In Possessing the Secret of Joy, Alice Walker has written a heart- wrenching book about Tashi, an African-American woman who, out of a sense of loyalty to her Olinkan heritage, submitted as a young girl to the female initiation ceremony. This act of genital mutilation is still performed on young girls in various parts of the world today.
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Walker uses the voices of six people to give the reader deep insight into Tashi, a feisty, loving child who becomes a disillusioned, frustrated, and angry woman. The reader journeys with her through bouts of madness until she emerges as a serene, white-haired woman who faces execution with great dignity.
Walker's Tashi first focuses her frustration and anger on Western influences that have left her people, who were once "whole and pregnant with life," stripped of everything but their black skin. Her act of resistance to this form of oppression catapults her into even more profound anger and a rage that leads her to a truth which almost shatters her spirit. Tashi perceives the betrayal of women by their own people and gender and by the silence that surrounds, and thus increases, that betrayal.
TASHI IS an alluring character from the moment she appears as a child clinging tearfully to her mother's skirt, to the final execution scene. But Possessing the Secret of Joy isn't just the story of one woman; it speaks for all women who have erroneously submitted, either "freely" or through force, to physical, psychological, and/or emotional violence. The power of this violence is eventually overcome by the strengthening and sustaining power of relationship and by the therapeutic value of art in the inner healing process.
Through the help of Jungian psychology, Tashi is able to reach deep within her pain to name and exorcise her personal demon. This empowers her to move from a victim mode to a resistance mode. She returns to Africa after being away for many years and murders M'Lissa, the tsunga who performed hundreds of mutilations that changed "vibrant, clear-eyed girls" into young women with "glazed looks" whose walks had become shuffles.
The violence of murdering this old woman who had herself been victim of a system is disturbing. But as in previous writing, Alice Walker doesn't hesitate to disturb. It is truth, not comfort, that epitomizes her writing. The comfort rests in the fact that truth is being spoken through her gift.
The story, born of violence, ends before a firing squad. But it also concludes on a hopeful note.
Through Tashi's faithfulness to herself as woman, and in effect to all women, she inspires new possibilities for younger generations. While in prison her young friend, Mbati, often reads to her. One night she recites the words of a white woman: "Black people are natural....They possess the secret of joy which is why they can survive the suffering and humiliation inflicted upon them." The quote puzzles both women. Mbati promises that before Tashi dies in a few hours, she will discover and present to her the definitive secret of joy.
As Tashi walks proudly to her death she hears young women singing even though they have been warned against it. She sees these women holding their laughing, whole, and healthy babies high above their heads in a gesture of support and solidarity. Mbati unfurls the banner that names the gift that she, Tashi, has inspired in them: "Resistance is the secret of joy!" Tashi dies, satisfied.
Once again Alice Walker has written a sensitive, enlightening portrayal of women of courage. In keeping with her commitment to bring the truth to light, she is donating a portion of the royalties to educate women and girls, men and boys about the hazardous effects of genital mutilation.
JEANNE LOUND SCHALLER is a free-lance writer living in Midland, Michigan.