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.

Zora Neale Hurston and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

Zora Neale Hurston and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings seem destined to have grown close. Both women wrote about the landscape and communities of their beloved Florida, and they each achieved fame in the 1930s when Hurston was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and Rawlings won the Pulitzer Prize. What’s more, they greatly admired each other’s work.

Photo by Alan Anderson, courtesy of the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Papers, Special and Area Studies Collections, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida.
Photo by Alan Anderson, courtesy of the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Papers, Special and Area Studies Collections, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida.

And yet, theirs was a deeply controversial relationship. Simple acts of camaraderie – sharing a meal, trading ideas, visiting each other – came up against deeply ingrained prejudices, rigid social norms, and even the full weight of the law.

Hurston (the daughter of a former slave) met Rawlings (whose husband owned a white-only hotel) at a time when the Ku Klux Klan operated in parts of Florida and the ‘Jim Crow’ racial segregation laws were harshly enforced by the state.

Despite these almost insuperable barriers, when Rawlings gave a guest lecture to Hurston’s students at the all-black Florida Normal and Industrial College, she was so taken with her host that she invited Hurston to tea the next day at her husband’s white-only hotel.

Fear, prejudice, and conformity ran deep, however. Rawlings quickly regretted her invitation, telling her husband that she had ‘done something terrible’. They arranged for the bell-boy to whisk Hurston up to their private apartment to get her out of sight of their white guests. Their precautions proved unnecessary because Hurston, predicting that her presence might prove sensitive, entered through the kitchen and up the back stairs.

Remarkably, such squalid moral compromises did nothing to hinder their enjoyment of each other’s company. ‘I’ve never had so much fun,’ Rawlings told her husband, and Hurston described Rawlings as a ‘sister’.

Zora Neale Hurston Every effort has been made to obtain permission to reproduce this photograph
Zora Neale Hurston
Every effort has been made to obtain permission to reproduce this photograph

Although their mutual admiration was assured, the ethical dilemmas didn’t stop there. When Hurston visited Rawlings’s country residence, for instance, they talked, laughed, and got tipsy together on her porch. But, when it became clear that Hurston was in no fit state to drive, Rawlings sent her friend to sleep out in the black servants’ quarters although there were plenty of spare bedrooms in the main house.

Hurston – who grew up in an all-black town, possibly the granddaughter of a white slave owner – was adept at navigating the ‘Jim Crow’ laws, and did not seem to hold Rawlings’s racial cowardice against her.

But Rawlings subjected herself to tough questions about her behaviour and, on a second overnight visit, she insisted that this time Hurston stay with her in the house. ‘I had to hurdle an awfully wide ditch!’ she admitted. ‘I was amazed to find that my own prejudices were so deep’.

From then on, Rawlings fought against racial segregation whereas Hurston fought to write about subjects other than race. Yet the world they inhabited was not yet ready to hear them. Rawlings’s reputation dwindled when her editor failed to recognise the quality of her later experimental stories, and Hurston died a pauper, buried in an unmarked grave.

This headstone was purchased by Alice Walker after she found Hurston's unmarked grave in an overgrown and snake infested cemetery. Walker later published an essay about it in Ms magazine, leading to something of a renaissance in Hurston's reputation. Photograph by Alan Anderson.
This headstone was purchased by Alice Walker after she found Hurston’s unmarked grave in an overgrown and snake infested cemetery. Walker later published an essay about it in Ms magazine, leading to something of a renaissance in Hurston’s reputation. Photograph by Alan Anderson.

Activity

Rawlings once threw a private party for Hurston. This month, we will host a Something Rhymed party. We’ll invite a few locally-based writers and supporters of the blog, and we’ll ask each of them to bring along one of their female writer friends. Find out how it goes when we blog about it in the coming weeks.

#SomethingRhymed

We’re keen to promote positive representations of women’s friendship, so with this in mind we’ve just launched our #SomethingRhymed hashtag on Twitter with this tweet: Women’s relationships are too often seen as bitchy & backstabbing. Tell us about a time when a female friend supported you.

We’d love to hear about your positive experiences of female friendship too. If you’re not on Twitter, but would still like to add your voice to the conversation, please do leave a message in the Comments section below.