3 Controversial Novels written by 3 Fearless Women

At the start of 2019 I made a commitment to seek out as many banned books as possible and do my best to champion them. During my research, a lot of the same names came up. Among the most frequent were The Color Purple, The Bluest Eye, and Wetlands. I knew nothing about these books except that they had caused a real stir. They outraged churchy moral guardians and knee-jerk conservative snowflakes, so that was good enough for me. I snagged them all from my go-to second-hand bookstore World of Books and got reading as fast as I could.

Instead of doing my usual thing of spacing them out throughout the year to give my schedule as much variety as possible, I thought it might be fun to read all three books consecutively and review them together in a singular, interwoven blog post. I liked the idea of a reading schedule divided into themed chunks rather than a jumbled continuum of randomly-selected books. It made the experience of reading each book more exciting, because each one felt like a part of a greater project.

What I admire most about controversial literature is the fearlessness of its authors. It takes guts just to hand out printed copies of a short story in a writing workshop, and it takes even more guts to release a book for public consumption. So to publish something that tackles challenging subjects and asks hard questions, that upsets established social mores and offends conventional tastes, that demands attention be given to subversive and alternative voices, takes massive, astronomical, Mancubus-sized guts.

Today’s post is about three novels written by three gutsy women. I hope ya like it!

 

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Introduction.

This was my first time reading each author. I knew Toni Morrison by reputation, but I didn’t know anything about her body of work or her particular literary voice. So she’s kind of like Led Zeppelin or Michael Jordan in that regard, insofar as I understood the significance of her name before investigating her work in detail.

By contrast, I had heard of The Color Purple but not its author, Alice Walker. I knew that The Color Purple was one of those cherished books ingrained into the public consciousness, much like Of Mice and Men and To Kill a Mockingbird, often listed as among peoples’ favorites. I knew that it resonated with women readers in particular, and that it was considered important and empowering. As I was reading it I had several women come up to me and tell me how much they loved the book and how powerful it was. Because of how widely loved this book is- and because the cover features a beautiful woman pictured against a serene backdrop of flowers, I expected the book to be uplifting and sentimental. And it does get that way toward the end, but before that there’s some horrifying stuff. I expected heavy themes, but I figured it would be hinted at or suggested. Then of course, I saw its name on every list I could find about controversial literature. But a book doesn’t necessarily need to be graphic in order to be controversial; if two fictional penguins so much as touch flippers it’s enough to cause a major literary shitstorm. So I still wasn’t totally prepared for The Color Purple to be as brutal as it in fact is. And this book is brutal. Right off the bat too. On the very first page our fourteen-year old protagonist gets violently raped by her father. Walker describes this in terse, graphic detail, writing “Then he grab hold my titties. Then he push his thing inside my pussy”. The protagonist- and by extension, real-life victims of abuse- is spared nothing, and therefore neither are we. We don’t get to have our delicate sensibilities protected, and that’s why this book is so powerful. The straightforward language demands our attention, and I liked that a lot. It should be shocking and uncomfortable because that’s what it is. From the get-go we feel like we are right there with Celie, that her pains are our pains, and that’s part of what makes this book so readable.

I had neither heard of Wetlands nor its author, Charlotte Roche, prior to my research of banned books. Published in 2009, this is the most modern of the three books on my list. For the most part this book was as I expected it to be- much more lighthearted in tone, playfully provocative, and existing less as a conventional plot and more as a series of nonlinear anecdotes and flashbacks. The cover art for this book is perfect, and the vibe it gave me was very much indicative of the book as a whole. A cross section of an avocado against a hot pink background. It shouldn’t be cheeky and yet it is. The avocado is a fruit that has a longstanding association with sex and fertility. The Aztecs believed it was an aphrodisiac, and today it is celebrated as a kind of fertility-boosting superfood, being rich in monounsaturated fats and folic acid. Even the shape of the fruit is often likened to the curves of a woman. Of course, in the context of this novel, the cover art is a reference to the protagonist’s fetish for inserting the cores of avocados into her vagina. I feel like a lot of thought went into the shade of pink used in the background. It’s meant to be suggestive of flesh and make you uncomfortable. You’re meant to look at the cover and feel like something’s not quite right, but you’re not sure why.

