Possessing the Secret of Joy is Alice Walker's 1992 novel about an African tribal woman whose life as an immigrant to the United States is haunted by the trauma of her genital mutilation (so-called "female circumcision": excision/clitoridectomy and infibulation). Readers accompany the main character in her struggle with and eventual triumph over mental illness as a result of that experience. Fans of Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Color Purple may recognize Tashi, the protagonist of Possessing the Secret of Joy, as a minor character introduced towards the end of that work: the young African woman who married Adam, the son of African-American missionaries, and came to America. Regardless of the reader's experience with Walker's other work, Possessing the Secret of Joy begins with the relevant excerpt from The Color Purple, which sets the scene. The subsequent chapters are named for the characters who narrate them, including Tashi, her sister-in-law Olivia, her husband Adam, and their son Benny, some of whom played minor roles in The Color Purple.
A portion of the proceeds from Possessing the Secret of Joy were dedicated to education about female genital mutilation and its harmful physical and psychological consequences. Before her book was even released, Walker sent a copy of its manuscript to British Indian filmmaker Pratibha Parmar, asking her if she would be interested in collaborating on a documentary about female genital mutilation. Parmar had interviewed Walker for her documentary, A Place of Rage, and was eager to work with her again. She was deeply moved by Possessing the Secret of Joy, writing in Warrior Marks, their book about their collaboration on the film of the same title:
It is an extremely powerful, haunting, and moving book. Truly formidable!
The character of Tashi remained with me for days; her journeying, both physical and psychic, was extraordinary and harrowing....
What I find compelling about Possessing the Secret of Joy is the ways in which it brings together the complex and difficult issues of gender, sexuality, and "cultural" and national differences through the exploration of one woman's experience of being genitally mutilated. Difference is not neutral, and identity can be and is a necessary political resource, but both identity and cultural differences are constantly being reworked, transformed, and negotiated through the play of history, language, memory, and power. This central premise of the novel is challenging in the way it pushes the boundaries of current thinking on these questions. (Warrior Marks 101-2)
Parmar's comments reflect the fact that Possessing the Secret of Joy addresses a sensitive, even taboo topic with empathy, but without shying away from difficult political and ethical questions about the practice of female genital mutilation. In the novel, Tashi's genital mutilation took place during a time of political upheaval in the fictional African nation of the Olinka people, and her circumciser becomes a national hero for her role in the revolution. The political leaders of real-life African nations have been mixed in their attitudes towards genital mutilation. The late Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso took a strong stand against female genital mutilation before he was assasinated, but many others, such as the fictional Leader of the Olinkas, upheld it as one of the few traditions Africans were able to maintain even while the rest of their culture was being devalued and destroyed by white European colonialism. As Walker explained in an interview with Parmar for Warrior Marks:
When they themselves are being oppressed, people tend to hold on to the practices that they can enforce. As they can most easily enforce things that control women and children, that is what they have tended to do. It is very sad, because the [colonizers], in this particular instance, were right about stopping this kind of evil thing. But because they themselves were so evil, and the harm that they had done was so great, it was very difficult for African men and women to choose what they would like to retain of their culture, since the [colonialists] were so busy destroying everything else. Colonizers have managed, in so many instances, to destroy worthwhile traditions... (WM, 275)
Tashi, who lost a beloved sister to complications as a result of genital mutilation, eventually submits to the procedure partly in response to peer pressure from the other girls in her village, who have all been excised and infibulated as part of a communal rite of passage. Olivia pleads with her not to go to the circumciser, but Tashi is rebellious; her anger towards the American girl, who loves her like a sister, shows how the conflict between natives and colonizers could lead to the perpetuation of harmful traditional practices. Later, when the deeply damaging physical and psychological effects of her mutilation have reached into nearly every aspect of her life, Tashi comes to regret her decision. In order to come to terms with her situation, she embarks on a quest to understand the cultural and personal pressures that led her to it. What Parmar terms Tashi's "journeying, both physical and psychic" is the result of years of research by Walker, who had known about female genital mutilation for twenty-five years before being able to summon the courage to confront it in her writing (WM, 268).
The medical consequences of female genital mutilation are numerous and severe, as explained in the following excerpt from an interview with Dr. Henriette Kouyate, a Senegalese obstetrician and gynecologist active in efforts to abolish harmful traditional practices:
First, you can suffer fatal hemorrhaging, because in the clitoris there are a lot of blood vessels, including the dorsal artery, the vein of the clitoris, so young girls can bleed to death.... in addition you have infections, even tetanus. Infections begin in the area of the wound but may spread to the internal organs.
