Possessing the Secret of Joyby Alice Walker
A provocative novel about an African tribal woman’s battle with madness after the trauma of a childhood genital mutilation.
A provocative novel about an African tribal woman’s battle with madness after the trauma of a childhood genital mutilation.
"As compelling as . . . The Color Purple." —San Francisco Chronicle
"Extraordinarily courageous and chilling . . . Walker’s remarkable compassion rings on every page." —Cosmopolitan
"Remarkable . . . superb fiction." —New York Daily News
- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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- Edition description:
- First Edition
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- 5.25(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)
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Possessing the Secret of Joy
By Alice Walker
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1992 Alice Walker
All rights reserved.
I did not realize for a long time that I was dead.
And that reminds me of a story: There was once a beautiful young panther who had a co-wife and a husband. Her name was Lara and she was unhappy because her husband and her co-wife were really in love; being nice to her was merely a duty panther society imposed on them. They had not even wanted to take her into their marriage as co-wife, since they were already perfectly happy. But she was an "extra" female in the group and that would not do. Her husband sometimes sniffed her breath and other emanations. He even, sometimes, made love to her. But whenever this happened, the co-wife, whose name was Lala, became upset. She and the husband, Baba, would argue, then fight, snarling and biting and whipping at each other's eyes with their tails. Pretty soon they'd become sick of this and would lie clutched in each other's paws, weeping.
I am supposed to make love to her, Baba would say to Lala, his heartchosen mate. She is my wife just as you are. I did not plan things this way. This is the arrangement that came down to me.
I know it, dearest, said Lala, through her tears. And this pain that I feel is what has come down to me. Surely it can't be right?
These two sat on a rock in the forest and were miserable enough. But Lara, the unwanted, pregnant by now and ill, was devastated. Everyone knew she was unloved, and no other female panther wanted to share her own husband with her. Days went by when the only voice she heard was her inner one.
Soon, she began to listen to it.
Lara, it said, sit here, where the sun may kiss you. And she did.
Lara, it said, lie here, where the moon can make love to you all night long. And she did.
Lara, it said, one bright morning when she knew herself to have been well kissed and well loved: sit here on this stone and look at your beautiful self in the still waters of this stream.
Calmed by the guidance offered by her inner voice, Lara sat down on the stone and leaned over the water. She took in her smooth, aubergine little snout, her delicate, pointed ears, her sleek, gleaming black fur. She was beautiful! And she was well kissed by the sun and well made love to by the moon.
For one whole day, Lara was content. When her co-wife asked her fearfully why she was smiling, Lara only opened her mouth wider, in a grin. The poor co-wife ran trembling off and found their husband, Baba, and dragged him back to look at Lara.
When Baba saw the smiling, well kissed, well made love to Lara, of course he could hardly wait to get his paws on her! He could tell she was in love with someone else, and this aroused all his passion.
While Lala wept, Baba possessed Lara, who was looking over his shoulder at the moon.
Each day it seemed to Lara that the Lara in the stream was the only Lara worth having—so beautiful, so well kissed, and so well made love to. And her inner voice assured her this was true.
So, one hot day when she could not tolerate the shrieks and groans of Baba and Lala as they tried to tear each other's ears off because of her, Lara, who by now was quite indifferent to them both, leaned over and kissed her own serene reflection in the water, and held the kiss all the way to the bottom of the stream
This is the way Tashi expressed herself.
The way she talked and evaded the issue, even as a child. Her mother, Catherine, whose tribal name was Nafa, used to send her to the village shop for matches, which were a penny each. Tashi would be given three pennies. She would lose at least one of them. The story she would tell about the lost penny might go like this: That a giant bird, noticing the shimmer of the coin in the glass of water in which she'd temporarily stored the pennies for safekeeping and for aesthetic enjoyment, had swooped down from the sky, flapped its wings so boldly that the glass of water fell from her hand, and when next she looked, having hidden her face from the creature for fear of its large beak and outspread wings, why—dash! No more penny!
Her mother would scold, or she'd put her hands on her hips, shake her head sadly and make a self-pitying cry to the neighbors about this incorrigible little liar, her daughter.
We were about the same age, Tashi and I, six or seven. I remember, as if it were yesterday, my first glimpse of her. She was weeping, and the tears made a track through the dust on her face. For the villagers, in gathering to meet us, the new missionaries, had raised a cloud of it, reddish and sticky in the humidity. Tashi was standing behind Catherine, her mother, a small, swaybacked woman with an obdurate expression on her dark, lined face, and at first there was only Tashi's hand—a small dark hand and arm, like that of a monkey, reaching around her mother's lower body and clutching at her long, hibiscus-colored skirts. Then, as we drew nearer, my father and mother and Adam and myself, more of her became visible as she peeked around her mother's body to stare at us.
