Screen Readers Skip to Content

Ritual Gone Awry: Destruction in the Rites of Passage in Possessing the Secret of Joy

Main Digest

Kelley A Pasmanick presents her literary analysis of Possessing the Secret of Joy by Alice Walker.

"I did not realize for a long time that I was dead,"1 says Tashi, the protagonist of Alice Walker's Possessing the Secret of Joy at the beginning of the novel (3). Such a telling admission on the part of the narrator suggests that she is already dead upon the recounting of her personal narrative and is even dead during it, whereby the state of death becomes for her a normative state of being because she does not realize it. Tashi experiences death in life. By revealing that her own existence is a kind of emotional death, she indicates that her identity is stagnant; there is nothing left of her. There is no room for her to improve herself since death signifies the end of the self. Tashi's identity is suspended in that she cannot reach a state of completeness. She cannot evolve any further. The fragmentation that she experiences as a result of her tribe’s circumcision ritual effectively mutilating her is permanent, even in death. The novel becomes, therefore, an illustration of Victor Turner’s study of ritual in his book The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. The ritual process is "marked by three phases: separation, margin (or limen, signifying ‘threshold’ in Latin), and aggregation" (94). The term "limen" and its adjectival form of liminal, for the purposes of this paper, are synonymous with marginalization. As a result of the ways in which Turner’s process is enacted in the novel, the female genital mutilation Tashi experiences, and its destructive physiological and psychological effects, functions as a method of patriarchal control, whereby she destroys its grip on her through death.

The Olinka circumcision ritual is supposed to secure Tashi’s status as an effective member of the tribe; it ironically has the opposite effect. Her self becomes fragmented as a result of the ritual. A ritual meant to empower and enable Tashi by providing her with camaraderie and companionship from within her own culture, actually does the opposite by debilitating her to such an extent that she welcomes her own execution, viewing it as a means by which to escape her circumstances. In the interview "Alice Walker’s Appeal" conducted by Paula Giddings, Giddings discusses the debilitation of Tashi when she asks Walker, "Is that in effect what Tashi is doing in this novel, trying to remember her beauty before society or tradition cripples her?" (58). Giddings acknowledges that Tashi is ostensibly crippled by her society - that the portrayal and cultural prescriptions of the Olinka tribe have by no means a positive impact on the one who observes them. Alice Walker reinforces this feeling with her response: "Yes, and that makes Tashi a universal woman... She has been crippled" (58). Walker certifies that Tashi not only has been crippled, but her crippling is "universal" in that it is representative of a collective pain that stems from supporting an institutionalized ritual done for its own sake - simply because it exists - in spite of whether it has destructive aspects or outcomes. Her language of "has been crippled" is also of particular importance. "Has been" is indicative of the present perfect tense, implying that she has fully experienced the crippling of herself. By the conclusion of the novel, she is definitively and undeniably defective. The novel functions as a study of how her debilitation occurs.

In the novel, Tashi undergoes the cutting of her genitals to fulfill a prescribed cultural ritual specific to the Olinka tribe in order to gain what Turner calls communitas, or "a generalized social bond that... blend[s]... lowliness and sacredness... [and] homogeneity and comradeship... during the rites de passage..." (Turner 96-97). Tashi views her participation in the initiation rite as a measure she must take to prove she truly is a member of her tribe, to gain its fellowship. Following the ritual, however, the sentiments of communitas that she previously feels disappear. It is at this point of violation and the loss of communitas - a point where she is so damaged that she loses the desire to be connected to her people - that the circumcision becomes mutilation. She is not accepted by her tribe after she undergoes the ritual because she reacts to it in a manner to which they are unaccustomed and even outrightly rejects her own culture. In perceiving the ritual procedure done to her as genital mutilation, she is recognizing that the ritual is dysfunctional. The sentiments of violation plague her even after the ritual has occurred. She becomes psychologically and physically damaged from having her genitals excised; thus the dysfunctionality of the ritual mirrors her own dysfunctionality. The ritual therefore creates a paradox rooted in its dysfunction; community is formed by the ritual, but it is not the type that promotes acceptance of the culture because community actually exists in opposition to the ritual. Its members are nonbelievers in the value of the ritual and unite in order to subvert it. The communitas and the community which result from resistance to the ritual come too late for Tashi, underscoring the finality and irreparable nature of the effects of the ritual.

