The acclaimed writer of the Pulitzer Prizewinning novel The Color Purple (1982), Walker has asserted that for her writing is a way to correct wrongs that she observes in the world, and that she has dedicated herself to delineating the unique dual oppression from which black women suffer: racism and sexism. Her work is an exploration of the individual identity of the black woman; in it she examines how embracing her identity and bonding with other women affects the health of her community at large. Walker describes this kinship among women as "womanism," as opposed to feminism.
Walker was born February 9, 1944, and grew up, along with seven older brothers and sisters in Eatonton, Georgia, where her father was a sharecropper. When she was eight years old, one of her brothers accidentally shot her with his BB gun, leaving her scarred and blind in one eye until age fourteen when she underwent surgery to remove the scar tissue. The disfigurement made Walker shy and self-conscious, and she turned to writing as a means of expressing herself. Though Walker had a tenuous relationship with her father, she notes that she respected her mother's strength and perseverance in the face of poverty, and she recalls how hard her mother worked in her garden to create beauty in even the shabbiest of conditions. Despite a disadvantaged childhood, Walker earned a scholarship to Spelman College. She attended Spelman for two years, became disenchanted with what she considered a puritanical atmosphere there, and transferred to Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, to complete her education. While at Sarah Lawrence, Walker wrote her first collection of poetry, Once (1968), in reaction to a traumatic abortion she experienced during her senior year of college. Walker shared the poems with one of her teachers, poet Muriel Rukeyser, whose agent found a publisher for them.
After college, Walker moved to Mississippi to work as a teacher and a civil rights advocate. In 1967 she married Melvyn Leventhal, a Jewish civil rights attorney; they became the first legally married interracial couple to reside in Jackson, Mississippi. Walker and Leventhal had a daughter, Rebecca; they divorced in 1976. While working in Mississippi, Walker discovered the writings of Zora Neale Hurston, an author whose works greatly influenced Walker's later work. Walker eventually edited a collection of Hurston's fiction called I Love Myself When I Am Laughing … and Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader (1979). In addition to poetry, Walker has written short stories, collected in In Love and Trouble (1973) and You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down (1981), and several novels, most notably The Color Purple, which received both the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award.
Walker's first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970), introduces many of the themes that became prevalent in her later work, particularly the domination of powerless women by equally powerless men. The novel follows three generations of a black southern family of sharecroppers and its patriarch, Grange Copeland, as they struggle with racism and poverty. In Grange's "first life" he tortures his wife until she commits suicide. His son Brownfield inherits Grange's sense of helplessness and hatred, and eventually murders his own wife. In Grange's "second life" he attempts to escape to the industrial North. Walker does not present industrial labor as a viable solution to the poverty of the South, however, and in his "third life" Grange returns to his southern home. At the end of the novel, Grange has become a compassionate man who longs to atone for the legacy of hate he has left his family, attempting to help his granddaughter Ruth escape from her father (Brownfield) and the South as a gesture of his remorse. Another prominent theme in Walker's fiction deals with the ways in which black women seek "wholeness" and this quest's impact on the health of the community. The attempt at wholeness comes from remaining true to one's self and fighting against the constraints of society, as portrayed in the stories from Walker's collection In Love and Trouble.
Walker's novel Meridian (1976) is considered an autobiographical work. The title character is born in the rural South, like Walker, and uses education as a means of escape. Pregnant and married to a high school dropout, Meridian struggles with thoughts of suicide or killing her child, but eventually decides to give the child up and attend college. After graduating, she enters an organization of black militants in Mississippi, but realizes she is not willing to kill for the cause. With this knowledge she resolves to return to rural Mississippi to help its residents struggle against oppression.
In The Color Purple, Walker uses an epistolary form to create a woman-centered focus for her novel. The letters span thirty years in the life of Celie, a poor southern black woman. Celie is victimized physically and emotionally by her stepfather, who repeatedly rapes her and then takes their children away from her, and by her husband, an older widower who sees her more as a mule than as a wife. Celie's letters are written to God and to Celie's sister Nettie, who escaped a similar life by becoming a missionary in Africa. Celie overcomes her oppression with the intervention of an unlikely ally, her husband's mistress, Shug Avery. Shug helps Celie find self-esteem and the courage to leave her marriage. By the end of the novel, Celie is reunited with her children and her sister.
The Temple of My Familiar (1989) is an ambitious novel recording 500,000 years of human history. 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.
In Possessing the Secret of Joy (1992), Walker examines the practice of female genital mutilation. The novel focuses on Tashi, a woman who willingly requests the ritual, in part because she is unaware of what the ceremony involves. Since discussion of the ritual is taboo in her culture, Tashi is ignorant of the profound impact the procedure will have on her life. This ritual is further examined in Warrior Marks (1994), a nonfiction account of this ceremony that is still practiced in many parts of the world. Walker also collaborated with Indian filmmaker Pratibha Parmar to produce a film with the same title. The book covers the making of the film as well as bringing to light the consequences of this practice.
There are several widely debated aspects of Walker's writing. One such aspect is her portrayal of black male characters as archetypes of black men in modern society. Many reviewers condemn her portrayals of black men as unnecessarily negative, pointing to the vile characters in some of her work and to her own comments about black men as evidence of enmity on her part. Other critics assert that the author, in presenting flawed characters, reveals typical shortcomings in the hope that real people burdened with these flaws will recognize themselves in her stories and strive to improve. Some reviewers also assert that Walker's work contains positive images of black men that are often ignored by critics. Beyond her portrayal of black men, some reviewers have found fault with Walker's characterization in general, opposing her tendency to refer to characters only with pronouns, thereby encouraging readers to consider the characters exemplary of anyone to whom that pronoun could apply. Finally, Walker's work is often viewed as political in intent, at times to the detriment of its literary value.
In contrast, reviewers praise works such as In Love and Trouble for balancing the art of storytelling with political concerns. Critics commend Walker's use of oral storytelling tradition, finding her work most convincing when she employs anecdotal narrative. Overall, critics commend her ability to incorporate a message within her narratives. Critics have also lauded Warrior Marks for its exposure of the practice of female genital mutilation. Walker's work consistently reflects her concern with racial, sexual, and political issues—particularly with the black woman's struggle for spiritual survival. Addressing detractors who fault her "unabashedly feminist viewpoint," Walker explained: "The black woman is one of America's greatest heroes.…Notenough credit has been given to the black woman who has been oppressed beyond recognition."