As for the cover of Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, we are given a freaky-looking doll with blue eyes. This is a doll that’s profoundly disturbing in its design. It’s not beautiful or cuddly. And this image definitely sets the tone for the book, itself being a reference to the character Claudia’s habit of dismembering the white dolls she is given for Christmas in the hope of discovering what makes them beautiful.

 

The first sentence.

The Color Purple

“You better not never tell nobody but God. It’d kill your mammy.”

The Color Purple is an epistolary novel. Celie has no one to confide in at the beginning of the book, so everything she says is addressed either to herself or to God. The first sentence here is reflective of the stifling atmosphere of Celie’s world. Feeling utterly powerless and incapable of controlling events, she begins the novel in survival mode. Her entire focus is on reducing her suffering as much as possible. And the constant sense of fear and paranoia this creates is felt straight away in this opening line.

The Bluest Eye

“Quiet as it’s kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941.”

What’s interesting about The Bluest Eye is that it touches on a lot of similar things to The Color Purple, but from a completely different angle. Both novels feature instances of rape, child molestation, and incest. But whereas the darkness of The Color Purple strikes you from the very first page- and is unrelenting throughout much of the novel- the darkness in The Bluest Eye feels a lot more insidious. From the opening page of The Color Purple we see that all sense of innocence is lost for Celie. The novel feels so claustrophobic, out of time, and disconnected from the rest of the world, as though Celie’s entire universe is this miserable shack in the woods and her tyrant father. In The Bluest Eye however, we see a much more gradual loss of innocence. We see each of the characters trying to make sense of the world around them, and there’s a real exploratory vibe to a lot of the scenes that captures the spirit of adolescence. My initial thought upon finishing the novel was that it felt like a fairy tale that had gone awry. I think this is reflected in the first sentence, which is less personal and intimate than the other two books on this list and much more concerned with a sense of atmosphere and mood. It also foreshadows the tragic ending of the book, in which the children plant marigolds in the superstitious belief that if they bloom, Pecola’s baby will survive. Of course, the flowers never bloom, and the baby dies prematurely. The marigolds in this instance are a metaphor for the loss of innocence and a commentary on the fact that some people (due to racial and economic inequality) never get a chance to flourish.

 

Wetlands

“As far back as I can remember, I’ve had hemorrhoids.”

The first sentence here really does establish the tone of the book going forward. It’s frank, playful, and confessional. Unlike the previous two books, the protagonist of Wetlands feels like she is talking directly to the reader in the first person. The character of Helen Memel is nothing if not an exhibitionist, and as we learn later in the novel, a lot of this stems from her crippling sense of loneliness. Looking back on the first sentence after finishing the book, I can feel that sense of loneliness, that need to be heard.

 

The premise.

The Color Purple

To me, this book is all about Celie’s search for two things: happiness and agency. When the novel begins, she is repeatedly raped by her father and gives birth to two children that the father supposedly takes out to the woods and kills. Pretty soon after this, the father marries her off to a local farmer who wants someone to look after his house and raise his motherless children for him. Everything changes though, when Celie meets someone that allows her to finally discover the nascent strength within her.

 

The Bluest Eye

The Bluest Eye is the story of Pecola Breedlove and the people around her. Pecola is a sweet but extremely passive girl that comes from a troubled home. Unlike Celie, whose isolation is compounded by the fact she lives in rural Georgia, Pecola lives in a shabby apartment in the city of Lorrain, Ohio. The urban landscape is an interesting contrast, as Pecola is molded much more by the community around her. Both Celie and Pecola are bullied and reminded of how “black” and “ugly” they are. But with Pecola, it comes less from one despicable character and more the community at large. And as the last page of the novel suggests, the true villain might be the community itself. The novel begins with Pecola arriving in the MacTeer household as a temporary foster child after her alcoholic father burns down their apartment. The action shifts between several time periods and perspectives as the circumstances of Pecola’s eventual rape by her father are established.