Following Turner’s three stage model, one can see that Tashi seeks to initially separate herself from her tribe in order to undergo the ritual with the hope of being more successfully integrated into her culture; according to this process, joining necessitates separation. Turner defines the act of separation, or departure, as "the detachment of the individual or group either from an earlier fixed point in the central structure, from a set of cultural conditions (a ‘state’), or from both" (94). Tashi physically detaches herself from her community and from her environment. Olivia is representative of Tashi's community, and the encampment which is the site of the initiation functions as a foil to her village (Walker 24-25). Tashi retreats from her normally "fixed" relations: her best friend and her home.

The second stage in the process is the liminal stage, where "characteristics of the ritual subject... are ambiguous; he passes through a cultural realm that has few or none of the attributes of the past or coming state" (Turner 94). In the liminal stage one is in between. In the case of Tashi, she is in between spaces, not only of a geographic nature, but also cultural; she is not on the periphery of being considered a true Olinka, but she is not on the inside, either. She is, in a sense, an unincorporated Olinka.

It is in the liminal stage when Tashi experiences communitas. She leaves her community and the security of her relationships with Olivia and Adam in a self-imposed separation. One can deduce that the liminal time after Tashi departs to the initiation site, but before she is circumcised, is a time of anticipation, empowerment, and relief to know that she will finally be a part of her culture:

We who had once owned our village and hectares and hectares of land now owned nothing. We were reduced to the position of beggars - except that there was no one near enough to beg from, in the desert we were in... All I care about now is the struggle for our people. You are a foreigner... Who are you and your people never to accept as we are? Never to imitate any of our ways? It is always we who have to change. (Walker 22-23)

The loss of her culture spurs Tashi’s decision to partake in the initiation rite of circumcision. Tashi views the initiation as a reclaiming of her culture. She is marked with whiteness through the introduction of Christianity and can take back her culture, and by extension, her self - her identity, that which makes her Olinka - through the imposition of another mark: a tribal one, as her husband Adam explains that Tashi wants "the operation because she recognized it as the only remaining definitive stamp of Olinka tradition" (63). She believes the black mark will erase the imposed whiteness. Her choice to undergo the initiation rite is an act of defiance toward one culture, and simultaneously a sign of obedience to that of her own. Furthermore, undergoing a lesser initiation rite of receiving facial markings further cements her commitment to what she feels is innately hers: "Here and there a defiant cheek bore the mark of our withered tribe. These marks gave me courage. I wanted such a mark for myself" (24). The facial marks function as proof for Tashi that she will be accepted by her own culture once she has them. They offer her an unlikely bond - something tangible - that she previously has not had, since social ties are diminished while going through cultural rituals: "[A]s liminal beings they have no status, property, insignia... indicating a rank or role, [or] position in a kinship system..." (Turner 95). Previous circumstances may be relinquished in order to regain strengthened ones grounded in custom rather than societal expectations as a result of the ritual.

The ritual, then, is supposed to provide an insignia of greater importance, one that is culturally specific and therefore greater than those insignias and roles, and stronger than those social ties to which Tashi is bound to before the ritual occurs. It is when Tashi is "in between" that she is distinguished as "the marginal or ‘inferior’ person or the ‘outsider’ who often comes to symbolize... the model we have termed ‘communitas’" (Turner 111). Since Tashi is reduced to nothing in the liminal stage, she is, in a sense, molded to be much more receptive to receiving the community associated with participating in the circumcision ritual because she expects to be fulfilled by it, "[t]o be accepted as a real woman by the Olinka people; to stop the jeering. Otherwise I was a thing" (Walker 120). The circumcision is meant to be a ritual of inclusion by removing from her the stigma of being unlike those around her; it is meant to allow her to escape the realm of otherness that she inhabits as a nonparticipant.

