You may not be able to keep a good woman down, but people sure try their hardest to do just that in Alice Walker's 1981 collection of short stories. Haven't heard of this one before? That's probably because this book is meant to challenge you, and we'll be real: not everyone wants to be challenged.
Alice Walker isn't messing around. She's here to take names and make you face the truth.
If you spend five minutes with the stories in You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down, you'll also see Walker has a talent for creating some seriously NSFW fiction. (She did it again a year later, in 1982, with her Pulitzer Prize-winning work The Color Purple, which managed to get itself banned in schools and libraries across the United States.) Her portrayals of domestic violence, rape, and racially motivated oppression struck some folks as a legit case of TMI.
But, Shmoopers, you're Shmoopers. We know you can handle it.
Controversy aside, Walker totally racks up the kudos precisely because she's willing to stare the hard issues in the eye and refuses to sugarcoat the reality of being a woman of color. For many, her work is life-changing stuff. A young Oprah was so touched by Walker's work that she literally walked down the street every day with a backpack full of her books, handing them out to (probably frightened) strangers.
Now, critics and fans alike didn't really crush on You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down like they did with The Color Purple. It went over, for many people, like an industrial noise band crashing a Twenty One Pilots concert.
That's because Walker uses this collection of 14 short stories to confront tough issues in unconventional ways. She stretches the short story form almost to the breaking point, throwing in essay-like pieces and blurring the lines of fiction by introducing a first-person narrator who looks a lot like someone we know (ahem, Walker herself).
While she does throw us a bone with her charming story about a Black female blues singer (just like "Big Mama" Thornton) and a rock-'n'-roll star (just like Elvis), Walker doesn't keep us comfortable. The stories that follow take up the struggle against the legacies of slavery: pornography, interracial violence, the persistence of stereotypes, and an internalized segregation that "keeps people in their place" long after Jim Crow left the building.
That's a lot of truth under one roof. And you know what Jack Nicholson says about people and the truth…
Okay, it's possible that you'll think you don't have any chemistry with the characters in this book because you aren't part of the communities that they move in. Or you might think that Walker's major issues—race, sexuality, gender—are just NBD anymore. You know, yesterday's news.
But you'd be wrong on both counts. Check out what Walker had to say when an interviewer asked her about connecting with younger readers who didn't share her experiences growing up in the Jim Crow South:
It's all happening in our time. All you need to do is open your eyes. Someone right now is living my life 50 or 60 years ago in this country, today. If you are thinking you are separate in any way, just wander onto any reservation. Wander to any part of the ghetto or any streets on the back roads of Georgia. It's still there. And so I think we have to remind ourselves of this so we don't get caught in that path that we have to have had the exact experience of someone else. (Source)
Hard truth: these tensions have never really gone away. If you've been paying attention to the "Water Protectors" of Standing Rock, the Black Lives Matter movement, or to the Women's March, you know what Walker is talking about in her stories. Her world really still is our world.
And that's also why You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down has come roaring out of the '80s to bask in the sunlight of the 21st century. Walker's stories let us share in lives that may or may not be like our own so that our lack of "exact experience" doesn't become a stumbling block to our changing our world.
Make It Official
Check out Alice Walker's official website, which features her bio, snippets of poetry and prose, a blog, links out to other authors' works, photographs, and essays.
This website has two brief videos and a whole lot of biographical info on Walker and her accomplishments.
The Story of Another Good Woman
There are no productions of You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down, but there is a documentary about Alice Walker's life.
Putting It All on the Table…
In this interview, Walker explains her idea of "womanism," why the slaughter of animals for food is so disturbing, and how her work embodies her philosophies. You know, life, the universe, and everything.
Dishing on Walker
Poet and critic Katha Pollitt has nooo problem speaking her mind about Walker's collection of stories.
This one is all about the power of poetry in our time, why it's important to open our eyes to the lives of others, and the voice of grandmothers.
The Meaning of It All
A quick video of Alice Walker reflecting on her life and experiences.
Walker on Women's Issues
A BBC interview with Alice Walker on women's issues, the state of the feminine, what men can do to change violence against women—and how women have to change, too.
Not Exactly Bedtime Stories…
Alice Walker reads "Fame" and "The Abortion"; her interviewer reads "A Letter of the Times, or Should This Sado-Masochism Be Saved?" and "Coming Apart: By Way of Introduction to Lorde, Teish and Gardner." Also: there's tons of chatting about the stories in between readings.