 

Wetlands

At the beginning of the novel Helen goes into surgery to treat her hemorrhoids, during which tissue is removed from her anus. In constant pain and unable to walk or sit down properly, she has nothing to do but wait for the fragile flesh to heal. The doctors say that she’ll be released from hospital once she has a bowel movement. Helen develops a plan for her divorced parents to reconcile at her bedside, and even goes so far as lying to the doctors and self-mutilating in order to prolong her stay.

 

The characters.

The Color Purple

When looking back on the characters in Walker’s novel, the character of Alphonso seems like an outlier to me. He’s not the only antagonist in the book, but he’s the only true malevolent villain. He feels like a literary device rather than a real person, as evil and inhuman as Popeye, Judge Holden, Lovelace, and the other great villains of literature. He’s almost like a storm or a plague in some ways, in that one day he arrives into town and disrupts the relative equilibrium. No real insight is given into his origins or what made him the way he is, he just emerges out of the dark as a manifestation of greed, ambition, and cruelty.

The other characters, however flawed, came across as profoundly real. Out of all three books, The Color Purple had the most interesting characters for me. Obviously Celie finding her strength is an immensely satisfying character arc, and she goes from being paralyzed by fear at the start of the novel to dishing out all kinds of sass at the end of it. So I love Celie- but I have to talk about the peripheral characters. My favorite character in the whole novel was Sophia, because she does everything you shout at the page for a character to do but which you never expect. When the mayor slaps her in public, Sophia decides to knock him out cold with a right hand cross to the jaw. She doesn’t take shit from anyone and she helps Celie get out of the mentality that she can’t do anything if someone abuses her. When Harpo tries to beat Sophia in order to get her to obey him, she kicks the shit out of him and moves out, eventually forming a healthy relationship with a prizefighter that despite his tough appearance, is exactly the kind of sensitive and respectful partner she needs (and deserves).

But despite his actions, I feel like the character of Harpo is actually shown in quite a sympathetic light. It’s not his natural instinct to beat his wife- he only does it because that’s what his father and local community tell him to do. His misogynistic behavior isn’t inborn, but rather a product of a vicious, cyclical system that pervades the time and culture at large. He’s conditioned into believing that his wife must be completely subservient to him, and that he should regularly beat her to remind her of her place. For the most part, Harpo comes across as quite goofy and lovable, if a little slow-witted. His father Albert has seemingly no redeeming qualities throughout much of the book. He’s cruel, manipulative, bitter, jealous, self-centered, misogynistic, and lazy. And yet he loves Shug Avery. Shug reveals to Celie that Albert used to be a lot nicer, and that he once had a great sense of humor and a playful, happy-go-lucky spirit. By the end of the novel, Albert feels guilty about mistreating Celie and changes his whole outlook on life. He resolves to be a better person and to try and atone for all the horrible things he did to his wife. His catharsis, while not excusing his awful behavior, is nonetheless satisfying to read, and it’s what separates him from Alphonso. He’s the last person you’d think capable of change or forgiveness, but his character arc lends a real sense of optimism and hope to the book. It suggests that no one is too far gone.

For all the novel’s darkness, there’s actually a fair amount of light and humor as the plot progresses. I remember quite vividly a chapter in which the core characters try to devise a plan to break Sophia out of jail, and I actually found myself laughing. Up until that point, the novel was a straight-up horror story. All of the characters bore no resemblance to a functioning, loving family unit, but once they started coming up with various schemes to break Sophia out of jail, I got a sense of camaraderie and belonging among them. Even Albert seemed to care, despite showing nothing but contempt for Sophia previously. Now this rag-tag motley crew of misfits felt like an actual family. Part of me was hoping they’d go through with their initial idea of blowing a hole in the jail and busting her out, and I imagined each of them playing their role in the operation. Of course, things get worse before they get better, but it’s just an example of how engaging and well-crafted Walker’s characters are.