Traits of the liminal stage are also illustrated by Tashi's appearance before traveling to the encampment: "I had taken off my gingham Mother Hubbard. My breasts were bare" (Walker 22). With the removal of her tribal dress, she is devoid of any insignias or remnants that would identify her as Olinka, free from those things that would accentuate her past. Tashi becomes blank: "We had been stripped of everything but our black skins" (24). Turner suggests that "[t]he neophyte in liminality must be a tabula rasa, a blank slate..." (Turner 103). As one who will undergo more initiation rite, Tashi is reduced to the most essential part of herself: her body. Not only is her body the most essential part of her, but it, too, is the most uniform part of her; anatomically speaking, Tashi's body is composed of the same elements as those who will participate in the ritual with her. Through the measure of stripping Tashi down to her most basic being, she becomes not unlike everyone else; her body becomes identical with everyone else's. Identicalness achieved during the liminal period fosters a situation in which the "neophytes in initiation... may be represented as possessing nothing" (Turner 95). Sameness brings about the question of ownership in that if everyone's body is ostensibly identical, then no one can claim that a particular body is actually hers. In effect, the concept of ownership is dismissed entirely, and the participants end up having nothing.

Dispossession allows for Tashi's body, as well as those of the other participants, to become vessels upon which things can be inscribed, such as "the knowledge and wisdom of the group, in those respects that pertain to the new status" (Turner 103). Inscription takes on a literal meaning for Tashi; her body becomes a text. The act of inscribing assumes the form of cutting, and the inscription manifests itself in scarring, seemingly indicative of liminality: "The ordeals and humiliations, often of a grossly physiological character, to which neophytes are submitted represent partly a destruction of the previous status and partly a tempering of their essence in order to prepare them to cope with their new responsibilities and restrain them in advance from abusing their new privileges" (Turner 103). It is during the onslaught of the circumcision that Turner’s liminal stage in his "ritual process" diverges from his original definition and description of the liminal stage, although he plainly states that during this stage there exist the ordeals and humiliations, often of a grossly physiological character, to which neophytes are submitted. According to his descriptions, the ordeals and humiliation lead to something positive: the participants of rituals are transformed, also, following Turner’s paradigm, literally reshaped, to ensure a smooth transition into their roles as active, established members of their respective communities. The ritual is supposed to function as training, a lesson in preparedness. Participants are taught that the ritual is beneficial; they are indoctrinated into the thought behind the ritual as much as the ritual itself. In Living Folklore: An Introduction to the Study of People and Their Traditions, Martha C. Sims and Martine Stephens theorize that "the more important objective is that [participants in rituals] are persuaded that the values portrayed or referred to during the ritual are indeed real, true values the group holds. The act of ritual is often an act of convincing" (97). Tashi is convinced by responses from tribal members that the ritual is needed. Their reactions to her provide insight into how she is viewed and persuade her to go through the ritual: "Certainly to all my friends who’d been circumcised, my uncircumcised vagina was thought of as a monstrosity... [T]o them I was bound to look odd" (Walker 120). She is convinced that to have the circumcision is the right thing because validated tribal members know best. They are not compared to monstrosities - a nonhuman form - so following the circumcision, neither will she be. If she does what is expected, she will get the expected results. Convinced by expectation and the status quo, Tashi’s husband Adam explains that she thinks that circumcision will join her "to these women, whom she envisioned as strong, invincible. Completely woman. Completely African... In her imagination, on her long journey to the camp, they had seemed terribly bold, terribly revolutionary and free. She saw them leaping to the attack" (63). She is convinced the ritual will make her into who she wants to be and is expected to become - the archetypal Olinka woman - culturally desired, based on seeing those women around her transformed into similar models.

