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Possessing the Secret of Joy (1992)

by Alice Walker

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A painful but extremely important work, Alice Walker brings to light a subject so taboo that many people no doubt go their entire lives without knowing anything about it:
"I was just 20 when I first overheard something about female genital mutilation while helping to build a school for children near Thikka, Kenya. I was then too young and ignorant of patriarchal control of women even to grasp what I had heard. Besides, what was there to be cut off? And why?"

The protagonist's husband has a Mistress who lives in Paris. She writes letters to his wife, which of course were unwelcome and painful. In one of them, she described the birth of the son that she conceived with him:
" '... It's a Highway to Heaven' ('... Nothing can walk up there, but the pure in heart... ') was playing on the stereo during the birth; the warmth of the singers' voices a perfect accompaniment to the Lively fire in the fireplace. My vulva oiled and massaged to keep my hips open and my vagina fluid, I was orgasmic at the end.' "

The village where the protagonist was born was a patriarchal nightmare for women. An old man lying on his deathbed reminisces to her about his sixth wife:
"But the young woman who ran away, the wife who drowned herself, he had at least thought he loved. Unfortunately, for him, 'love' and frequent, forceful sex were one. And so he lay, finally, wounded and wet with his own tears, lamenting his life but knowing no other. 'Women are indestructible down there, you know,' he'd said to me, lewdly, more than once, his eyes alight with remembered lechery and violence. 'They are like leather: the more you chew it, the softer it gets.' "

The protagonist's sister-in-law, whose father and brother are missionaries, observes:
" 'Religion is an elaborate excuse for what man has done to women and to the Earth, says Raye, bitterly.' "

Adam, the missionary who married the protagonist, admits:
"Though not a priest, I am a man of God, even now. I could not bear a life lived without belief. But this I know: there is for human beings no greater Hell to fear than the one on Earth."

( )
  burritapal | Oct 23, 2022 |
"Religion is an elaborate excuse for what men has done to women and to the earth."

In this novel Alice Walker looks at the horrifying practice and consequences of female genital mutilation, according to the author's note at the end of book is believed to have been inflicted upon between ninety and one hundred million girls and women alive today. The practice varies from simple excision of the clitoris to a full-scale removal of the labia, thus denying the victim sexual pleasure,.

Tashi, the main protagonist of this novel, made a brief appearance in 'The Colour Purple' as an African woman living in America who returned to Africa to have the operation as a gesture of solidarity with the women of her village, 'Possessing the Secret of Joy' is her story.

I must admit that the book's fractured and non-chronological structure initially made it a little difficult for me to differentiate between the various voices, especially as many of them seem had differing names, an African and an American one. Equally as a European I struggled to comprehend why any female would feel the need to return to Africa to undergo such a barbaric experience just to somehow feel whole. However, once I had overcome these obstacles the story had me totally gripped if extremely uncomfortable.

This book raises some interesting questions because alongside genital mutilation it also touches on a possible origin for AIDS and the use of chimpanzees in medical experiments.

"There is for human beings no greater hell to fear than the one on earth."

Personally I felt that Walker spent a bit too much time sensationalising the actual operation that the plot suffered a little but I fully understand why she felt the need to do so. This is an important message that needs to be made especially when you realise that 'tradition' is being misused as a reason to justify it and it's often men who insist on it's continuance .

"Men refuse to remember things that don't happen to them." ( )
  PilgrimJess | Apr 10, 2022 |
While "Possessing the Secret of Joy" certainly isn't Alice Walker's strongest work, it's still an solid one and focused on the incredibly important topic of female genital mutilation.

Tashi's story, of a lifetime of suffering due to what happened to her body and rift between her cultural beliefs and the pain she endured, makes this a hard read, but one that is ultimately worthwhile. ( )
  amerynth | Mar 13, 2021 |
dust jacket
  Sheila01 | Jul 27, 2019 |
Possessing the Secret of Joy is a powerful read, written in Alice Walker's usual evocative style. Tashi, who has appeared in the peripheries of Ms.Walker's other novels, takes the centre in this book.

Through Tashi, Ms.Walker not only creates a condemnation of FGM, but also leaves the reader with insights into how it plays into a victim's psyche and life. The entire book progresses through short first person narratives from all the major characters. While we learn of Tashi's life and how a misguided loyalty to her tradition makes her voluntarily submit to FGM, we also learn of how that moment comes to be. There are forces at play- colonial, patriarchal, religious- that displace and alienate Tashi, while also subjugating her.

We also learn of why and how this subjugation sustains itself- an experience that is, in a way, universal. There are cultures of silence that surround such oppression- making it seem, then, as though the silenced bear their pain happily.

In a particularly reflective moment, Tashi says, "If you lie to yourself about your own pain, you will be killed by those who will claim you enjoyed it."

The wisdom encapsulated in the above line from the book captures the crux of Tashi's story itself.

Possessing the Secret of Joy startles you, from the get-go. There are several moments of Tashi's account that horrify the reader. It is by no means an easy read. But it is a read that is worth the process.
( )
  AceFeminist | Dec 7, 2018 |
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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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From the author the New York Times Book Review calls “a lavishly gifted writer,” this is the searing story of Tashi, a tribal African woman first glimpsed in The Color Purple whose fateful decision to submit to the tsunga’s knife and be genitally mutilated leads to a trauma that informs her life and fatefully alters her existence. Possessing the Secret of Joy, out of print for a number of years, was the first novel to deal with this controversial topic and managed to do so in a manner that Cosmopolitan called “masterful, honorable, and unforgettable storytelling.” The New Press is proud to bring the book back into print with a new preface by the author addressing the book’s initial reception and the changed attitudes toward female genital mutilation that have come about in part because of this book.
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