 

The Bluest Eye

This book is unique among the three in that we get the perspectives of a variety of characters. Pecola is generally understood to be the protagonist, in the sense that the novel is her story, but there’s a whole slew of personalities that we get to know in intimate detail. Even the creepy hermit motherfucker that only comes into the plot right at the end is given a whole backstory to understand his motives. It doesn’t make him any less loathsome, but the chapter dedicated to Soaphead Church is nonetheless interesting. Each character seems to represent a different aspect of society, and each seems like the product of larger forces beyond their understanding- by which I mean social mores, capitalism, classism, racism, and other cultural and institutional powers. There’s Geraldine, the upper-class black woman that’s extremely socially-conscious, and who works hard to fit in with the lifestyle expectations of white America and avoid traditional black stereotypes. This is best illustrated in the following quote:

“She had explained to him the difference between colored people and niggers. They were easily identifiable. Colored people were neat and quiet; niggers were dirty and loud… The line between colored and nigger was not always clear; subtle and telltale signs threatened to erode it, and the watch had to be constant.”

Then there’s Maureen Peal, the light-skinned African-American girl that looks down on those with darker skin. You’ve got The Maginot Line, a prostitute that lives on the fringes of society, reviled by everyone, and who teaches Pecola about life as an outcast. Mr Yacobowski is a white immigrant, undoubtedly a victim of racism himself by Anglo-Saxon Protestant whites, but who is casually racist towards Pecola when she enters his shop. Given that it is a theme of the book that people put down others in order to feel more secure in their own identity, I suspect that that is also the reason for his behavior towards Pecola. And of course, there are the MacTeer sisters who befriend Pecola when she lives with them. My favorite sections of the book were those that followed the MacTeer sisters, narrated by Claudia MacTeer. Frieda MacTeer shares Pecola’s (and the wider community’s) idea that beauty is equated with whiteness; hence Pecola’s obsession with having blue eyes. Claudia, on the other hand, acts as a kind of opposite to her sister and her best friend. Far from wanting to be like white people, Claudia hates them. She destroys her white dolls and wishes she could do the same thing to white girls.

Pecola’s parents are also quite interesting. The home they’ve built together is one of sadness and violence, but we are shown that neither of them were always as dysfunctional as we see in the present timeline. Both of them are corrupted by various traumas that they are unable to bounce back from. They once were innocent, but by the end they are irreparably broken.

 

Wetlands

I feel like the only character worth discussing in Wetlands is the protagonist herself. We spend the entire novel in her head. We hear her thoughts and feelings toward other characters, but we are denied an objective view of them. None of them are explored in any depth. We know that her mom’s a hypocrite and her dad is emotionally-distant, but that’s about it. Even the nurse that Helen finds solace in, Robin, is left almost completely uncharacterized. He’s just a somewhat nice guy that seems to like her company.

Perhaps Helen’s most striking feature is her obsession with bodily fluids and “recycling” all her secretions and excretions. She likes the idea of spreading bacteria and gets a kick out of leaving a bloody tampon in the hospital elevator. She doesn’t particularly like washing, and wants as much as possible to preserve her natural scent. During the novel she does everything from ripping her hair out to eating her own pus, earwax, smegma, and mucus, along with a few other things I just can’t bring myself to write down. Helen is endlessly curious about her own body, as well as experiencing all the physical sensations she can. On her 18th birthday she has herself sterilized so she can have sex with as many people as she can consequence-free. She goes to brothels specifically to have sex with other women, and pursues a string of casual encounters with men. She has an affair with an old man and she regularly visits another man who has a fetish for shaving her pubic hair. Among her most celebrated pleasures are anal sex and period sex.