It is when the expectation of the circumcision and the reality of it clash that a transformation occurs and Tashi enters the final sub-stage of liminality in Turner’s process. Her transformation matches Turner’s idea only in the terminology used, not in the definition or the outcome, which is supposed to be similar to that of her contemporaries. Contrary to them, she suffers physiological ordeals and humiliations, seemingly with nothing gained. The results are completely damaging, and although as Turner asserts, knowledge and wisdom is gained by the participant as a consequence of the ritual, what Tashi learns is not for the greater good of the group, nor does it reinforce the custom of the ritual or her impending status as an official member of the Olinka tribe, but instead debunks it. Similarly, as Turner describes, Tashi’s essence is tempered, and she is restrained; neither condition improves her ability to handle her impending cultural duties or imbues her with coping mechanisms to deter her from committing abuses of power because her agency is removed: "It was only when she at last was told by M’Lissa, who one day unbound her legs, that she might sit up and walk a few steps that she noticed her own proud walk had become a shuffle" (Walker 64). Following her legs being unbound at the encampment, Tashi does not learn what is expected of her; she instead learns an alternate lesson. She realizes that the women who undergo and who have undergone the ritual are not bold, revolutionary, or free; they are misguided, unknowingly conforming to cultural prescriptions to the sure delight of societal leaders and superstructures, and are sedated. As such, Tashi realizes she has been sadly and irreparably duped. The ritual, even though it is bodily in nature, attacks her body and mind, her whole self. The sentiments of communitas that she previously feels disappear. It is at this point of violation and the loss of communitas - a point where she is so damaged that she loses the desire to be connected to her people - that the circumcision becomes mutilation.

Turner analyzes communitas in the context of Shakespeare’s Tempest and the manner in which the character Gonzalo’s commonwealth would function: "A final communitas value... is that of innocence and purity of those who live without sovereignty" (136). A similar situation occurs with Tashi, since the patriarchal society - her sovereign - under which she lives enforces the mutilation; her innocence and purity are stolen from her in the wake of the violent and life-altering mutilation. In addition to being life-altering, her purity is snatched from her because her body is altered from its original form following birth. Its parts are not left intact. In this way, Tashi is symbolically raped; the circumcision acts as the process by which impurity is acquired and sustained. Here, impurity assumes a stance diametrically opposed to its regular meaning: anatomically Tashi is incorrect, but according to Olinka custom, she is as right and acceptable as she possibly can be. According to Rogaia Mustafa Abusharaf’s introduction to Female Circumcision: Multicultural Perspectives, "Suffering and pain... subside in the face of joy and pride... and [i]n the rites associated with genital alterations, pain and suffering are appropriated and employed as techniques for creating social cohesion and gender solidarity" (8, 9). The purpose of pain and suffering is twofold for Tashi; it is supposed to tether her to her tribe and induct her, as well as to introduce her to her new role as a woman within her tribe, which she will assume in the third and final phase of aggregation according to Turner’s process. Second, in spite of the physical and psychological trauma which took place, it is assumed that she will overcome the negative effects because they will be overshadowed by the fact that she will have acquired a position of importance: "Following the ritual girls become adults, while those who are uncircumcised may not be vested with this rank whatever their age" (Abusharaf 9). With the completion of the ritual Tashi anticipates gaining rank, which literally separates the women from the girls. However, Tashi’s pain and suffering outweigh forthcoming rank, and the social cohesion and gender solidarity attributed to circumcision are manipulated into social inferiority and gender submission: "Feminists have portrayed the practice as a symptom of female victimization by male authority and an attempt to control women’s sexuality" (Abusharaf 12). The ritual is a strategic maneuver designed to look like a tactic of equalization and unification used to assert the power of the dominant authority - men. The key to the success of the ritual is how well its true intentions are disguised. As long as the harm of the ritual is concealed, then it can continue and others can be enveloped into the web that solidifies "the connection between mutilation and enslavement that is at the root of the domination of women in the world" (Walker 137). This epiphany regarding the circumcision’s true nature comes too late for Tashi. The patriarchy succeeds in developing and incorporating another woman into the tribe with the suitable cultural mores befitting an Olinka woman. Following societal expectations, she willingly and dutifully partakes in custom.

