Possessing the Secret of Joy- Alice Walker

“There was a boulder lodged in my throat. My heart surged pitifully. I knew what the boulder was; that it was a word; and that behind that word I would find my earliest emotions.”– Alice Walker, Possessing the Secret of Joy

Tashi, an African woman from the Olinkan tribe, marries Adam, an American man, and spends most of her life in America. Witnessing her sister, Dura, die from a botched female genital mutilation (FGM) surgery, as well as undergoing FGM herself, Tashi becomes traumatized and has to be treated by psychotherapists who try to find the root of her mental instability.

This was an extremely tough read but any book about FGM is bound to be. The book questions the patriarchal societies that encourage FGM and other such restrictive practices. FGM is compared to foot-binding in China, another patriarchal practice that was used to control women.In Lisa See’s book Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, the sister of the main character dies due to a bungled foot-binding procedure. It’s quite disturbing that in both cases brainwashing is in effect and women are told that these practices will make them more desirable to their husbands AND will also allow them to become welcome members of society:

“Even today there are villages where an uncircumcised woman is not permitted to live. The chiefs enforce this. On the other hand, circumcision is a taboo that is never discussed. How then do the chiefs know how to keep it going? How is it talked about?”

The book is made up of several short chapters, each concentrating on one character narrating their thoughts. It shows how everyone: spouses, friends, children, can be affected by FGM, not just the woman who undergoes the surgery.

This book is very Jungian in its approach, Jung even makes several appearances as Mzee (Swahili honorific for an elderly man), Tashi’s first psychotherapist.

The most horrifying thing about this book is that FGM is still practiced in many countries. However, this book makes a statement; Alice Walker gives a voice to the women who have experienced FGM and have no voice. Walker shows how tradition can sometimes be oppressive. I was impressed by how Walker tackled such a controversial topic and with cultural sensitivity as well. I think her Jungian approach while delving into symbolism was extremely interesting. Because I’ve only recently gotten into Jung I feel I need to re-read this book once I’ve read a bit more Jung.

I took this book on vacation with me last week, I was initially very worried about reading it as it isn’t exactly cheerful reading. I can’t say I enjoyed reading this book but it’s the type of book I’m very glad to have read.

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