Alice Walker's book embodies both joy and pain

July 12, 1992|By Sabdra D. Davis | Sabdra D. Davis,Knight-Ridder News Service


Alice Walker.

Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

270 pages. $19.95. Young Tashi, a tribal African girl, mourns for her sister, Dura. She can't understand why Dura died, or why speaking of her has become unacceptable.

She knows her sister's death is connected to the ritual Dura had seemed so excited about. Before the ceremony, villagers showered Dura with beads, bracelets and brightly colored cloth.

Joy surrounded Dura and the Olinka custom of transforming girls into women. But after the knife gouges Dura's young flesh, removing her vulva, Dura bleeds to death.

Years later, Tashi, who figured in Alice Walker's "The Color Purple" (1982) and "The Temple of My Familiar" (1989), is living and traveling through North America, carrying the pain of her sister's death and an unquenchable desire for the ritual that will mark her as an Olinka woman. As a young woman, Tashi returns to Africa and voluntarily submits to the circumcision, though the proper age for the operation is somewhere between shortly after birth and 11.

Tashi's life becomes a bleak, dismal existence.

Perpetual pain and unending mourning are the catalysts that move "Possessing the Secret of Joy," which is singularly unjoyous.

As she did with incest in "The Color Purple," Ms. Walker again hauls out a load of badly soiled linen and turns it into a banner against brutality. For that she gets credit. But her story is so piercing that it leaves the reader paralyzed by the pain and torment that Tashi symbolizes. There are no pretty anecdotes, no happy endings, no bright moments to entertain the reader.

As in "The Color Purple," the power lies with the main character. The reader is pulled in by Tashi's pain then bashed over the head with rambling polemics.

Politics aside, the story itself is flawed. Tashi is obsessed with the circumcision because it will forever link her to the Olinka people. But, if she felt that strongly about her native land, why would she have left it? And why marry an American? And, why does she have so little contact with the people in her country once she leaves?

At the end of "Joy," Ms. Walker writes that genital mutilation is still practiced in some parts of Africa and that she is donating a portion of "Joy's" royalties for education about the barbaric ritual. I'm tempted to suggest there won't be much in the way of royalties to donate.

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