Once again, though, this version of incorporation, or aggregation, as the final step in Turner’s ritual process, strays from what he envisions: "[T]he [rite of] passage is consummated. The ritual subject... is in a relatively stable state once more and, by virtue of this, has rights and obligations vis-à-vis others of a clearly defined and ‘structural’ type; he is expected to behave in accordance with certain customary norms and ethical standards binding on incumbents of social position in a system of such positions" (95). Tashi never fully fulfills the expectations associated with aggregation according to Turner. She is circumcised and therefore successfully completes the official rite of passage. She, too, is subdued, just as her patriarchal tribe desires, so that she is able to carry out its agendas. The motives of the tribe are expressed in a previously suppressed conversation that Tashi recalls between Olinka tribal leaders near the end of the novel. Tribal leader Number three says, "If left to herself the Queen would fly... And then where would we be?" (Walker 231). One may infer that the ritual is a means of servitude; the men can keep the women so they will not fly. The idea of flight here connotes the ability to flee, to be free away from the men. Knowing this, the men do not leave women to their own devices but follow the practice of God as tribal leader Number one states: "He clips [the Queen’s] wings" (Walker 231). God’s ability to clip the Queen’s wings permits him to impart the same power to the Olinka men, and as such they are able to remove the means of women’s freedom, which is to their satisfaction, since the women’s attentions will be focused entirely on them. Tashi "is inert" following the ritual (232). The ritual’s results, however, overstep the boundaries of what tribal members and leaders construe as desirable, so much so that they backfire on them. Tashi becomes so docile that she is completely ineffective and unable to carry out tasks conferred upon her by the tribe which are indicative of her newly appointed rank as a woman.

Realizing the indelibility of the damage done to her, Tashi rejects her culture before it and those members involved can reject her. She marries a non-Olinka American, Adam, moves to the United States, and changes her name to Evelyn in an effort to distance herself from it: "I never thought of marrying Adam. I married him because he was loyal, gentle, and familiar. Because he came for me. And because I could not fight with the wound tradition had given me" (121). Tashi initiates her own transformation, of sorts, in an attempt to counteract the botched one she goes through on account of the initiation rite. She marries Adam because he embodies everything that her culture is not. He functions as a foil to Olinka culture: Tashi is loyal to her culture by displaying her obedience to custom, but it forsakes her. Adam is gentle; the effects of Olinka customs are harsh and literally cutting. Adam is characterized as familiar; Tashi’s culture, it turns out and to her dismay, is extremely unfamiliar to her, bordering on unknowable. Tashi’s culture betrays her entirely; Adam does not. Most important, since she cannot fight with the wound engraved upon her by tradition’s hand, he fights in her stead, succeeding in returning to Olinka and rescuing her from the encampment. Adam attempts to restore order to Tashi by physically removing her from the situation and traveling with her to a new land with a new culture altogether.

