What They Did to Tashi
By JANETTE TURNER HOSPITAL
POSSESSING THE SECRET OF JOY
By Alice Walker.
lack people are natural, they possess the secret of joy," proclaims the epigraph to Alice Walker's new novel. These are the words of Mirella Ricciardi, identified by Ms. Walker as a "white colonialist author" whose book, "African Saga," was published in 1982, and they are used here with bitter irony. "With the added experience of my safaris behind me," Ms. Ricciardi writes, apparently without any postcolonial self-consciousness, "I had begun to understand the code of 'birth, copulation and death' by which [ the Africans ] lived" and why they could "survive the suffering and humiliation inflicted upon them."
"But what is it? This secret of joy of which she writes," demands Tashi, Ms. Walker's protagonist, when, toward the end of the novel, she herself reads Ms. Ricciardi's book. And what, the novel asks, is the secret of Tashi's pain?
Tashi, a black African woman who has spent most of her adult life in the United States, has made peripheral appearances in Ms. Walker's previous books "The Color Purple" and "The Temple of My Familiar," but she occupies center stage in this one. She has indeed survived "suffering and humiliation," though only narrowly, and she cannot speak of them. "They've made the telling of the suffering itself taboo," says her husband, Adam, a black American.
"Possessing the Secret of Joy" is about the "telling" of suffering and the breaking of taboos. And when taboos are broken, new forms and modes of discourse must evolve to contain that which has previously been unspeakable. Predictable outrage -- moral, political, cultural and esthetic -- ensues, and the breakers of taboos are both vilified and deified. Alice Walker tackles all these developments head-on in a work that is part myth, part polemic, part drama. It is a work that sits uneasily within the category of "the novel," though the breakers of taboos must always redefine the terms and the rules of the game. Indeed, Ms. Walker's book is a literary enterprise whose ancestry runs closer to the Greek chorus and the medieval miracle play than to the modern novel. Its subject matter is ritual clitoridectomy and the genital mutilation of young women.
Because her mother was influenced by black American missionaries (by that family, in fact, whose history occupies the second half of "The Color Purple"), Tashi herself was not circumcised at puberty. As a young child, however, she did hear the screams of her older sister, who died bloodily in a botched initiation in the tribal village. Tashi repressed this memory and "forgot why the sight of her own blood terrified her." Subsequently, in a voluntary act of identification with Pan-African aspirations, the teen-age Tashi submits herself to the tsunga 's knife.
Olivia (that same Olivia who was a major presence in "The Color Purple," a black American, Tashi's childhood playmate and lifelong friend) tries to dissuade her, and in the argument between Tashi and Olivia Ms. Walker is able to suggest some of the explosive issues that surround her subject, issues that pit the victims of gender imperialism against the victims of cultural imperialism.
"All I care about now is the struggle for our people," Tashi tells Olivia. "You are a foreigner. Any day you like, you and your family can ship yourselves back home." She puts the case for cultural autonomy passionately: "I saw the children, potbellied and with dying eyes, which made them look very wise. I saw the old people laid out in the shade of the rocks, barely moving 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. These marks gave me courage. I wanted such a mark for myself."
But the receiving of the mark almost destroys Tashi, physically and emotionally. Adam rescues her, marries her, brings her to the United States. The novel catalogues her descent into madness, her long fight to salvage and reconstruct a self, her return to Africa, her final costly liberation and her discovery that "resistance is the secret of joy."
Along the way, Ms. Walker probes the various arguments in an extremely complex debate. She airs such unresolved moral problems as the idealization and deification of liberation leaders, the easy acceptance of corruption in a "good" political cause and the collusion that exists between oppressor and oppressed -- a collusion on which the oppressor's tyranny relies.
The people in Ms. Walker's book are archetypes rather than characters as we have come to expect them in the 20th-century novel, and this is by defiant intention. One character, a white man, speaks of "an ancient self that thirsts for knowledge of the experiences of its ancient kin. . . . A self that is horrified at what was done to [ Tashi ] , but recognizes it as something that is also done to me. A truly universal self."
When the novel is operating genuinely on this archetypal level, it has a mythic strength. Its many voices are not rendered as stream-of-consciousness monologues, nor are they made to belong to distinct individuals. Instead, they are highly stylized, operatic, prophetic -- and powerfully poetic. The characters speak as Jason and Medea speak in Greek drama, as Greed and Sloth and Grief speak in the medieval plays.
Such a framework can successfully contain many disparate and disturbing elements: the grotesque techniques of clitoridectomy, after which the raw wound is fastened with thorns, so that only a tiny aperture is left when the flesh heals; the use of a hunting knife on the wedding night, when the bride is again cut open, this time to fit her husband; the self-mutilation that often follows in the wake of such trauma. Ms. Walker's narrative also encompasses the grim routine of an African prison and the tension of a politically charged trial. It even manages to bring Carl Jung into the story, to offer solace to Tashi. But there are other elements of the book (the jargon of West Coast therapists, for example) that fit far less successfully with the others, and the narrative voice can suddenly sound trite and irritating, even rather silly, when it makes such pronouncements as "I felt negated by the realization that even my psychiatrist could not see I was African."
At such times, one wishes Ms. Walker had opted for a different literary form, a new kind of polemic rather than a variation on the traditional novel -- perhaps something akin to Pascal's "Pensees," an episodic collage of documentary fact, scholarly opinion and lyrical monologue. For the book's power resides in those moments when polemic intention and mythopoeic voice are in balance, when Tashi -- who is also Medea, who is also Everywoman and Everyman in violation and crisis -- cries out:
"I studied the white rinds of my mother's heels, and felt in my own heart the weight of [ my sister's ] death settling upon her spirit, like the groundnuts that bent her back. As she staggered under her load, I half expected her footprints, into which I was careful to step, to stain my own feet with tears and blood. . . .
"And I was like a crow, flapping my wings unceasingly in my own head, cawing mutely across an empty sky. And I wore black, and black and black."
THE SCREAMING IN HER EARS
I remembered my sister Dura's . . . my sister Dura's . . . I could get no further. There was a boulder lodged in my throat. My heart surged pitifully. I knew what the boulder was; that it was a word; and that behind that word I would find my earliest emotions. Emotions that had frightened me insane. I had been going to say, before the boulder barred my throat: my sister's death; because that was how I had always thought of Dura's demise. She'd simply died. She'd bled and bled and bled and then there was death. No one was responsible. No one to blame. Instead, I took a deep breath and exhaled it against the boulder blocking my throat: I remembered my sister Dura's murder, I said, exploding the boulder. I felt a painful stitch throughout my body that I knew stitched my tears to my soul. No longer would my weeping be separate from what I knew. . . .
She has been screaming in my ears since it happened.
-- From "Possessing the Secret of Joy."