of women as history makers and shapers, women as public intellectuals and visionary leaders’.

As with any friendship that spans a length of time, one has seen the other change and grow. Speaking of Walker, Parmar told Bernard Boo in a 2013 interview on Way Too IndieShe’s gone through so many different experiences over the last few decades that I’ve known her, I’ve seen her grow, I’ve seen her suffer, I’ve seen her speak out about things even when she knows it won’t make her popular with people. Through all of that, I would say that there is an essence that’s never changed. She has a very strong inner core and will that’s powered her through her life.’

There have been hard times, too; Warrior Marks earned them criticism for not being African women. But Walker had wise words for her friend. Pratibha. Teflon,’ Walker told Parmar. She said I had to develop a skin like Teflon. She’s had to have done that to survive’, explains the filmmaker.

HERMOTHERSDAUGHTERWritten by Alice Fitzgerald, whose debut novel Her Mother’s Daughter is out now with Allen & Unwin. You can follow her on Twitter @AliceFitzWrites

 

 

     Edited by Kathleen Dixon Donnelly, who posts at Such Friends, and is  currently             working on a book, ‘Such Friends’: A Scrapbook Almanac of Writers’ Salons,                   1897-1930.

A Friendship Important in So Many Ways

'A rainbow in somebody's cloud' - Maya Angelou Image taken at the Hay Festival, 28 May 2014)
‘A rainbow in somebody’s cloud’ – Maya Angelou
(Image taken at Hay Festival, 28 May 2014)

We are saddened by the death of Maya Angelou, a writer whose life and work has been an inspiration to people the world over, and a woman from whose great capacity for friendship we’ve learned so much this year.

Regular readers of Something Rhymed will know that we profiled Angelou’s relationship with Toni Morrison back in February. Influenced by their championing of each other’s achievements, we set ourselves the task, on a much smaller scale, to follow their example.

We made lists of the things we admired about each other and developed them into pieces of creative work. Although we’d always considered our friendship to be a very open one, we were surprised by how many of the points we noted down we had never spoken of before.

It made us wonder how long we might have gone on silently appreciating, but never expressing, that we valued these qualities if we hadn’t paid attention to Angelou and Morrison.

When we discovered that Morrison would be appearing at Wales’s Hay Festival this year, we quickly bought tickets to hear her talk. We knew that she and Angelou had bonded years ago at Hay, when both women found themselves far away from home at a time when their mothers were ill. And so it felt particularly poignant that it was during yesterday’s festival session that many audience members (ourselves included) first heard that Angelou had died.

Morrison eloquently gave voice to the gasps that rippled through the vast tent when she spoke of her personal loss. ‘I thought she was eternal,’ she said. ‘I thought she always, always would be there.’

As writer friends ourselves, it is difficult to listen to language like this without wondering how one of us would cope in a similar situation, how we would feel if the person we’d come to rely on to such an extent was suddenly gone from our life.

Morrison, who called Angelou ‘a real original’, was understandably reluctant to say too much about her death. ‘It hurts so much that I have no treasurable, powerful, elegant words to say about that,’ she told the crowd. ‘I need time to talk about Maya. She was important in so many ways.’

But what struck us as we listened was the extent to which each of these women had already made significant efforts to commemorate the life of her friend.

Morrison’s speech in praise of Angelou at the USA’s most recent National Book Awards was a case in point, as was the party Angelou threw for her friend in 1993 – a response to what she saw as a lack of official national acknowledgement when Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

We are thankful for what we have learned from this literary pair: that it is important to celebrate the lives of our close ones, not just in fine tributes once they are gone, but also when they are still here.

Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison

Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison at the My Sheer Good Fortune event at Virginia Tech. (Photo used with their kind permission.)
Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison at the Sheer Good Fortune event at Virginia Tech. (Photo used with their kind permission.)

When Maya Angelou was honoured at the USA’s 2013 National Book Awards, it was Toni Morrison who presented her with the Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community.

At the ceremony, Morrison spoke with clear emotion of her ‘personal pleasure’ at being able to hand over the prize to a friend who ‘inspires delight as well as awe’.

Now both in their eighties, it wasn’t the first time that one of these grandes dames of American letters had taken the opportunity to lavish praise on the other in public. The previous year, Angelou was a member of an all-female trio who hosted an event called Sheer Good Fortune in honour of Toni Morrison.

The title was inspired by the dedication from the author’s novel Sula, ‘It is sheer good fortune to miss somebody long before they leave you’, and this sentiment is clearly something that her friend has taken to heart for some time. When Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature back in 1993, Angelou decided to throw her a party because, as she would later recall, she felt it was something the United States should have done.

As two African Americans, two women, two writers of a similar age, these two have sometimes found themselves grouped together for the crudest of reasons. Morrison in particular has sometimes been keen to distance herself from Angelou in a literary sense – describing the author of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings as a very different writer from her.

Nonetheless, they clearly have the greatest respect for each other, both as artists and women. As Angelou says they have been ‘sister friends’ for decades, and have been able to call on each other over the years for personal as well as public support.

They especially enjoyed being able to bond with each other at a past book festival at Wales’s Hay on Wye, when both were far away from home at a time when their mothers were ill. And, as Morrison recalled in her recent awards tribute speech for her friend, when her son died one Christmas, Angelou was the very first non-family member to call her up on the phone with what she describes as ‘that unmistakable voice of sheer balm’.

Activity

In Toni Morrison’s recent speech to honour her friend, she described Maya Angelou’s many attributes, which range from the artistic to the personal to the culinary. As she says, ‘Maya can cook.’

This month we’re challenging ourselves to make lists of all the things we admire in each other and then we’re going to do something creative with it. Maybe we’ll polish up the wording and mount it on a card or, like Morrison, we might turn it into a crafted prose piece, or perhaps a poem. Or we could come at things from a different angle entirely, working parts of our lists into a painting or collage, even icing them onto a cake.

We’ll be letting you know what we decide to do and showing you something of what we produce.

We are interested in hearing recommendations of other female writing friendships that we could showcase on this site. If you know of a literary pair of women, past or present, who have supported each other’s work, do please get in touch.