Despite their joint effort to put distance in between them and the tragedy Tashi suffers, however, the effects of the mutilation plague her even more in America. In "Selections from Stigma," by Erving Goffman delineates the categories of stigma: "[T]here are abominations of the body - the various physical deformities... [T]here are tribal stigma... that can be transmitted through lineages and equally contaminate all members of a family" (132). Tashi is doubly stigmatized from the mutilation. First, following in the vein of physical handicap, as the term mutilation denotes, she is misshapen because she feels like her body is reconstructed in a drastic manner, although it is befitting of tribal standards. Tashi experiences additional feelings of ugliness because she notices upon her acclimatization to the United States that her body does not match her new culture’s preconceived notions of body image and anatomy. Tashi’s body is highly atypical and therefore an anomaly. After giving birth, her various medical examiners react in a way that is significant in highlighting to Tashi that she is mutilated. Her attending physician is amazed that she can even become pregnant because he has never seen a medical issue like hers: "How did that big baby... even get up in there, Mrs. Johnson?" (Walker 57). He does not know what to do with her. Additionally, she acquires a nonhuman presence: "I could not bear the thought of the quick-stepping American nurses looking at me as if I were some creature from beyond their imaginings. In the end, though, I was that creature" (59). One is able to deduce that her genital area differs to such a degree from what these medical professionals see on a daily basis that what has been done to her is out of their scope, both medically and practically. No one knows what to make of her situation or how to appropriately handle it since they have not had to before. as the World Health Organization explains, Tashi is infibulated: "Type III FGM often (but not always) involves the complete removal of the clitoris, together with the labia manora [sic] and the inner surface of the labia majora. The two sides of the vulva are stitched across the mid-line, leaving only a small posterior opening to allow the passage of urine and menstrual blood. This opening is often preserved during healing by the insertion of a foreign body" (9). Seemingly, Tashi’s doctors are befuddled because her mutilation is so severe. In terms of the various types of mutilation, it is considered the most severe because, in a sense, it entails a rerouting of waste associated with specific biological processes. Tashi being compared to a creature is telling because it illustrates that a likeness similar to her does not already exist, and therefore she cannot be compared to it. Furthermore, her medical staff members serve as stigmatizers who act exactly as their role requires: "By definition, of course, we believe the person with a stigma is not quite human" (Goffman 132). The designation of "creature" particularly comments on the fact that Tashi is created or recreated in the image of someone unlike even herself, let alone them. Unfortunately for Tashi, she represents the unknown to them.

Second, Tashi is stigmatized due to indirectly becoming the stigmatizer. Goffman suggests that stigma can be transmitted and can contaminate family members (132). While Tashi’s stigma does not contaminate her family in the sense that they are made unclean or unfit to be around, they are directly affected by her mutilation. With the mutilation being characterized as Tashi’s primary impairment, secondary impairments arise at the onset of it. Tashi develops secondary dysmenorrhea because her menstrual cycles are complicated by the mutilation: "Her menstrual periods lasted ten days. She was incapacitated by cramps nearly half the month. There were premenstrual cramps: cramps caused by near impossibility of flow passing through so tiny an aperture... cramps caused by the residual flow that could not find its way out, was not reabsorbed into her body, and had nowhere to go" (Walker 64). Secondary dysmenorrhea is characterized by extremely painful menstrual periods caused by a developed condition which may impact one’s genital area or menstrual cycle, or trauma to one’s genital area. One can infer that preceding the mutilation she has a menstrual cycle typical to other women around her, and that such incapacitating cycles are relatively new to her. Following the mutilation, her cycles are extreme in their duration and the type and level of pain experienced. Tashi herself does not even ignore the severity of her condition. Tashi also develops dyspareunia, a condition manifested in painful sexual intercourse. As the article "Painful Intercourse (Dyspareunia): Causes" suggests, a causal relationship exists between dyspareunia and female genital mutilation (2, 3). The procedure is considered injurious or traumatic to the vaginal area, so that temporary or more lingering pain may occur during the act itself. This was not the case preceding the initiation. Before, Tashi claims to have always experienced orgasm (Walker 120). Due to intercourse now being painful, Tashi and Adam become disjointed. Since intimacy is no longer pleasurable for Tashi, it becomes a painful burden to be avoided. Adam also, to the point that he no longer desires her. Wishing to fill a void, he seeks companionship elsewhere in an extramarital affair with Lisette, a French woman he met years before. Their affair has adverse effects on Tashi: "Often, while [Lisette] is visiting, I have had to be sedated. On occasion I have voluntarily checked myself into the Waverly Psychiatric Hospital, in which, because it is run by a man affiliated with Adam's ministry, I am always given a room" (49). Tashi is obviously aware of the situation, which makes her position a precarious one; her marriage and relationship with Adam are damaged, but there is very little she can do about it because the pain from the mutilation is always present, and has now manifested itself psychologically. Since she cannot numb the actual pain, she does the second best thing: she numbs her feelings because now not only is her body a source of pain, but her life in general is. Sadly, every role she undertakes, she cannot fully assume. In Olinka she does not measure up to what a woman should be before and even after undergoing the ritual, and now in America, far away from the grasp of her mother culture, she cannot fully participate as a wife.