We must have been quite a sight. We had been weeks on the march that brought us to Tashi's village and were ourselves covered with the dust and bruises of the journey. I remember looking up at my father and thinking what a miracle it was that we'd somehow—through jungle, grassland, across rivers and whole countries of animals—arrived in the village of the Olinka that he'd spoken so much about.
I saw that he too took note of Tashi. He was sensitive to children, and often stated as fact that there could be no happy community in which there was one unhappy child. Not one! he used to say, slapping his knee for emphasis. One crying child is the rotten apple in the barrel of the tribe! It would have been difficult to ignore Tashi. Because though many of the faces that greeted us seemed sad, she was the only person weeping. Yet she uttered not a sound. The whole of her little cropped head and reddened brown face bulged with the effort to control her emotions, and except for the tears, which were so plentiful they cascaded down her cheeks, she was successful. It was a remarkable performance.
In the course of our daylong welcome Tashi and her mother disappeared. Even so, my father inquired after them. Why was the little girl crying? he asked, in his stiff, newly learned Olinka. The elders seemed not to understand him. They shifted their robes, looked genially at him and at us and at each other and replied, looking about now over the heads of those assembled, What little girl, Pastor? There is no little crying girl here.
And Tashi and her mother did seem gone forever. We didn't see them for a long time, after they'd spent several weeks on Catherine's farm, a day's walk from the village. They turned up at vespers one evening, both Tashi and her mother dressed in new pink gingham Mother Hubbards with high collars and large flowered pockets, their faces similarly set in the look of perplexed, instinctive wariness that characterized Catherine's face whenever she encountered "the Pastor," as they all called my father, or "Mama Pastor," as they called my mother.
We did not know that on the morning we arrived in the village one of Tashi's sisters had died. Her name was Dura, and she had bled to death. That was all Tashi had been told; all she knew. So that if, while we were playing, she pricked her finger on a thorn or scraped her knee and glimpsed the sight of her own blood, she fell into a panic, until, gradually, she played in such a way as to take no risks and even learned to sew in an exaggeratedly careful way, using two thimbles.
But she forgot why the sight of her own blood terrified her. And this became one of the things the other children teased her about. And about which she would cry.
Years later, in the United States, she would begin to remember some of the things she'd told me over the years of our growing up. That Dura had been her favorite sister. That she had been headstrong and boisterous and liked honey in her porridge so much she'd sometimes stolen a portion of Tashi's share. That she had been very excited during the period leading up to her death. Suddenly she had become the center of everyone's attention; every day there were gifts. Decorative items mainly: beads, bracelets, a bundle of dried henna for reddening hair and palms, but the odd pencil and tablet as well. Bright remnants of cloth for a headscarf and dress. The promise of shoes!
There was a scar at the corner of her mouth. Oh, very small and faint, like a shadow. Shaped like a miniature plantain, or like the moon when it is new. A sickle shape with the points toward her ear; when she smiled, the little shadow seemed to slide back into her cheek, above her teeth, which were very white. While she was crawling, she'd picked up a burning twig that protruded from the fire and attempted to put it into her mouth.
This was long before I was born, but I knew about it from the story that was often told: how bewildered Dura had looked, as the twig stuck to her lip, and how she, instead of knocking it away, cried piteously, her arms outstretched, looking about for help. No, they laughed, telling this story, not simply for help, for deliverance.
Did anyone help her?
This white witch doctor scribbles, only a little, behind his desk, on which there are small stone and clay figures of African gods and goddesses from Ancient Egypt. I noticed them before lying down on his couch, which is covered by a tribal rug.
I think and think, but I can not think of the rest of the story. The sound of the laughter stops me before I can come to the part about the rescue of my sister Dura. I know that the twig, ashen, finally dropped away, having burned through the skin. But did my mother or a co-wife leap to gather the crying child in her arms? Was my father anywhere near? I am frustrated because I can not answer the doctor's questions. And I feel him, there behind my head, pen poised to at last capture on paper an African woman's psychosis for the greater glory of his profession. Olivia has brought me here. Not to the father of psychoanalysis, for he has died, a tired, persecuted man. But to one of his sons, whose imitation of him—including dark hair and beard, Egyptian statuettes on his desk, the tribal-rug-covered couch and the cigar, which smells of bitterness—will perhaps cure me.
You have to keep us in mind, Tashi would say. And we would laugh, because it was so easy to forget Africa in America. What most people remembered was strange, because unlike the two of us, they had never been there.
