Possessing the Secret of Joy by Alice Walker
I am not quite sure what to write as I finish this book – Alice Walker’s Possessing the Secret of Joy.
ETA (made some changes to the intro to heighten the lit focus because that’s what this blogger on books series is about): Walker (author of In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens and Living by the Word in non-fiction, The Colour Purple and The Temple of My Familiar in fiction, poetry Her Blue Body Everything We Know in poetry) has always been (for me, especially as a woman of colour) an inspiring writer, for her own writing as well as for her role in unearthing another literary light Zora Neale Hurston (author of Their Eyes were watching God) who had slipped in to obscurity following her heyday during the Harlem Renaissance. Through her literature and her activism, Walker has been a strong womanist and feminist voice. She has, however, attracted her share of criticism over the years. At the time that I wrote this initially (late 2018), she was being hit with charges of anti-Semitism (which she denies, to the best of my knowledge); these charges resulted from her support of Palestinian liberation, her criticism of Israel, and her perceived endorsement or amplification of someone who is seen as being anti-Semitic. I was reading the book when this criticism caught my attention and continued reading (though I acknowledge that some people find her problematic), and have decided to keep the focus on the review. Here goes.
I was deeply affected by Possessing the Secret of Joy, a novel I have had for so long, unread, that it was falling apart by the time I finished it. A novel I was not ready to read when I got it, I think, though characters from the Pulitzer prize winning Purple walk across Temple and in to Possessing. Centrally, in the case of Possessing, that character is Tashi, a curious girl turned unapologetically unpleasant (some would say) woman of Olinka (made up African tribe) origin. I say some would say because she is clearly a woman in pain throughout much of the book and she thinks and does and says things that telegraph this pain and rage even when she can’t speak it, which she can’t for a large portion of her life and the book, to the discomfort of others. But, even silent, she doesn’t suffer in silence.
The story jumps around from Africa to America to Europe, and back to Africa, and digs painfully in to the issue of female circumcision; but more thematically in to the subjugation of women and the role women are called to play in their subjugation (the ways in which women become some of the most ardent enforcers of the patriarchy), and perhaps more specifically still, in to the fear of a free and self-possessed woman.
Among the Olinka, circumcision is embraced as an anti-colonial act and it is for this reason that Tashi deliberately seeks it out though it destroys her life thereafter (as it destroyed the lives of many including her dead sister and the self-same Tsunga – another made up word – who performs the circumcision on her). Bouts of madness, depression, dispossession, a failure to find any kind of joy or peace or comfort in her own body or her own mind though married and a mother and sharp of mind and wit, follow.
It doesn’t follow in a linear way. The book is character not plot driven in the most abstract of ways – it is a form I am grappling with with a current writing project so, knowing the challenge of this approach in a real way, I am even more impressed with the crafting of it, with the way the book, confusing at first, manages to bring itself clearly to a point, never losing the plot, even while seeming unconcerned with plotting. And the character voices are precise and interesting, as are the shifts when you meet these characters at different points in their lives. The use of different variations of the main character’s name is reflective, I think, of where she is in her life, who she is to herself, at these points; and it’s an interesting strategy, as a matter of craft, especially in light of said character’s psychological issues.
An African-American woman taking on this deeply African – deeply personal, deeply cultural, deeply political – issue, protesting it in the writing of it, would, I imagine, have been controversial even in the pre-social media 1992, even without Walker herself being as controversial as she has become. In her post note, she acknowledges the research but also the creative license she took –making up African words, and as noted, a tribe whole cloth; and there are probably triggers (for the African reader) that I’m missing as an Afro-Caribbean reader. But I found it very engaging albeit triggering for other reasons.
I want to make clear that when I say triggering here, I’m not trying to make light of this term. I should say that personally though that when it comes to works of art, I prefer to dive in spoiler free and wade through whatever discomfort may come. And so it was with this.
You ever felt your whole body clench up and go weak, that’s how I felt through most of the reading of this book. I felt reading this like it was happening to me – circumcision. It is graphic. It is visceral. It is painful to read and the vividness of it is coming back up on me like nothing has since the too long too brutal whipping of Patsey in 12 Years a Slave – a sequence that has made it difficult to impossible for me to see scenes of its like, slavery-era black pain, especially when used as a backdrop for someone else’s story, black pain, black whippings, black torture as scenery. I feel it in my belly. For my ancestors, I feel it, and yet I know I can’t have felt it the way they did – and I do believe, still, that if they endured it, it’s not really asking me too much to look at it when their stories are re-constructed. But, yes, it is triggering.
And yet I am glad I went in to this book relatively unspoiled even as it dragged itself, like the feet of an Olinka woman after circumcision, to its sad end knowing that Walker wasn’t going to pull a Jordan Peele (who changed the ending of his movie Get Out because he knew, given the climate of the country, that his audience, and black people especially, needed a happier ending). Something odd though is that the sad ending didn’t sadden me. With the unfurling of a single banner of protest, I found hope that minds had been shifted, and that the sacrifice the book demanded of its main character would not be in vein. So maybe not a sad ending after all.
For its insights to cancerous colonialism and toxic tribalism, female subjugation and self-subjugation, relationships between Africa and Africa-descended people, home and tradition, protest and oppression, love and heartbreak, insanity as a coping mechanism, so many things plus the pure mastery of the crafting of it, Possessing the Secret of Joy leaves me like Purple and Familiar happy that I read it, in the way that one is happy after an operation while still healing, uncomfortably, and knowing that you will never quite be the same again.
ETA (earlier edit): Proving that this is a book that sticks with you, I’ve been thinking since writing this of another thing, mental health and how it illustrates that when it comes to treating people of African descent there will be short comings of understanding due to the doctor’s absence of the cultural knowledge of the patient, the philosophies and anxieties of that culture that inform who the person has become. As an African-Caribbean person, this resonated with me, and it’s not for nothing that the psychiatrists or psychologists who had some impact with her (the main character) were, in the case of the white man, familiar with and respectful of her culture, and, in the case of the black woman, legitimately curious about and open to it. In such things, it’s not one size fits all and the book seems on some level to be criticizing western psychiatry (or psychology) for its hubris.
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