Tashi’s inability to forge a connection with family members spreads to her son Benny: "Benny, my radiant brown baby, was retarded. Some small but vital part of his brain crushed by our ordeal" (Walker 60). As a result of the mutilation, Tashi's pregnancy is high-risk. Consequently, he is disabled by her disability. As L. Melhado attests that complications of this nature are not uncommon in women who have been genitally mutilated: "The infants born to women who had undergone genital mutilation were also at elevated risk for adverse outcomes... [C]hildbirth is significantly more likely to be complicated by adverse outcomes in women who have undergone any type of genital mutilation than in women who have not" (154, 155). Tashi and Benny are at odds with each other from the beginning of their relationship. Benny lacks the mental faculties to be able to relate to Tashi, and Tashi seems incapable of displaying any sort of maternal instinct toward her son: "I watched Benny struggle with all his might to be close to me, to melt into my body, to inhale my scent; and I was like a crow, flapping my wings unceasingly in my own head, cawing mutely across an empty sky. And I wore black..." (Walker 217). Neither of them understands the world around them because of the manner in which they have been damaged. Benny cannot reach his mother via typical communicative processes, so he attempts to connect with her simply through presence - being - in that he recognizes the value of the space she inhabits and tries to inhabit the same space but is unsuccessful. Tashi is equally guilty of not reaching Benny. One can infer that Tashi, although aware of her son’s attempts to bond with her, is consumed by her own pain and purposely and selectively represses those factors attributed to it; one of which is Benny. Not only is he attributed to it, but he has contributed to it. The image of Tashi wearing black conveys that she is in mourning; while the exact cause of her mourning is unknown, since the image is juxtaposed with Benny, one can further deduce that she is mourning for him, and even because of him. Even though she does not want to admit it, Benny suffers consequences similar to Tashi because both have major parts of their selves taken from them - their potential from then on being limited - except that at least initially undergoing the initiation is her choice, although she is unaware of the impending destruction involved. Benny, though, has not asked for any of this. He is merely an innocent victim, and while his mother is also a victim, she cannot claim complete innocence. Tashi feels guilty about what has happened to her son because she is directly responsible for it, since it is because of her past decision that her pregnancy is high-risk, which in turn causes him to be mentally challenged. Another relationship, this time with Tashi’s son, has unraveled due to the mutilation; another experience which in most circumstances would have cultivated happiness has instead born devastation and regret. Thus both members of her immediate family are undeniably and permanently affected by Tashi's ordeal, so that they are transformed in the wake of her damage; Adam and Benny become a reflection of Tashi. Tashi, then, as the originator of the chaos that befalls her family, can never escape the stigma of "creature," or being the mutilated one, because even if she could overcome those characterizations, Adam and Benny would not be able to share in that triumph with her. Her success would only be absorbed by them.

