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Possessing the Secret of Joy

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Dedicated “With Tenderness and Respect to the Blameless Vulva,” Alice Walker's Possessing the Secret of Joy (1992) has raised the consciousness of the Western world concerning ritual clitoridectomy or female genital mutilation (also called circumcision or infibulation). The novel indites the centuries-old African tradition for its role in the torture, enslavement, and destruction of women. It announces with a vengeance that the secret of joy (that is, the secret of survival) is resistance.

Introduced first in The Color Purple (1982), female genital mutilation emerges in graphic detail in Walker's fifth novel. Tashi, a minor character in both The Color Purple and The Temple of My Familiar (1989), is set at center stage. Saved from what the Olinka call “baths” by the presence of Christian missionaries, the adult Tashi (whose Americanized name is Evelyn Johnson) feels a need for a deeper bond with her African roots, her heritage. To achieve this bond she chooses to become a victim of her people's ceremonious rite of passage, a rite that years earlier left her sister dead in a pool of blood.

Again Walker breaks a taboo and speaks of the unspeakable and again some critics condemned her for doing so—claiming that she had no right to judge or condemn African culture and tradition. But, like one hundred million other women, Tashi's submission to the dominating power of the tsunga's (the circumciser's) knife leaves her incapacitated both physically and psychologically (a confirmed reality that quieted Walker's most insistent opposing critics).

The novel details Tashi's battle with madness. Although she visits several therapists (among them Carl Jung and a student of Freud), she is unable to reconcile her loss. Tashi's act of resistance falls ironically within the guidelines of Olinka tradition: she murders the tsunga M'Lissa for her bloody betrayal of thousands of African girls and burns her body.

Alice Walker and Pratibha Parmar, Warrior Marks: Female Genital Mutilation and the Sexual Blinding of Women, 1993.

Debra Walker King

Subjects: Literature

Reference entries

Alice Walker (b. 1944) American writer and critic