In the context of the novel, I think a lot of this stems from her sense of boredom, restlessness, and isolation. With nothing to do and no one to turn to, she looks inward and derives pleasure from herself. But I think it’s more than just that. Cynics will probably argue that Helen’s loneliness was rather cheekily worked backward from a desire to write as many gross scenes as possible. I’m not sure I agree though. The author, Charlotte Roche, has stated that the book is mostly true, so I think of the novel as a kind of love-letter to the human body. Helen finds beauty in the things most of us find vomit-inducing. She represents a different perspective, a fresh set of eyes. It’s a reaction against societal taboo and a celebration of the female form.

 

Feminism.

The Color Purple

Before I read this book I assumed it was going to be focused mostly on the subject of racial inequality. And while racism is definitely a major theme, I’d argue that gender inequality is a bigger one. As I stated earlier, the crux of the novel is Celie’s quest to find her own strength. It’s not just a novel about empowered women, it’s a novel about women empowering other women. Shug Avery essentially liberates Celie from the bondage of the patriarchy. And Celie’s liberation inspires other women- such as Mary-Agnes- to achieve independence.

And as much as this is a feminist classic, I also think it’s an important book for male readers. The strong women of Walker’s novel help the men around them to become better human beings. It’s clear from the way Albert conditions his son Harpo to be cruel to Sophia that toxic masculinity damages men as well as women; Harpo loses the best thing that ever happened to him, and his futile attempts to dominate her only bring him misery and regret. The patriarchal figures in the novel are both the perpetrators and victims of a cycle that reinforces this need for them to play a hyper-masculine, domineering role. Albert and Harpo, despite their abuses, are portrayed as exceptionally weak people, both physically and emotionally. They’re not the typical Stanley Kowalski figure you might expect. Walker makes it clear that they abuse from a place of weakness, not strength. It’s funny, because the one guy in the book that’s shredded as fuck is also the only guy that isn’t a complete asshole. Henry “Buster” Broadax, the prizefighter built like a brick shithouse, is nothing but sweet and supportive of Sophia.

It’s important to remember that true Feminism isn’t about hating men. If it was, Alice Walker wouldn’t have written these male characters as sensitively as she did. She might be fierce and quick-witted, but there’s no need for men to fear her. The ending of the book makes it clear that Walker’s dream for equality is inclusive, and that it is achieved through the liberation of both men and women from the patriarchal system.

In 1983, Walker coined the term “Womanist” to mean “A black feminist or feminist of color” in order to more specifically articulate the issues facing black women. In a 2012 interview, Toni Morrison recalled “Womanists is what black feminists used to call themselves. Very much so. They were not the same thing. And also the relationship with men. Historically, black women have always sheltered their men because they were out there, and they were the ones that were most likely to be killed.”

 

The Bluest Eye

Although her works often address similar themes, Toni Morrison does not identify her novels as “feminist literature” in the way Walker does. This isn’t to say that their values are not in alignment, but rather that Morrison wants her body of work to be free of labels. To pigeonhole The Bluest Eye as a feminist text would be to ignore its other themes (youth, innocence, social class, etc) and thereby discourage exploration from the reader. Morrison doesn’t want her readers to have their minds made up about what her books mean when they read them. She likes the idea of ambiguity and reinterpretation.

 

Wetlands

This is definitely a feminist book in my opinion. It might not be everyone’s preferred brand of feminism, but I don’t think you can read it and not see it through the lens of women’s liberation. Roche identifies herself as a feminist, and more specifically as a part of Germany’s new wave of feminism, advocating for a positive attitude towards sex. The entire novel is a great big middle-finger directed at classic “ladylike” behavior.  Heck, she breaks every taboo in the book- and gladly.

Helen has a lot of problems in her life, but not being empowered isn’t one of them. Helen actively seeks out her own pleasure and takes what she wants from the men she has one night stands with. She doesn’t serve the needs of men, or exist as the passive recipient of their own sexual desires. Helen is curious and she follows her curiosity with an aggressive determination. Each encounter or experience is rooted in her own self-love and leads to a deeper understanding of her body and what her body wants.

 

Controversy.