Knowing that the repercussions of the mutilation extend far beyond Tashi herself, when she returns to Olinka and kills her tsunga, or the woman who circumcises her, M’Lissa, and is instantly perceived and received as a hero by the women in that community, she cannot rejoice with them. Viewing a fertility doll whose figures are holding their genitals, Tashi responds inappropriately: "I laugh. I can't help it. It is as if this sight strikes something awake that had been asleep, or dead, in my own body; though my body, alas, is now too damaged to respond to it in an uncorrupted way" (198). The pose of the dolls grasping their own genitals is intentional, symbolizing an act of defiance and independence; each set of genitals belongs to a particular figure and no one else. Their bodies are their own. Their grasps are tight around their genitalia, signifying that they are not willing to relinquish their grips on what is inherently theirs, and that the only messages that will be inscribed upon their bodies will be those of their own choosing. Tashi laughs, though, displaying a contrary response, as if she does not believe that such circumstances exist - that one's genitals could have one owner and the ownership would not change hands, in a sense, during the Olinka circumcision ritual - or that in the very best case scenario, mutilation could end. Such doubtful sentiments, even bordering on the nihilistic are further expressed when Tashi says to Mbati, M’Lissa’s aide, on the eve of her execution, "No, I could never have that look of confidence. Of pride. Of peace. Neither of us can have it, because self possession will always be impossible for us to claim" (271). Tashi and Mbati are the fertility dolls’ foils; they are literally not able to grasp their own genitals because they no longer have possession over them. With the removal of their genitals, their essential selves have been lost, so that they do not have, nor, sadly, can they take possession of, themselves. The dolls have confidence, pride, and peace because their genitals are intact. Their genitals relate to their identities as women, and by extension, as people. Hence, because Tashi and Mbati’s genitals are excised, they cannot completely identify with themselves as women, Tashi in particular. It is as if they are not recognized because they are not whole or even living as Tashi describes in a letter to Adam’s deceased mistress Lisette: "Tomorrow morning I will face the firing squad for killing someone who, many years ago, killed me" (272). For Tashi, her genitals are where her soul is housed. Since she no longer has them, she has come to realize that she is without a soul, and therefore, without a life; her soul has been excised along with her genitals, so that she is just a shell. There is nothing to motivate or awaken her.

Her feelings, then, are in opposition to those emotions growing within the women who consider the murder of the tsunga an act of liberation. They are freed from tradition because of Tashi, but she is still dead, even at the point of her execution: "There is a roar as if the world cracked open and I flew inside. I am no more. And satisfied" (279). Reaching satisfaction at the point of nothingness - when her life is no longer - demonstrates how damaged Tashi actually is. The quotation mirrors the sentiment present in the opening line of the novel - that she is dead regardless of her actual state of being. Interestingly, when Tashi is "no more" and actually dead, she does realize it. Her recognition of her own mortality in her death signals that she recognizes that her death by firing squad is her literal end - a definitive ceasefire of sorts - and she is glad of it. The gladness she experiences in her actual death manifests itself not really in the spirit of gladness, but instead in knowing that her still-fragmented identity will be removed from the world that makes it that way. Tashi can finally be dead without feeling dead.

In conclusion, she is a savior for a community of women who cannot save her, and this is where the paradox lies. Through the suspension of the initiation rite that Tashi herself undergoes, but which is also stopped by Tashi, she creates the positive sense of communitas, in the image of Turner, which she seeks at the time of her initiation but is ultimately unable to attain. The women bond over the fact that their daughters will not be circumcised: "Each woman standing beside the path holds a red-beribboned baby in her arms..." (278). Community is created not out of resistance, but out of someone else's misguided obedience. By participating Tashi learns that the ritual is wrong. Essentially, it is experiential learning of the worst kind. Tashi’s error in judgment ensures that someone else will learn from it. Having made the mistake in the first place, though, she is precluded from reaping the benefits of the communitas and subsequent community resulting from the lesson she teaches the other women. After having come so far, she is simply too far gone to acquire what is just within her reach: an affirmation that she is of value and a member of status within a community - that she is a woman wholly and fully.

Works Cited:


(1) Alice Walker does not use quotation marks to signify dialogue in the novel. Therefore, this paper does not follow the format of using double quotation marks followed by a single quotation mark.

Kelley A Pasmanick

Kelley A Pasmanick is a 36-year-old woman from Atlanta, Georgia. Pasmanick's work has appeared in Wordgathering, Squawk Back, Praxis Magazine, The Mighty, Loud Zoo, The Jewish Literary Journal, Umbrella Factory Magazine, Breath & Shadow, Kaleidoscope, and Tiny Tim Literary Review. Pasmanick is a repeat contributor to The Handy, Uncapped Pen and Disabled World. Her work has also been reprinted in Queen Mob's Teahouse.