Besides circumcision there is the other, much more dangerous practice---infibulation. While circumcision concerns the clitoris and the removal of the clitoris, with infibulation not only the clitoris is removed but the small lips---the labia---are cut off and the big, outer labia as well.... what is left is closed up, using thorns or
whatever they can find. They leave just a small orifice, through which the menstrual blood can flow. But frequently this orifice cannot let out everything. So a mixture of blood develops inside the vagina. As a consequence, a painful infection develops, which can
But that is not all. The woman has been cut and traumatized, so intercourse is very painful and there are a lot of problems giving birth. An area which is normally elastic has become a cicatrix area. As a result, many women tear, at the top and at the bottom. If they
are in hospital, you can perform an episiotomy, you can enlarge the opening. But just imagine these women who have to give birth at home, where there is no notion of surgery. They are just left with a tear
at the top and bottom, at the top causing massive hemorrhaging, at the bottom even worse---the tear can enlarge, extending to the anus, so that women can no longer contain their feces. When the tear is central, it expands... babies are affected, too. Because the birth
takes much longer and that can cause problems.... (WM, 296)
In Possessing the Secret of Joy, Tashi suffers severe pain during sex, during menstruation, and perhaps most of all during the birth of her and Adam's son, Benny. Although she has all the advantages of Western medicine at her disposal, she is made to feel like a freak by the doctors at the American hospital where she gives birth, who study her mutilation with impersonal fascination. Benny is also slightly retarded as a result of his difficult birth. Later, when Tashi (called Evelyn in the U.S.) becomes pregnant again, she has an abortion rather than suffer through the humiliation of another childbirth. The abortionist suggests she have her second child by Caesarean section, but she cannot bear the thought of being held down and cut open, as it is too close to her traumatic mutilation experience.
After years of Jungian psychoanalysis, including treatment by C.J. Jung himself, Tashi begins to come to terms with the madness brought on by her mutilation. She learns, much to her horror, that female genital mutilation came to America with excised and infibulated enslaved African women, and that it was used on white women. "I am telling you that even in America a rich white child could not touch herself sexually, if others could see her, and be safe," she is told.
Many African women have come here.... Enslaved women. Many of them sold into slavery because they refused to be circumcised, but many of them sold into bondage circumcised and infibulated. It was those sewed-up women who fascinated the American doctors who flocked to the slave auctions to examine them, as the women stood naked and defenseless on the block. They learned to do this 'procedure' on other enslaved women; they did this in the name of Science.... They found a use for it on white women... They wrote in their medical journals that they'd finally found a cure for the white woman's hysteria. (186)
To Tashi, this revelation comes as a terrible shock: "I saw the healthy green leaves of my America falling seared to the ground. Her sparkling rivers muddy with blood." (185-6). But another, more important source of help comes from an unlikely ally, whose identity I will not reveal here except to say that the individual in question is an anthropology student who introduces Tashi to the creation myth of the Dogon people, which describes perhaps the first female genital mutilation:
"...each human being from the first was endowed with two souls of different sex, or rather with two principles corresponding to two distinct regions. In the man the female soul was located in the prepuce [foreskin]; in the woman the male soul was in the clitoris."
...the man is circumcised to rid him of his femininity; the woman is excised to rid her of her masculinity. In other words... a very long time ago, men found it necessary to permanently lock people in the category of their obvious sex, even while recognizing sexual duality as a given of nature....
Even Cleopatra was circumcised... Nefertiti, also. But some people think the people in this book [Conversations with Ogotemmeli, by Marcel Griaule] are from a civilization even older than theirs, and that this civilization spread northward, from central Africa up toward ancient Egypt and the Mediterranean....
