Book Review: Possessing the Secret of Joy

By Jen Thorpe

After recently hearing Alice Walker talk at the UCT Steve Biko memorial lecture I was compelled to read more by this obviously passionate and interesting author. I had read The Colour Purple in 2009 and had enjoyed it thoroughly, but had never thought to try any of her other books. There were always, well, newer and more shinier novels to be read.

Alice Walker - Possessing the Secret of Joy

At the time I heard her read her poem A Woman Is Not a Potted Plant, I was going through my own dilemma about what my part in the world was, and how I should react to the Great Sexpectations. I was moved to tears by her poem, and wrote it down in my note book immediately.

So, when I visited the second-hand book shop (a great one, if you’re interested) outside the Biscuit Mill, in Salt River, Cape Town, and I saw her book with the intersting cover and the low low price of R40, I bought it. I thought nothing of it, and carried on my day.

On Sunday night I opened the book and began to read, and on Monday morning at 2am in the blistering heat of Cape Town I had to force myself to stop. Monday night saw Tuesday morning in the same fashion and soon by Tuesday night it was finished. I dreamt of Tashi-Evelyn, Evelyn-Tashi that night and I still feel her character tickling the back of my mind.

Maybe I should start with what it’s about.

Possessing the secret of joy returns to a character named Tashi who featured briefly in The Colour Purple. Tashi, from the Olinka tribe, voluntarily opts to undergo female circumcision for reasons explored in the book. Female circumcision has four main forms, and none of them leave the woman with much chance of sexual pleasure. The form that Tashi chooses, infibulation, is the most dangerous for women.

The story follows her relationships with herself, her circumcisor and her family and the progress of her madness until you feel desperate to climb inside the book and comfort her. It is a powerful, emotive and interesting read and I think Alice Walker has done an excellent job.

Although it was written in 1992 and illustrates the dangers of female genital mutilation, this practice continues with little challenge. Women are complicit in this practice, and are the culture-sustainers by which many women lose access to orgasm, mobility and ordinary bodily functions.

In this novel the West is represented as ‘other’ and outside of the practice. Tashi’s act of defiance against Western norms of femininity is her compliance with the norms of her own culture. Unfortunately, neither of these sets of norms is authored or negotiated by women. It’s interesting that despite the nearly ten years since the novel was written, there is still the belief that one vagina is more feminine than another, and that women decide which is.

It made me think more about the way in which I regulate my own body to ensure that it is feminine. It made me think about the way indigenous practices are ‘othered’ through Western analytical frameworks and traditional feminist theory. However, cultural relativism didn’t sit well with me, and Tashi’s own suffering convinced me that female genital mutilation is an issue we should be talking more about in 2011.

The final page of the book reminded me why we’re here as feminists, and I suggest you read this book to remind yourselves.


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