Possessing the Secret of Joy in the USA

Read any proposal to ‚change behavior‘ regarding FGM and you’ll find reverence for education. The mantra is shared by UnCUT/VOICES Press, its books ripe for adoption as course material. Thus, sincere thanks to professors Carmen Hernandez in Iowa and Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez in Massachusetts (no relation), the first to include Khady’s Blood Stains. A Child of Africa Reclaims Her Human Rights in their African American and Gender Studies programs. I teach Khady, too, my Introduction to African American Literature inspiring fine comparative essays linking the West African tale with Possessing the Secret of Joy. As Hilda Twongyeirwe has shown for Beyond the Dance, the real-life witness provides a template for Walker’s imaginative insight. And Walker‘s re-vision encompasses Diaspora, an international frame often neglected in the insular US.

Concerned especially with presenting Possessing the Secret of Joy – „under-read and under-taught “ — in the context of American English departments, Monica Jacobe notes in Waging Empathy that critics and „Southern Studies scholars” prefer the canonical Color Purple, Walker’s Pulitzer prize-winning text, which includes FGM in a manner both furtive and allusive but doesn’t make the topic central. Southern US history remains the broad canvas on which key scenes are mapped. Africa is a secondary venue. In Possessing the Secret of Joy, however, these geographies reverse.

„Women’s search for identity“ (Jacobe),  a main theme in  Possessing, gains traction when Walker moves the locus of her tale from the American South  to the rest of the globe.  „So often limited by [parochial] cultural perceptions, … [identity] finds new space … in transnational settings and contexts” (Jacobe).  Moreover, plotting Walker along familiar vectors – in terms of profession, gender, class, ‘race’, nation and sub-section of the nation, i.e. the American South–, leaves out something crucial, “the central issue … at the heart of Possessing the Secret of Joy: female genital mutilation.” China Xian class 2011 for Blog

Jacobe takes her guild to task for their “larger critical dismissal of Walker’s later novels” that present “a clear relationship … between the fictions and the world” while “resisting the oversimplification that labeling … entails.”  Instead, teaching and research on Southern women’s literature can benefit from “characters who transcend boundaries [of race, class and nationality], living in many versions of them all at once.  And isn’t illumination part of what we owe our students and our scholarship?”

China Women's University Beijing 2011

China Women’s University Beijing 2012

Enlightening an audience, enabling it to see FGM emerge from, perpetuate and justify a “society constructed and controlled by … this ritualized violence,” – Jacobe’s words–, is the aim of novelist, critic, and growing cadre of policy-makers, activists, NGOs, CBOs and even FBOs (faith-based organizations).

Crucial to this new seeing are the vistas opened up by concepts such as deterritorialization and Diaspora.

“Walker’s patriarchy in Possessing the Secret of Joy,” Jacobe goes on, “cannot be read as exclusively African.”  Instead, the use of force to control women’s bodies references chattel slavery. And “certainly, any course on literature of the American South, to say nothing of Southern women’s writing, includes other works featuring sexualized and racialized violence” whose bedrock is a specific and fraught American phenomenon. Hence, a “connective tissue … exists for Walker between her own heritage as an African American woman and the heritage carried by African women who suffered FGM: a lack of power, of individual agency, constructed by their gender and race, which also constructed class or social position, and allowed for control of the female body and, often, violence to it.”

In sum, ownership of political and cultural power lies at the center of Tashi’s story, Jacobe asserts, “and of every one of Walker’s novels.  Once [students] begin discussing ‘power’, the lines outward are numerous, almost limitless,” but faculty can guide them toward resistance – the raw, tendered full secret of joy.

Note on the class photos: In the first, wearing my 旗袍 qípáo or Chinese dress I am in Xi’an, at Northwestern Polytechnical University (Xi Gong Da) where Alice Walker and other African American poets and writers  figure on my syllabus. I have learned that some of the grandmothers and great-grandmothers, whom these students know or have known, had bound feet. That cruel phenomenon made FGM and the struggle to end it accessible to them. In the second photo, we had just concluded a 48-classroom hour course on African American Women Writers (China Women’s University, Beijing, Summer 2012).


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