"The dual soul is a danger; a man should be male, and a woman female. Circumcision and excision are... the remedy." (171-73)
The Dogons believe that when the Earth was first created, a lonely God sought to make love to it but could only penetrate the Earth with His penis after he cut off Her clitoris, a termite hill blocking His entance. As Tashi bitterly puts it, "When the clitoris rose... God thought it looked masculine. Since it was 'masculine' for a
clitoris to rise, God could be excused for cutting it down. Which he did. Then... God fucked the hole that was left. Of course I remember... that Griaule said God had intercourse. It is I who say God fucked." (229)
Tashi eventually returns to Africa to confront her circumciser, M'Lissa, with tragic results. The old woman rebukes her former victim: "You had been made into a woman!" echoing the Dogon creation myth with, "It is only because a woman is made into a woman that a man becomes a man. Surely you know that!" When Tashi sadly replies, "My husband was a man already," M'Lissa retorts: "True... but perhaps he did not know it." The great tragedy of Tashi and Adam's relationship is that they were lovers before they were married, and before she was circumcised. They both know what they have lost through her mutilation. As Adam put it,
She was like a fleshy, succulent fruit; and when I was not with her I dreamed of the time I would next lie on my belly between her legs, my cheeks caressed by the gentle rhythms of her thighs. My tongue bringing us no babies, and to both of us delight. This way of loving, among her people, the greatest taboo of all. (20)
Perhaps more than anything else in Possessing the
Secret of Joy this breaks my heart. At one time or another, everyone has experienced some degree of frustration at failing to connect sexually to a loved one, but imagine the horror of having that precious, intimate connection severed by a deliberate, brutal maiming. Alice Walker expresses this sentiment eloquently in
"Like the Pupil of an Eye: Genital Mutilation and the Sexual Blinding of Women":
No one would think it normal to deliberately destroy the pupil of an eye. Without its pupil, the eye can never see itself, or the person possessing it, reflected in the eye of another. It is the same with the vulva. Without the clitoris and other sexual organs, a woman can never see herself reflected in the healthy, intact body of another. Her sexual vision is impaired, and only the most devoted lover will be sexually "seen." And even then, never
completely.... It is for this loss, among others, that we must, women and men, mourn. For who among us does not wish to be seen completely? And loved in our entirety? (WM, 19)
This short script, written by Walker for Warrior Marks, ties the ancient tradition of female genital mutilation to Walker's personal experience of being visually mutilated by a brother at an age when many young girls are circumcised, excised, and infibulated. It challenges the audience to connect these injuries to their own personal traumas, physical and psychological. As Walker puts it, "Today the maiming and mutilation of women is common. Not just in the Middle East. Not just in Asia. Not just in Africa...." (WM, 18) To the creators of Warrior Marks, every injury inflicted on women because of their gender is part of the continuum of violence ranging from rape and genital mutilation to domestic abuse, sexual harassment, and oppressive cultural standards of attractiveness that cause women, even in the "civilized" West to subject themselves to painful and traumatic procedures (see plastic surgery, especially labiaplasty, laser vaginal rejuvenation and breast implants) in the hopes of attaining beauty and social acceptance. As one particularly insightful character in Possessing the Secret of Joy puts it, "I recognized the connection between mutilation and enslavement that is at the root of the domination of women in the world" (137).
Long story short, Possessing the Secret of Joy is an amazing book. Haunting, powerful, alternately horrifying and inspiring, I would recommend it to anyone, with the caveat Walker suggests in Warrior Marks:
I always tell women when they start reading my book that if the going gets rough, they should just put it aside and not try to press on. Because it is a lot to take in if you are not really in touch with your own feelings. If you are not in touch with your feelings, then you can read it as a kind of intellectual exercise. But many women really are not able to do that, and I am happy that they are not, because it means that they are alive.
It is a serious thing that we are talking about being done to the human body.... So first, just take your time. And because time is pretty much all there is, just take it in, let it go in, and think about it, live with it, sit with it. Then look around and see where you can be useful. There are organizations like FORWARD International in London that can always use money or help. But mostly be aware and try not to see this just as an isolated brutality that happens to women in other countries but to see how it also happens in this country, in different guises. (WM 272)
In retrospect, I feel I read Possessing the Secret of Joy too quickly; the emotional impact of it is only now starting to catch up to me, as I spill my thoughts and feelings into this review, comments on Warrior Marks, and another work in progress, which compares and contrasts Walker's novel with the recent movie Hedwig and the Angry Inch, another story of a genitally mutilated immigrant coming to terms with her physical and psychological maimings. I look forward to more revelations and realizations as I continue to ponder what I have read and learned. The point about the universality of female mutilation and domination is especially important, as is the hopeful message that these and other oppressive practices are being fought on many fronts by dedicated, determined, and eloquent activists like Walker and Parmar as well as by other survivors. Walker's final words in "Like the Pupil of an Eye" are an encouraging note to end on:
Those of us who are maimed can tell you it is possible to go on. To flourish. To grow. To love and be loved, which is the most important thing. We can also tell you that mutilation of any part of the body is unnecessary and causes suffering almost beyond imagining. We can
tell you that the body you are born into is sacred and whole, and there is nothing that needs to be subtracted from it. (WM 19)
All quotes from Possessing the Secret of Joy unless otherwise indicated.
Walker, Alice. Possessing the Secret of Joy New York/San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovitch, 1992. ISBN 0-15-173152-7
Walker, Alice, and Pratibha Parmar. Warrior Marks: Female Genital Mutilation and the Sexual Blinding of Women. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1993. ISBN: 0-15-100061-1