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Possessing the Secret of Joy by Alice Walker

Possessing the Secret of Joy (1992)

by Alice Walker

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Possessing joy is hard to find in this book...so many dark feelings, which are completely expected since it's discussing the mutilation of female gentalia.

Despite the rather depressing situations and emotions, I loved the way Alice Walker revealed her characters' perspectives in alternating, out-of-sequence chapters, her carefully crafted words, and the mythological context. ( )
  Connie-D | Jul 22, 2017 |
i don't love the way this is written with the too-short alternating point of view chapters, but it isn't badly done. i just wanted a little more from many of the chapters. because of how much it bounces around, there isn't a lot of detail given, but you get all of the backstory that you need.

far more important is the subject matter. this is a tough book to read as she takes female genital mutilation head on. the main character, tashi, who was in the african pages in the color purple, introduces us to the horror of the ritual itself and the lifelong aftereffects of what she euphemistically calls "bathing". it's an intense thing to read about, and walker ties it nicely into the ways that men use it to keep women and sex under their own control.

she also touches on the slaughter of african animals (specifically monkeys) in the name of big pharm, as well as the possibility that this is how the aids virus was first actually transmitted; an infected monkey was used in the making of a polio vaccine and so began the spread of hiv. but really this book is about the torture that women and girls undergo and perpetuate generation to generation. there isn't a lot of graphic detail, but there is enough to know how incredibly horrendous this practice is.

i remember having an argument with a friend in college (maybe in 1996) about this topic. her view was that we can't judge someone else's culture, that i have no right to say that this is an "incredibly horrendous" practice. i do understand that viewpoint; i think alice walker makes a nice case against that with this story.

this is a hard, but important book.

an epigraph that is from a bumper sticker: "When the axe came into the forest, the trees said the handle is one of us."

"No, no, he used to correct me. They behave this way not because I'm black but because they are white."

"...men refuse to remember things that don't happen to them."

"They do not want to hear what their children suffer. They've made the telling of the suffering itself taboo. Like visible signs of menstruation. Signs of woman's mental power. Signs of the weakness and uncertainty of men. When they say the word 'taboo' I try to catch their eye. Are they saying something is 'sacred' and therefore not to be publicly examined for fear of disturbing the mystery; or are they saying it is so profane it must not be exposed, for fear of corrupting the young? Or are they saying simply that they can not and will not be bothered to listen to what is said about an accepted tradition of which they are a part, that has gone on, as far as they know, forever.
These are the kinds of questions my father taught me to ask, alas. Adam, he would say, What is the fundamental question one must ask of the world? I would think of and posit many things, but the answer was always the same: Why is the child crying?"

"Now of course every little girl is given a doll to drag around. A little figure of a woman as toy, with the most vacuous face imaginable, and no vagina at all."

"Religion is an elaborate excuse for what man has done to women and to the earth, says Raye, bitterly."

"There is for human beings no greater hell to fear than the one on earth." ( )
  elisa.saphier | Nov 8, 2016 |
Hard book to read, but unforgettable. ( )
  FoxTribeMama | Sep 20, 2016 |
Picked this book up for a dime on a bookshelf full of unappealing books outside of a library. I believe that I took it because I knew that Alice Walker is a reputable writer, but I didn't even read the back cover. It's been sitting on my shelf for a few years and I'd completely forgotten about it. I picked it up two nights ago and WOW...

The subject of genital mutilation has been dormant in conversations in my world lately, and I welcome the opportunity to be awakened to important concerns in the world today as I've been sidetracked with issues of little relevance to anyone...

I had a professor that claims she was a princess of Yoruba. She opened the discussion of female circumcision, cringing every time it was called "genital mutilation" by us naive westerners. She defended the practice, told us we didn't understand the culture, tried to make us feel ignorant. I continued to stress the word "mutilation" in my comments anyway. I wondered for just a minute if I were really just a stupid judgmental American (probably) that had no valid concern for the women in Africa and elsewhere who endure this brutality--after all, this was an actual African princess with whom I was arguing. But then I remembered that I'm equally horrified by bullfighting and accept no vindication for the "sport" in the name of "cultural difference." So my opinion has remained firm.

I wonder what this professor would think about this novel? She wanted to silence our discussion on the topic by shaming us. She also maintained that there was no sexism in Africa until it was introduced by the white colonialists. These ideas so conflict with this story that I desperately want to have a discussion with people who really know. Has Alice Walker been to Africa? Is she misinformed or has she done her research? Can one African tribe be so drastically different from another but still practice this same "initiation" ceremony? Anyway, these are the questions I have since finishing this novel last night. I'll be delving into some nonfiction right away.

Overall, this is a beautiful and poetic treatment of a vile subject. Makes you wince and cower, covering your wide open eyes. One of the ways in which I was personally touched after reading this was that I feel like I need to just love being me and resist the things that might interfere with that possibility.

Update 2008: I still remember this story every time I visit my friend's farm. The chickens! Oh, the horrors! ( )
  engpunk77 | Aug 14, 2015 |
Alice Walker is such a beautiful writer. This book begins with Adam and Olivia, children of black missionaries, meeting Tashi, an African child in an African area called Olinka, which holds very traditional values. What "traditional" means in this case is that female genital mutilation is considered mandatory for girls who hope to marry a good man and have a respectable place in Olinkan society. The book details the lives of these 3 people as they grow to adulthood and struggle with Tashi's trauma from her upbringing. Her life, her personal choices, made on a background of trauma and pain, lead us to a place of deep insight regarding the treatment of women, the violence of colonialism and the lack of healing in a supposedly free society after colonialism ends. There is violence here but also intense sweetness and love. Alice Walker has been a strong advocate of women's rights and education to end the practice of FGM. I have such admiration for her and her incredible writing. The aching desire to end suffering comes through so clearly and so beautifully. ( )
  krazy4katz | Jan 18, 2015 |
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If you lie to yourself about your own pain, you will be killed by those who will claim you enjoyed it.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0671789422, Mass Market Paperback)

After submitting to the ritual genital mutilation her people practice, Tashi makes her way in the world, mourning the loss of sexual pleasure. Reprint. LJ. NYT. AB.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:07:49 -0400)

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After submitting to the ritual genital mutilation her people practice, Tashi makes her way in the world, mourning the loss of sexual pleasure.

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