Possessing the Secret of Joy

You can’t miss it; it startles you before you even get to chapter 1: Possessing the Secret of Joy — Alice Walker’s novel about the ritual genital mutilation of females in Africa — is dedicated to ”the blameless vulva.” And what I immediately wonder is: 1) Why has Alice Walker fixated on the female part rather than the whole woman? and 2) How would I feel if a male author opened his novel on manhood with a salute to ”the poignant penis”?

I would, I think, feel deeply alienated, just as I do here. After all, confusing (or glorifying, or fixating on) the part for the whole is a disorder women have long accused men of. Yet here is Walker, a feminist writer blessed with a huge following, doing the same thing. I wonder about this because Alice Walker can write like an angel — The Color Purple is surely a novel from heaven, extraordinary in its power, grace, and ability to speak in the voices of vibrant, fully formed women. But in her new novel she writes like a bat out of hell. In Possessing the Secret of Joy, Walker is, in fact, a Fury, rending her garments and yowling with the pain and rage of all womanhood, and of all that women have put up with at the hands of society, at the hands of culture, at the hands of men and the women who abet them. This does not make for graceful writing; this makes for a polemic in which archetypes replace characters and sentences go like so: ”When someone informs you your wife is to be assassinated publicly, it is a very bitter thing.”

The story belongs to Tashi, whom readers of The Color Purple and The Temple of My Familiar have met in passing before. In Purple she was the little Olinka friend of missionaries’ children Adam and Olivia. Now Tashi is grown, married to Adam, and at home in the U.S., where she has taken the name Evelyn. But in her roots she is Olinka, and in her soul she is a woman near madness, tormented by the circumcision to which she had voluntarily submitted years before in an act of identification with her people, her sex, her tribe, her ancestors. ”The operation she’d had done to herself joined her, she felt, to these women, whom she envisioned as strong, invincible. Completely woman. Completely African. Completely Olinka,” writes Walker.

Tashi does in fact become mad — poetically, maddeningly mad. She sees psychiatrists and confounds them with her African differentness. She begins to remember what she had previously blotted out: her mother’s hobbled gait, her sister’s death by bleeding (results of the same initiation), the screams and moans of women in a certain hut in her village. ”I could not fight with the wound tradition had given me,” she tells one therapist, an African-American woman. Tashi-Evelyn decides to do something drastic, symbolic, murderous, to express her rage and grief. Who, suggests Walker, wouldn’t?

No reader would find Tashi guilty. How could we? We have been enlisted as witnesses in a crusade against the deepest of injustices, passed on from generation to generation, even in our day. We have been entrusted with details too awful to reprint here. We have been mobilized to outrage. We celebrate the vulva! we shout to Alice Walker. Now bring us back the warmth and texture of your fine, compassionate artist’s palette, and once again create for us women characters who are more than the sum or destruction of their parts. C+

Possessing the Secret of Joy
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