Walker’s „universal self“: On FGM in Hiroshima, with Anne Frank

The lush campus of Jogakuin University, set on steep, graceful hills, was steaming on July 9, 2013, as Sachiko and I, seeking shelter from the heat, came upon a powerful reminder of tragedy, hope, and the ability of humans everywhere to see how one child’s destiny speaks to their own lives. Inscribed “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9), the plaque next to the library’s entrance announced a new rose created in Belgium at Otto Frank’s request to honor Anne with a symbol of his daughter’s dream of peace. In 2005, the 60th anniversary of the atomic bomb and the young author’s death witnessed the planting of saplings. Now fat with fragrance, the blossoms provided an iconic foreword to information I would soon impart to youthful students on FGM, sometimes known as „cutting the rose.” The symbol of loveliness and harmony, the flora also represents female genitalia whose desecration I was going to ask my listeners to confront. How could this best be done?

When Alice Walker came to Tokyo to promote the Japanese translation of Possessing the Secret of Joy, she was concerned about this, too. How do you do it? Journalist Setsuko Kamiya elicited an answer by asking Alice why, having learned about FGM in Kenya in the late 60s, she had waited until 1992 to write about it. Walker’s reply, “I was … gathering my courage, because it is such a taboo subject and I knew that many people didn’t want it discussed. … So I had to question what was the best thing to do, or what should I do. Was my duty to write about this so that people can see and feel it and think about it in a different way and change it? Or, like all the other people before me, should I just camouflage it in my fiction and make it look like something else?“  (qtd. in Kamiya, Setsuko, The Japan Times)

Walker chose to reveal the mutilation many others  label „culture,“ but, as Sachiko Mitsumori in Waging Empathy points out, the heroine‘s trauma presents a true dilemma, for readers don’t automatically act when confronted by dramas of injustice. They may be indifferent, even hostile. „How can [the author] replace … distaste for objectionable facts with empathy?” Mitsumori asks. How can “a horrible truth” be brokered into insight that “what is done to Tashi is done to all?”

Hiroshima Jogakuin University with Japanese and Filippino students

Hiroshima Jogakuin University with Japanese and Filippino students

In the plot itself, Walker embeds critics’ challenge to her understanding of (neo) colonialism and pre-empts their refusal to voice FGM by having her heroine, at first, bear its standard. She makes defiance of the colonizer Tashi’s motive to have herself cut; and then again, as a result of immense anguish, her motive to end genital assaults on others, even if defiance costs her life. Thus, anticipating being faulted for her “superior Western attitude toward Africa,” Walker deflects the barb by promoting the “idea of a universal self, one enabled to embrace the pain of others” (Mitsumori).

What allows this universal self to surface? It arises from the tension between resistance and complicity. After all, the story ends with a call to arms but the preface is serial assassination:

“Women murder women in this book. M’Lissa kills Dura; Tashi suffocates M’Lissa; the State – in superficial solidarity with its token female ‘national monument’ – executes Tashi. There are metaphoric deaths, as well, of parts of personality: M’Lissa never to emerge from the scene of torture but her girl self left to weep all of the world’s tears; Nafa, in mourning for her daughter Dura, leaving footprints for Tashi to follow who envisions them stained with blood. The blood of women – a force in birth but also in death – fuses the African female characters into a single image. Nafa, M’Lissa, Mbati and Tashi gradually merge” (Mitsumori).

Empathy among these women allows them to cohere. But what of the men? If initially Adam rejects his wife’s genital distress as the fit subject of a sermon, his mind opens at the trial:

In the hot and crowded courtroom he considers the ordeal that each female has gone through, “the women suffering from the unnatural constrictions of flesh their bodies have been whittled and refashioned into” (Possessing 166) and he sees that Evelyn [Tashi] is not alone; that there are so many others. (Mitsumori)

This man had once been in complicity with patriarchy for refusing to nest the trials of women under the wings of a tormented Jesus, but the pastor has a change of heart. He joins the psychiatrist Mzee who, “horrified at what was done to [his patient], … recognizes it as something that is also done to [him]. A truly universal self” (Possessing 84).

When in 1975, Benoîte Groult wrote about FGM in a book aptly titled Ainsi soit-elle, loosely rendered “As she be,” she observes: “on a mal au c…., n’est pas, quand on lit ça. On a mal au coeur de soi-même.” In colloquial English, read about FGM and you feel pain right there, where blades strike girls. The act also smites our ethical hearts – everyone’s heart. Yours, too.

Thanks to Sachiko Mitsumori for arranging the speech at Hiroshima Jogakuin University about FGM and UnCUT/VOICES Press; and thanks to lecturer Courtney Lawrence from Jogakuin and Professor Angela Regala of Assumption College in the Philippines whose dynamic and attentive students attended the talk and asked very good questions.  

Works Cited

Groult, Benoite. Ainsi soit-elle. Paris: Grasset, 1975. Print.

Kamiya, Setsuko. “Alice Walker: Love makes her world go round.” Japan Times. 4 May 2003. http://www.japantimes.co.jp/community/2003/05/04/general/alice-walker-love-makes-her-world-go-round/#.UhRqZj8l_H8

Retrieved  21 August 2013

Mitsumori, Sachiko. “Alice Walker’s Possessing the Secret of Joy: Reflections on the Universal Self.” In Levin, Tobe, ed. Waging Empathy. Alice Walker, Possessing the Secret of Joy, and the Global Movement to Ban FGM. Frankfurt am Main: UnCUT/VOICES Press (publication pending). Print.

Walker, Alice. Possessing the Secret of Joy. NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992. Print.


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