Teaching Walker’s novel on FGM in India

Agony An Experience I Will Never Forget

Stella Ubigho. Agony – An Experience I Will Never Forget. Oil on Canvas. 1998.

I’ll never forget the young man from Mali who, on September 1, 2001, while viewing this canvas in Darmstadt‘s City Hall, slowly melted onto the marble floor. He had fainted! The vernissage for „Through the Eyes of Nigerian Artists,” a travelling exhibition of paintings and sculpture against FGM, held its breath until the student revived and, sheepishly, excused himself, „This is all so new to me, the details at least, although clearly my mother and sisters are involved. If only I had known …“

In Blood Stains. A Child of Africa Reclaims Her Human Rights, Khady explains: „The girls were silent, rigid with … fear … But no one tried to run away. Unthinkable, even if we strained to [spot] … someone who could spring us. Grandfather, maybe? If he had known what this act would do to me, he would have stopped it. But I don’t think he was informed. Women accuse men of instigating [FGM], and on a certain level that’s true, but in many villages no one tells the fathers anything. … My father wasn’t there, and no one had asked his opinion, no more than my maternal grandfather’s. It’s a woman’s thing ….”

Gulab Chillar Singh

Professor Singh

And at the same time, it’s not. Both men and women need to know, and in his chapter for Waging Empathy, Indian scholar Gulab Singh reads Alice Walker for her clear intention to inform. What can the uninitiated learn from her prose? A first intense lesson is that this isn’t ‘circumcision’. Nor is it merely ‘cutting’ but instead, an intervention that causes havoc: the heroine Tashi is wounded physically, mentally, spiritually, and even ethically. Resembling the Indian Goddess Kali, a thrower of stones, she commits an inhospitable, even criminal act against the androgynous Pierre, ‘welcoming’ him to her home with a hailstorm of rocks. He flees.  Reconciliation ensues, but only after Pierre has revealed the sexist, patriarchal sense of Tashi’s self-inflicted pain.

Initially, Singh follows how Walker motivates the protagonist’s decision to submit to FGM even though, as a child, she had been spared, revealing the pushes and pulls, private and public – bullying by girls and the threat of rejection by potential husbands, patriotism in answer to a Leader’s charisma and defiance of (neo)colonial oppression. These make the teen-ager’s choice understandable.

But the decisive force, in Singh’s analysis, is the abandonment of critical awareness due to a dearth of data: Tashi accepts the veil of lies shrouding suffering and disability. And no wonder. More opaque than an Afghan chador, the carapace of silence that gags FGM works thoroughly. The coach is not a pumpkin; the horses are not mice; the clock has not struck twelve. The illusion is complete, and emotions, worse than flesh alone, are sealed.

Fiercely, Tashi wants to be cut – like the millions and millions who continue to impose FGM on small girls – in denial of clinical horror. Desire is key to the tenacity of torture, not for the pain but the result, acceptance.

In an early interview with the BBC, Toni Morrison has said that while preparing to write Beloved, and trying to understand the trauma that was like “having World War II for two hundred years,” she felt distanced by history books, wanting instead to place the locus of the story in the minds of the slaves and to create something not broad and fat but “narrow and deep.” In the novel that gained her the Nobel Prize, she succeeded, and to explain that success she claims: “Some things only artists can do” (and, she repeats), “only artists can do. And it’s our job.”

Alice Walker, too, has done her job.

Work Cited

Morrison, Toni. Toni Morrison. Interview BBC Video, 1988.

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