The Color Purple

This book has been the target of censorship and outright bans since the early 1980s. The book deals with some upsetting stuff- sexual violence in particular- and writes about it in a very frank and explicit way. Of course, some people don’t want to be made uncomfortable. They’d rather not think about these things. And parents don’t want their kids reading them, hence why this book has been removed from school libraries several times down the years. I’ve always found the desire of parents to preserve the innocence of children both hypocritical and somewhat disturbing. It’s like they want to delay the inevitable and keep them from growing up and having ideas about the world.

The Color Purple was challenged by a high school in Oakland, California in 1984 for its “troubling ideas about race relations, man’s relationship to God, African history, and human sexuality”. There’s a stench of Christianity about this sentiment that makes my skin crawl. The people that talk like this aren’t interested in the power of art to transmute suffering into beauty, its exploration of the human experience, and its ability to effect progressive social change. They’re concerned only with maintaining the status quo, and that’s why they try to keep books out of students’ hands. They don’t trust them to read it and decipher it for themselves. Complaining about the scenes of domestic abuse in The Color Purple is like watching 12 Years a Slave and asking for the scene where Patsey gets whipped to be removed on the grounds that it’s upsetting. It’s meant to be upsetting. These awful things actually happened. They’re real. They’re a part of the world and our history, and we don’t learn from them if we bury our heads in the sand.

 

The Bluest Eye

This novel has been banned from countless schools and libraries since its publication- and shockingly enough a lot of these bans have come in the last 20 years or so. The concerns center around the book’s depictions of sexual violence and child molestation. Sometimes the reason given for censorship is that the book is “unsuitable for age group”. Obviously you shouldn’t be teaching this book in elementary school- not because it would frighten the kids, but mostly because kids that age wouldn’t understand what the hell is going on. And they’d almost certainly not have the reading skills required for a novel like this. But it’s a moot point because I don’t think anyone is substituting the The Very Hungry Caterpillar for The Bluest Eye.

But should this book be read by teenagers? I don’t see why not. The language isn’t especially difficult. I can’t help but suspect that parents complain about books like this in order to avoid doing any actual parenting. You’re not doing your kid any favors by shielding them from the hard truths of the world. Without books like this and The Color Purple, younger generations might think that the periods of racial segregation and gender inequality were happy eras devoid of suffering. If your teenage daughter reads The Bluest Eye and asks you about the rape scene, try talking to her and trusting in her ability to understand it and why it’s significant.

Other complaints about this book are more obviously pathetic, such as it being labelled as “lewd” and “pornographic”. In 2013 the president of a Christian university attacked the book for having “a socialist-communist agenda” and being antithetical to American values. When you encounter snowflakes like this, never miss the opportunity to let them know that if Jesus Christ were real, he’d probably fucking despise them.

 

Wetlands

Of the three books on this list, Wetlands seems like the one that actually welcomes the controversy afforded it. With the previous two, the controversy was simply a byproduct of the exploration of serious issues. Which is not to say that Wetlands is shocking for the sake of being shocking, but I think Roche and her publisher knew that this book was practically inviting moral guardians to form an angry mob against it. I think that part of the significance of Wetlands is that it has sparked debate, and it’s an interesting and important debate for our culture to have.

 

Conclusion.

Out of the three books here, I enjoyed reading The Color Purple best. It’s the longest of the three and yet I read it the fastest. The characters and scenes are so memorable, and I think it’s one of those stories that will stay with me forever. I can’t wait to recommend it to those who haven’t experienced it yet.

However I admired the writing of The Bluest Eye the best out of the three. Some of the sentences are so beautiful and visceral, and the sense of atmosphere is so superbly-crafted.

I enjoyed Wetlands more towards the end, when we got to find out a little more about Helen and her emotional turmoil. But overall I didn’t get that addictive itch to keep turning the page to find out what happens next. I’m glad I read it, and I think it has an important place in 21st century literature, but it wasn’t the most fun reading experience for me.

2 Replies to “3 Controversial Novels written by 3 Fearless Women”

  1. You’ve written very detailed insight into the characters. The Bluest Eye is high on my TBR and even higher now.

    Liked by 1 person

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