On Presenting Alice Walker (once again) in China, or how fiction can end FGM

Students are keen to ask questions

Students are keen to ask questions

On one of Beijing’s rare  azure days, October 21, 2013, while introducing Alice Walker’s Possessing the Secret of Joy to English and women’s studies majors at China Women’s University, I argued that policy-makers and donors have under-appreciated the role of literature in raising awareness and altering behavior. My edited volume, Waging Empathy. Alice Walker, Possessing the Secret of Joy, and the Global Movement to Ban FGM, shapes this premise in each chapter. Italian Claudia Landi’s contribution that looks at “Animals in Possessing the Secret of Joy” is especially strong in showing how fiction, unlike non-fiction, maximizes the affect of pleas to stop female genital mutilation by stimulating  emotions and mind, thereby planting a useful response in the rich soil of human concern.

For from childhood on, we exercise our empathies with animals. Indeed, anthropomorphic thinking appears to be universal. From totems to Teddy Bears to my generation’s Charlotte and her web, — not to mention Chinese animal years –, people clearly want to cross the boundary of species and communicate with the apparently unlike by projecting likeness. We cultivate empathic attachment that grounds our care for others. After all, Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful, as Walker titles one collection of poems. It therefore comes as no surprise that wildlife populates the novel she wrote to abolish FGM.

Host Cathy (Qian Yiping) introduces the speaker to English and Social Work students

Host Cathy (Qian Yiping) introduces the speaker to English and Social Work students

Landi analyses the opening parable whose heroine, Lara, is a panther. The census of erstwhile predators (or potential cuisine) also includes two additional big cats –proverbial ‘familiars’–, the leopard at Tashi’s birth and the lion in whose skin M’lissa, the exciser, appears allegedly when matriarchy cedes to patriarchy whose male leaders in turn associate with ants, termites and scorpions. The atrocious fowl Tashi imposes on her therapist’s wall is clearly a rapacious male, the sensual symbol of Dura’s murder, yet it soon morphs into an ordinary barnyard chick: not the cock but the hen ingests the amputated clitoris. Why switch to female poultry? The symbol strengthens an over-riding theme, women’s strategic investment in impotence.

As Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has written in Alice Walker. Critical Perspectives, Past and Present (with K. Anthony Appiah) (1993): “ … Walker’s fascination with divided loyalties as much as double consciousness is trenchantly dramatized in Possessing the Secret of Joy,  tortured indictment of clitoridectomy that centers on the interplay between modern and traditional identities and cultural practices and the price that patriarchy may extract in the passage from one to the other” (xi).

Participants jotted down just the right FAQs, mainly asking "What can we do?"

Participants jotted down just the right FAQs, mainly asking “What can we do?”

The price is complicity, clear in the novel from the third epigram: “When the axe entered the forest, the trees said, ‘The handle is one of us’.” This plastic image deepens in the opening allegory in which Lara, a panther, shunned in a polygamous feline marriage she enters by force, exchanges unhappiness born of rejection for bliss and a newly gained self-love that ironically lead to death by drowning. Admiring her now radiant image in a pool, she reaches for it, loses her balance, and remains the water’s captive – like one version of the Narcissus story and not unlike Tashi, who though described as ascending rather than falling, willfully enters death in the end.

So, is Walker suggesting that suicide alone relieves the pain of an erstwhile soul murder?  The deaths of Lara and Tashi frame the narrative, and although reflecting one another in proceeding from a shared acquiescence with their fates, they differ in one key respect. The therapy that teaches Lara to appreciate her body, sexually and aesthetically, simply overshoots the mark, ending in her disappearance. Like one of the model Greek cynosures who dies of unrequited passion, Lara’s leaving, if you pardon the expression, makes no waves. That is, like a sunken ship, the treasure vanishes, of no lasting use to the world. Tashi, in contrast, who faces a firing squad for assassinating the excising agent, achieves an effect beyond her personal demise.

How then does an audience decode the ‘moral of the story’ when panthers or, in Walker, also ants, termites, poultry, not to mention a hawk, are involved? By processing the animal fable in a specifically human way. In “The Brain is Wider than the Sky: Analogy, Emotion and Allegory,” Paul Thagard writes about “new theories of neural representation, encompassing both cognitive and emotional aspects, [that] … make sense of … literary comparison, from poetic metaphors to parodies to literary allegories” (p. 131). He applies a tri-partite structure to George Orwell’s Animal Farm – the famed British writer’s “beast fable”, a move transferable to Walker’s text. If the source is the story and the target some aspect of the human condition, then the mental activity — recorded by neuroscience in the form of MRIs capturing firing synapses in designated regions of the brain – involves not only ratio but also feeling, or cognition and emotion, i.e. the physiological basis of empathy. Thibaud’s “multi-constraint theory of analogy” posits three main correspondences between narratives and lives: similarity, structure and purpose that ensure successful relocation from the source domain to the target domain (I paraphrase, p. 131). In Walker’s allegory of the panther, an unhappy marriage among felines resembles human unions (similarity); action to conquer depression answers the advice of human therapists (seeking help, the structure), and the purpose is to convey alarm, the if-then format showing how a surfeit of bliss can be counter-productive. Lara the panther, with whom readers have identified, dies — but equivocally. Is it suicide? An accident? An inevitable denouement given antecedent social impotence, itself a product of injustice? To what extent does Tashi’s embrace of execution at the end of the story resemble or differ from Lara’s? And how do we FEEL about all this? Sad? Disappointed? Angry? Finally and most important, what is it about literature that allows me to write, clearly and cogently, about not only a fictive character but a panther in a way that you understand is part of the urgent, extra-literary task of ending the genital torture of girls?

Art is empathy’s midwife, and empathy motivates action.

After the talk

After the talk

If doubt exists about the role of fiction in the quest to change the facts, policy-makers’ thirst for scientific validation can be assuaged, for instance, by results of a study that Emanuele Castano and David Kidd published on October 4, 2013, in Science. In Scientific American, Juliane Chaiet reports that Castano and Kidd found readers of fiction, as opposed to non-fiction, scoring significantly higher on tests of empathy. And empathy is needed to end FGM, a custom so tenacious not only because of vested interests but also, and especially, due to desires of its sufferers, once they come of age, to pass it on – the theme of complicity in Walker’s novel. Thus, a need to stop FGM must be felt by advocates for the practice; they must be persuaded that more prestige, opportunity, and (possibly monetary) benefit come not from doing it but from not doing it. In other words, ‘behavior change’ can be generated not by reason alone but by appeal to irrational motives bound up with pleasure, fear, security, beauty, pride, gender and sexual identity. These are concepts that fiction is best placed to deal with – and themes that Alice Walker generously offers in Possessing the Secret of Joy.

Works Cited

Chiaet, Julianne. “Novel Finding: Reading Literary Fiction Improves Empathy.” Scientific American. October 4, 2013. Web. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=novel-finding-reading-literary-fiction-improves-empathy

Retrieved 28 October 2013.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. and K. Anthony Appiah, eds. Alice Walker. Critical Perspectives Past and Present. NY: Amistad, 1993. Print.

Thagard, Paul. “The Brain is Wider than the Sky: Analogy, Emotion, and Allegory.” Metaphor and Symbol, 26:131–142, 2011. DOI: 10.1080/10926488.2011.556509. Web.

http://cogsci.uwaterloo.ca/Articles/thagard.brain-wider.met&sym.2011.pdf Retrieved 28 October 2913.

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

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