Possessing the Secret of Joy

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

POSSESSING THE SECRET OF JOY explores the life of Tashi, an Olinkan tribeswoman who appeared briefly in Walker’s highly acclaimed novels THE COLOR PURPLE and THE TEMPLE OF MY FAMILIAR.

As Tashi’s story unfolds, it is examined by interweaving her own recollections with brief first-person accounts from her American minister-husband Adam Johnson, their mildly retarded son Benny, Adam’s sister Olivia, and his French lover Lisette, by whom he fathers son Pierre. Tashi’s evolution from carefree African youngster to gray-haired death row inmate encompasses her initial denial of suffering from a ritualized initiation into womanhood. As she unravels the barbaric tribal custom’s long-reaching effects and reacts with violence, she becomes a symbol of resistance to women the world over who are at the mercy of unquestioned traditions.

Walker draws the reader into Tashi’s traumatic life from her fateful meeting with Adam and Olivia on the day her sister Dura died during her own initiation, through Tashi’s marriage to Adam and immigration to America, where her inability to have normal sexual relations results in her madness. Fortunately, intensive psychotherapy leads her to understand that she is neither unique nor alone. Tashi ultimately rises above her personal pain to strike back at the embodiment of her anger, the tsunga (elder female who performs the initiation rites) who did not stop her sister’s fatal hemorrhaging under the ritual knife and who later performed Tashi’s own circumcision. As she is tried for murder and found guilty by male judges, Tashi forges new bonds with her husband and also with Pierre, who becomes a true friend and brother to Benny as well. Ultimately, her execution empowers a generation of African women to discover the power of joy through questioning societal domination.


Banks, Erma, and Keith Byerman. Alice Walker: An Annoted Bibliography. New York: Garland Press, 1989. Collects the major and minor material written on Alice Walker from 1968 to 1986.

Barker-Benfield, G. J. The Horrors of the Half-Known Life: Male Attitudes Toward Women and Sexuality in Nineteenty-Century America. New York: Harper & Row, 1976. Explains the practice of female circumcision in the United States and the circumstances that allowed it to occur.

Benn, Melissa. Review of Possessing the Secret of Joy, by Alice Walker. The New Statesman and Society 5 (October 9, 1992): 36-37. Offers an analysis of the rite of female circumcision. Also makes the point that Walker is really looking at human barbarism, no matter the culture: in Africa, in the contemporary psychiatrist/witch doctor’s office, or in the symbolic...

(The entire section is 1128 words.)