Perhaps it is odd, but I do not recall my first meeting with Tashi. But children don't exactly "meet," do they? Unless it is a formal occasion; which, to think of it, our arrival in Olinka certainly must have been. The villagers were smiling anxiously at us, when we arrived, and were dressed in their colorful and scanty best. There was food cooking in pots and roasting on spits. There was even a warmish melon-flavored drink that made me think, longingly, of lemonade. I noticed the small boys my own age, their knobby knees and shaved heads. Their near nakedness. I noticed the men: the seedlike tribal markings on their cheeks and the greasy amulets they wore around their necks. I noticed the dust and the heat. The flies. I noticed the long flat breasts of the women who worked barebreasted, babies on their backs, as they swept and tidied up the village as if in expectation of inspection. I was too young to be embarrassed by their partial nudity. And so I stared, mouth open, until Mama Nettie poked me firmly in the back with her parasol.
And now when Olivia says, But don't you remember, Adam, Tashi was weeping when we met her! I am at a loss. For that is not the little girl I remember.
The Tashi I remember was always laughing, and making up stories, or flitting cheerfully about the place on errands for her mother.
Sometimes I think Olivia and I remember two entirely different people, and now, because Tashi and I have lived together for so many years, I think my recollection of her as a child is sure to be the correct one. But what if it is not?
They were always saying You mustn't cry!
These are new people coming to live among us, and to meet them in tears is to bring bad luck to us. They'll think we beat you! Yes, we understand your sister is dead, but ... time now to put on a good face and make the foreigners welcome. If you can't behave, we will have to ask your mother to take you elsewhere.
How could I believe these were the same women I'd known all my life? The same women who'd known Dura? And whom Dura had known? She'd gone to buy matches or snuff for them nearly every day. She'd carried their water jugs on her head.
It was a nightmare. Suddenly it was not acceptable to speak of my sister. Or to cry for her.
Let us leave here, Mama, I finally said in despair. And my mother, her face stern, took my hand in hers and walked off with me toward our farm.
We stayed there seven weeks; long after our crops had been tended. Besides, there was a boy who lived on the farms who would have looked after our plots if we had decided to go back to the village. But my mother and I stayed, until even the groundnuts had been pulled up, placed on racks—the round ones that from a distance look like little hats—and dried. Then we stripped the nuts from their shriveled yellow stems and carried loads of them home to the village on our backs.
How small I felt, especially since Dura was no longer around to measure myself against. Not there to tease me that I had grown perhaps the thickness of a coin but still had not caught up with her.... And there was my mother, trudging along the path in front of me, her load of groundnuts forcing her nearly double.
I have never seen anyone work as hard as my mother, or pull her share of the work with a more resigned dignity.
Tashi, she would say, it is only hard work that fills the emptiness.
But I had not previously understood her.
Now I watched the backs of her legs and noted how they sometimes quivered with the effort to ascend a steep hill; for there were many hills between our farm and the village. Indeed, the farm was in a completely different climate from that of the village: hot but moist, because there was a river and still a bit of forest, whereas the village was hot and dry, with few trees. I studied the white rinds of my mother's heels, and felt in my own heart the weight of Dura's death settling upon her spirit, like the groundnuts that bent her back. As she staggered under her load, I half expected her footprints, into which I was careful to step, to stain my own feet with tears and blood. But my mother never never wept, though like the rest of the women, when called upon to salute the power of the chief and his counselors she could let out a cry that assaulted the very heavens with its praising pain.
Negro women, said the doctor, are considered the most difficult of all people to be effectively analyzed. Do you know why?
Since I was not a Negro woman I hesitated before hazarding an answer. I felt negated by the realization that even my psychiatrist could not see I was African. That to him all black people were Negroes.
I had been coming to see him now for several months. Some days I talked; some days I did not. There was a primary school across the street from his office. I would listen to the faint sound of the children playing and often forget where I was, forget why I was there.
He'd been taken aback by the fact that I had only one child. He thought this unusual for a colored woman, married or unmarried. Your people like lots of kids, he allowed.
But how could I talk to this stranger of my lost children? And of how they were lost? One was left speechless by all such a person couldn't know.
Negro women, the doctor says into my silence, can never be analyzed effectively because they can never bring themselves to blame their mothers.
Blame them for what? I asked.
Blame them for anything, said he.
It is quite a new thought. And, surprisingly, sets off a kind of explosion in the soft, dense cotton wool of my mind.
Excerpted from Possessing the Secret of Joy by Alice Walker. Copyright © 1992 Alice Walker. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
ALICE WALKER is an internationally celebrated writer, poet, and activist whose books include seven novels, four collections of short stories, four children’s books, and volumes of essays and poetry. She won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction in 1983 and the National Book Award.
- Mendocino, California
- Date of Birth:
- February 9, 1944
- Place of Birth:
- Eatonton, Georgia
- B.A., Sarah Lawrence College, 1965; attended Spelman College, 1961-63
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