History: This book was published in 1992.
Plot: It tells the story of Tashi, a minor character in Walker's earlier novel The Color Purple. She comes from Olinka, Alice Walker's fictional African nation where female genital mutilation is practiced. Tashi chooses to undergo circumcison because she is a woman torn between two cultures, Olinkan and Western. She wants to honor her Olinkan roots and has the operation in her teen years, although it is usually performed on female children. Tashi later sees several psychiatrists because of the trauma she has suffered before finding the strength to act. Tashi eventually goes back to Africa and murders M’Lissa, the woman that performed the operation on her, and she is killed by firing squad. The novel explores what it means to have one's gender culturally defined and emphasizes that, according to Walker, "Torture is not culture."
Review: Genitally does it. FEMALE circumcision is a neutral phrase which hardly hints at the horrifying practice and consequences of genital mutilation. In an author's note at the end of Possessing the Secret of Joy, Alice Walker writes that between ninety million and one hundred million girls and women alive today have undergone the procedure, which varies from simple excision of the clitoris - thus denying the victim sexual pleasure - to a full-scale scraping away of the labia.
Walker's protagonist, Tashi, made a brief appearance in The Color Purple as an African woman living in America who decided to go to Africa and have the operation as a gesture of solidarity with the women of her village. Possessing the Secret of Joy is her story, in which she returns to America a physical and emotional wreck: barely able to walk, hardly able to urinate, and stinking of the decaying menstrual blood trapped inside her body. 'That her soul had been dealt a mortal blow was plain to anyone who dared look into her eyes,' her sister-in-law observes. Yet it is the lurid details of the operation and its aftermath, rather than Tashi's emotions, which remain in the memory; this is because Walker has written a fevered melodrama in which character and plot are sacrificed to the imperatives of polemic.
The book's fractured and non-chronological structure, which seems to be an attempt to replicate the Jungian analytic experience, further alienates the reader. Nor is it possible to differentiate the seven or eight voices which relate Tashi's story, for they share a fatal tendency to slip into Californian New Age vocabulary. A young Frenchman improbably reminisces about reading a book by 'Langston Hughes, the laughing spellbinder whose sadness almost hid itself in the insouciance of his prose'; a wise old psychoanalyst writes that Tashi and her husband 'are bringing me home to something in myself. I am finding myself in them. A self I have often felt was only halfway at home on the European continent. In my European skin. An ancient self that thirsts for knowledge of the experiences of its ancient kin. Needs this knowledge, and the feelings that come with it, to be whole.'
This character, variously described as 'The Old Man', 'Mzee' and 'uncle Carl', is revealed in an author's note to be Carl Jung himself. Walker thanks him, without humorous intent, 'for becoming so real in my own self-therapy (by reading) that I could imagine him as alive and active in Tashi's treatment. My gift to him.'
Why is Alice Walker, who is so moved by Tashi's story, unable to portray her as anything more than a dolorous puppet? The answer requires, I suspect, a subtlety and insight not much in evidence from a novelist who dedicates her book 'With Tenderness and Respect To the Blameless Vulva'.
Opening Line: “I did not realize for a long time that I was dead.”
Closing Line: “There is a roar as if the world cracked open and I flew inside. I am no more. And satisfied.”
Quotes: “It is only hard work that fills the emptiness.”