Remarkable among Alice Walker’s early critics is their shared claim to oppose FGM. They quibble, therefore, not about the end but the means. One editorial, for instance, disapproved of Walker’s having hijacked the issue, distorting it to represent the epitome of misogyny and harm done to women the world over. This move, in turn, was thought to separate “the West from the rest” (Salem and Mekuria). Or, in another critic’s view, Walker is charged with invoking rather than dispelling the “Ew! Factor” (Claire C. Robertson). Ironically, then, the African American author found herself placed among those guilty of sweeping, hegemonic condemnations of African customs, perceived as less aligned with Africa and more with white America.
In her contribution to Waging Empathy, Italian Guilia Fabi dissolves these charges by showing how not African customs per se but violence itself is the grand object of Walker’s rage. In African American women writers’ canon, Fabi finds the pre- and context (pun intended) for performing FGM. Walker’s previous novelistic disapproval of sexual violence against black women in the United States motivates her complex exploration of FGM. Fabi writes: “In Possessing the Secret of Joy, Walker interweaves three major, closely related thematic concerns: the condemnation of genital mutilation as a traditional patriarchal tool to oppress women; the indictment of female complicity in their own mutilation and victimization; and the insistence on the need to break the oppressive silence that surrounds this taboo.”
As a result, it’s appropriate to understand “Walker’s focus on female genital mutilation in Africa … on a continuum both with nineteenth-century [censure] of other practices of sexual violence against black women in America (such as the systematic rape of female slaves …) and with forms of sexual oppression after the official end of slavery in the persistence of pernicious stereotypes of black womanhood and systematic practices of sexual harassment” and intimidation.
The key term is continuum. Fabi urges a reading of Walker that accepts the range of this geography. The issues that have crossed (and re-crossed) the Atlantic can be seen as more similar than different: patriarchy manifests in Africa in ways comparable to its application in the New World, sexism wielded by slaveholders against their (female) chattel and, in the era of Walker’s childhood, within the sharecroppers’ own community. To back up her thesis, Fabi highlights the sexual violence in Walker’s short story “The Child who Favors Daughter” in which a black father (in the USA) hacks off his errant offspring’s breasts.
But the victim in ‘Daughter’ does not choose her fate. Tashi, in contrast, is her destiny’s accomplice. Fabi considers the narrative tensions implied when, on the one hand, victims are considered survivors and, on the other, when survivors seek their deaths, no matter how spectacular. In other words, Fabi sees Tashi not as a hero but a martyr, and this in turn returns us to racist and sexist disrespect.
True. Tashi inspires a covert demonstration whose crowning moment is the unfurled banner proclaiming “resistance is the secret of joy.” But if Tashi is more acquiescent and resigned than rebellious and committed, a real danger of encouraging, in the best case, paternalistic sympathy or, in the worst, racist scorn for a ‘barbaric’ custom still exists. The tension is never resolved. As Fabi writes, ““The unremitting ‘grimness’ (Possessing 262) of Tashi’s story… is very effective as a tool to advance the author’s indictment of genital mutilation practices, but it creates representational tensions and incongruities for Walker, who has consistently focused on ‘contrary women’ (Barbara Christian) who attempt to fight back, though not necessarily effectively or successfully. In Possessing the Secret of Joy, on the contrary, the female protagonist is completely trapped by her (absent) flesh, and even when she recovers full consciousness of what was done to her, and learns to condemn it as part of the larger subjection of women, she does not shift her focus from death or attempt to reappropriate her captive subjectivity, except for a fleeting moment.” Doesn’t this then make her a victimized martyr and not a defeated rebel?
In another work-in-progress called Dignity and Tears, photographer Britta Radike and author Tobe Levin confront this problem head-on. In majestic photos of activists whose valor against FGM has reaped mockery and abuse, we unfold the possibility of acknowledging that, even if racists and sexists are enabled when FGM is publicly discussed, their message cedes to the portraits of courage painted by campaigners, women and men, in real life — and in books.
The painting is by Nathan Oghale Okoro. The Truth is, both Men and Women Suffer. Oil on Canvas. 2009.
Dawit, Seble, and Salem Mekuria. “The West Just Doesn’t Get it.” The New York Times (7 December 1993): A-27. Print.
Fabi, Giulia M. “Sexual Violence and the Black Atlantic. On Alice Walker’s Possessing the Secret of Joy.” Waging Empathy. Alice Walker, Possessing the Secret of Joy, and the Global Move to Ban FGM. Ed. Tobe Levin. Frankfurt am Main: UnCUT/VOICES Press, 2013 (forthcoming). Reprinted with permission from Oxford University Press. The original appeared in Black Imagination and the Middle Passage. Eds. Maria Diedrich, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Carl Pedersen. NY: Oxford UP, 1999. 228-239.
Robertson, Claire C. “Getting beyond the Ew! Factor. Rethinking U.S. Approaches to African Female Genital Cutting.” In Stanlie M. James and Claire C. Robertson. Genital Cutting and Transnational Sisterhood. Disputing U.S. Polemics. Chicago: U. of Illinois P., 2002. 54-85. Print.