BOOK REVIEW: All the marks of an identity crisis: 'Possessing the Secret of Joy' - Alice Walker: Cape, 13.99

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The Independent Culture
Alice Walker is unequivocal about her role as a novelist. She does not write, she says, just to tell stories. Her work is at once political and personal: a private and historical record where the former exists under the weight of the latter.

Tashi, the central character in Possessing the Secret of Joy, first appeared in Walker's most famous novel, The Color Purple. She is a young African girl of the fictional Olinka tribe who elects to undergo an initiation ceremony of facial scarring and female circumcision, or, as Alice Walker more properly describes it, genital mutilation. This book takes up her story.

The Color Purple was filled with personal reminiscences and references. Connections to persons living or dead were not coincidental. Both main protagonists, Celie and her brutal husband, were drawn from the Walker family. Disturbing then to think who might be the model for Tashi, whose tragic decision eventually leads to madness.

Whoever she may be, it seems she is by no means unique. In notes 'To the Reader' in the closing pages, Alice Walker reveals that an estimated '90 million to 100 million women and girls living today in African, Far Eastern and Middle Eastern countries have been genitally mutilated'. It is an astonishing figure, and the chasm of silence that surrounds this dangerous and wholly unnecessary form of human suffering is deafening.

In tackling such an emotive issue, Alice Walker should be commended for not making it easy on herself. Tashi is not, unlike most of the pre-pubescent victims of this terrible practice, completely ignorant of what it involves. Her determination to be 'bathed', that is, have her vagina scraped 'clean' of the external parts and fastened, is a manifestation of her crisis of identity as an African-American. Though her choice may be based on a completely skewed set of reasons, it is one she makes herself.

'I saw the children,' she says, surveying her native Olinkan people, 'pot-bellied with dying eyes which made them look very wise. I saw the old people . . . on their piles of rags. I saw the women making stew out of bones. We had been stripped of everything but our black skins. Here and there a defiant cheek bore the mark of our withered tribe. I wanted such a mark for myself.'

Not surprisingly, the consequences of Tashi's decision are devastating. Having imagined that losing part of her physical self would make her whole - 'Completely woman. Completely African. Completely Olinkan' - Tashi discovers a pain which dulls her spirit and reduces her proud walk to a shuffle. Walker is unflinching in cataloguing the physical repercussions: menstruation becomes prolonged torment; the sexual act with her husband Adam is agonising and near-impossible; a son is born to Tashi with slight but perceptible brain damage after a tortuous birth, and she is forced to abort a second pregnancy rather than repeat the ordeal.

How to tell a tale of such appalling suffering, and also to discuss the wider implications, has clearly been problematic. The author's device of revealing the story through the oblique testimonies of a small cast of characters is elegant enough - but including among them Carl Jung and an anthropologist is surely too contrived. She also attempts a laboured suspense by fragmenting the storyline, sitting on key pieces of the narrative jigsaw as she assembles what is, in effect, a case study of Tashi's breakdown.

By limiting her prose to a series of spoken accounts, Alice Walker precludes the possibility of descriptive passages which might have created some real impression of environment or sensation in her fictional world. But then this is not a novel about sensibility and effect, but a polemic about actions and their aftermath.

Alice Walker has a broad agenda. Female genital mutilation is only one aspect of the systematic oppression of her sex and race which she links to religion - pagan and Christian, slavery and colonialism. She also uncovers some unpalatable facts: that American doctors practised circumcision on white women as a 'miracle cure' for female hysteria, while in Africa, Aids is spread by the unspeakable horror of children 'bathed' in mass ceremonies using dirty and rusting blades, shards of glass, or even lids of tin cans. She is however, on more shaky ground in advocating the convenient but unproven hypothesis that the disease originated from contaminated polio vaccines.

Towards the end of the novel, Tashi contemplates writing her autobiography, but in her desperate state she cannot fill a book or even a pamphlet. Instead, she writes a banner slogan: 'If you lie to yourself about your own pain, you will be killed by those who will claim you enjoyed it.'

Ultimately, though disturbing and powerful, the novel is disappointing as a piece of fiction. The author's heartfelt outrage is never hysterical or sensationalist, but Alice Walker speaks too clearly through her characters. This is not Rashomon; there are no wholly distinct identities. The overriding and lasting impression is of a global tragedy rather than a personal one.

Like the woman in one of her early poems, Alice Walker offers 'two flowers whose roots are twin, Hope and Justice'. These are her enduring concerns, which make Possessing the Secret of Joy so eminently laudable in intent, though less satisfying in execution.

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