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Literature Authors Bebe Moore Campbell and Alice Walker talk about female sexuality in a patriarchal society.

November 04, 1998

Alice Walker, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "The Color Purple," recently sat down with Bebe Moore Campbell, winner of the NAACP Image Award for outstanding literature, at the invitation of the nonprofit author lecture series Writers Bloc. The authors' discussion ranged from Walker's new book, "By the Light of My Father's Smile," to religion and society at large.

"This book is about a particular kind of healing between fathers and daughters, and it reinforces my very strong belief that if fathers could be in alliance with their daughters from birth and support them completely to the point of embracing their autonomy, we could actually change the way the world is going, and we could change society within a couple of generations," Walker said.

"To make a very complicated story somewhat less complicated and brief, two black anthropologists in the '40s received money from their church to go and study an endangered tribe of people called the Mundo. The Mundo people have a distinct way of looking at life, which the church, of course, does not recognize as valid. And this anthropologist's father, even though he's an agnostic, goes there and tries to force a sort of indoctrination that he doesn't believe on these people. And in doing this, he comes up against the very strong sexuality of his own daughter, and in a fit of being unable to control her, he beats her and scars her very badly."

Following is an edited version of the authors' conversation.

Bebe Moore Campbell: I read your book this week, and it suggested to me that fathers need to support the sexuality of their daughters. Something I feel is true, but I understand the fear that can block that, particularly now, we're living in an age of treacherous sexual disease and then there's also the fear of pregnancy. So how can, if you're talking to the fathers in the room, how could they negotiate that for young daughters? What does your book suggest on that?

Alice Walker: Well, it's precisely because we are living in a time of disease and death that fathers must be more up-front honest and truthful with their daughters. And fathers tend to know what's out there, and it's a good thing, I think, for them to share that knowledge with their daughters, so that the daughters do not go out into the world unarmed.

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Campbell: Do you think it's more the fear of pregnancy, the fear of disease, or is it basically the fear of the daughter's sexuality that is the greatest fear?

Walker: Well, it's indoctrination of at least 5,000 or 6,000 years of patriarchal thought and also the Judeo-Christian religion the church especially has really made many of us deeply fearful of sexuality in women because it has been demonized as something that Eve is responsible for, basically the evilness of it. I think even fathers--like the one in this book, who's an agnostic--who don't subscribe to that, there's still a way in which it is just so entrenched in the culture that people don't even think about it. They just think that as the child begins to look like a woman they have to back up.

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Campbell: Do you think that when we can't find [support] can women, particularly in this society, although they haven't been the only ones hurt by the repressiveness of the sexuality, but I think we've been the most hurt, can we nurture ourselves back to health? If we've been repressed, if we've been molested, if we've been wounded in whatever way that Magdelena in the novel "The Light of my Father's Smile" has been wounded--she seemed unable to nurture herself back, at least on this side of . . . life.

Walker: Yes, I think that, as she says in this novel, there are some things you don't heal from in this lifetime and, fortunately, the people of the Mundo have a belief system that permits them to heal after this lifetime. In fact, their belief is that you continue after death for just a short period of time in which you do repair the damage that you've done to others and to yourself and then you disappear. I mean you're gone. They don't have this sense of, you know, coming back again and again and again. It's a very different way of looking at things, and it's very indigenous in that these are people who don't feel like they have to stick around or necessarily be remembered. They're more like the people who live a life and then carefully erase it so that the Earth remains very clean of any kind of inflicted damage done by them.

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Campbell: I think when you all read this, you will want to hang out with the Mundo. They are the kinda people, I mean, they're living in the moment . . . they were cool, they were just easy-come easy-go, permissive, open, friendly.

Walker: Well, it has a lot to do with facing genocide, which is basically what is happening with indigenous peoples and which has been happening for 500 years. It's their determination to hold on to a belief system and to not let it die because they see that it is really valuable.

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