February 23: Alice Walker

I read The Color Purple in high school, but all I remember of the book is a house and a river and something that starts sweet but ends ugly. Or confused. That’s all I remember. I think I saw the movie too, but all I remember is Oprah’s face and saying, “this is really good acting.” I do remember reading Walker’s essay about being blinded by her brother’s bb gun, and I remember reading Posessing the Secret of Joy, a fictional book following the life of Tashi, a character from The Color Purple.

I bought the book at the Waldenbooks at our local mall and read it in the summer after graduation before my freshman year at The University of Iowa. I remember a vivid scene of the women and elders of Tashi’s community pushing female circumcision on her and the ways the act changed her experience of her body and her internal narrative, resulting in lasting trauma. I remember a character saying to sew her vagina tight so it would be more pleasurable for her husband.

Reading the book was the first time I read a book that got that inside the inner workings of a single character. As someone who wanted to become a writer myself, and who had journaled and journaled my own internal narrative, the book was striking to me, demonstrating that personal experience, the thoughts, perceptions and feelings of a character over time could make a powerful work.

I need to reread both The Color Purple and Possessing the Secret of Joy. I don’t know why the former book wouldn’t stick with me. I know why the latter would. I suspect that the cast of characters and social dynamics of the former was too complex to process, while the personal narrative of a single character in struggle with her own experience and what she was left with would feel very real to me. In my own experience of childhood sexual abuse there was communal pressure to take harm, to keep the offender free from the courts, to see abuse as the crucible that cleansed the soul. The communal and social pressure of Possessing the Secret of Joy felt real, even though I was far from understanding why such a narrative would connect on such a visceral level. Community can be tyranny.

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