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Madness in black women's writing. Reflections from four texts: a question of Power, the joys of Motherhood, Anowa and possessing the secret of joy.

There is a moral and intellectual responsibility to understand how and why women loose touch with reality and how this malady can be prevented. African and African American women writers have addressed the theme of madness in literary texts. This review paper looks at four texts: Bessie Head's "A question of Power", Buchi Emecheta's "The joys of Motherhood", Ama Ataa Aidoo's "Anowa" and Alice Walker's "Possessing the Secret of Joy". It attempts to define madness from a literary perspective and analyze the circumstances that lead to main protagonist's failure to cope with life and reality. The selected texts make it clear that madness is a common problem among African women. The paper identifies patriarchy as a social institution which functions according to principal that "man shall dominate female" and migrations to new societies as the primary causes of madness of African women; women who otherwise would have been powerful figures in society.


One night she was lying staring at the dark when it seemed as though her head simply filled out into a large horizon. It gave her a strange feeling of things being there right inside her and yet projected at the same time at a distance away from her. She was not sure if she was awake or asleep, and often after that the dividing line between dream perceptions and waking reality was to become confused (22).

Bessie Head. A Question of Power

Madness is a recurring theme in African women writing (1). It has also been addressed in a number of African American women's writings. Bessie Head, Ama Ata Aidoo, Buchi Emecheta and Alice Walker are among the African and African American women writers who have addressed the theme of madness in some of their writings. Due to historical and cultural differences, the theme of madness has been addressed differently depending on where the author is originally from. In Eva's Man (1976) Gayl Jones deals with the theme of madness, but her presentation is .very different from that found in Emecheta's The Joys of Motherhood (1979). For this paper I am interested in madness as it is dealt with in the writings of African women; I have included Alice Walker's Possessing The Secret of Joy (1992) however because Walker's presentation of madness is precipitated by the African tradition of female circumcision.

In "Madness in The African Novel" (1979) Femi Ojo-Ade observes that: The African novel in dealing with the question of alienation has depicted two types of alienated heroes: the one who has managed, in spite of overwhelming pressures of his situatibn, to stay on what could be termed 'the right side of the fence'; that is, he does not belong to the mainstream of the social order, he is a 'stranger', albeit a 'sane' stranger. On the other hand, there is the hero who goes over board, so to speak Finding it totally impossible to adjust to the inhuman situation existing in his society, not satisfied with mere utterances of protest or with a fairly 'sane' life on the fringe of society, he pushes himself mentally to the limit, and even beyond it, and finally reaches a point where society ostracises him and deems it fit to put himaway in a madhouse (134).

This paper is concerned with the second type of heroine, the one branded mad, or insane by society. As Femi Ojo-Ade contends, questions posed regarding the issue of madness are innumerable, yet the same questions he poses to the African novel can be asked in African women's novels: why does a women run mad? Why are there so many mad women in African women's novels? Is the mad woman any less sane than the society that condemns her? The most difficult question is what is madness anyway? We have to admit that the proliferation of women's texts dealing with this peculiar theme indicates its presence and great impact within the societal structure.

In an attempt to define madness, Joan Bushfield (1994) argues that madness, like its twentieth century counterpart mental illness, is an evaluative concept. It is a concept which categorizes some aspect of mental functioning--some thought, action or behavior--as abnormal, defective or disordered--that is as undesirable (260). Michel Foucault (1965) argues that the invention of madness as a disease is in fact nothing less than a peculiar manifestation of western civilization (viii). One must then ask if madness is a disease of western civilization, what is it in non-western societies? Is it a disease caused by witchcraft, as it is sometimes believed in African societies? Shoshana Felman (1985) states "madness usually occupies a position of exclusion; it is the outside of a culture. But madness that is a common place occupies a position of inclusion and becomes the inside of a culture" (13). In "South Africa and the Theme of Madness," (1995) Nancy Bazin agrees with Felman; however, she argues that "ironically t he madness of inclusion (in which madness is the norm) can coexist with the madness of exclusion (in which the social madness creates the mad outsider) (139)." Bazin cites feminist theorists Helene Cixous and Catherine Clement among those who have pointed to ways in which living in a patriarchal environment has repressed women and frequently led them to outbursts of hysteria and madness (139). Clarifying their position, Cixous and Clement (1986) observe that "societies do not succeed in offering everyone the same way of fitting into the symbolic order; those who are, if one may say so, between symbolic systems, in the interstices, offside, are the ones who are afflicted.., with what we call madness" (7).

This paper adopts the definition of madness provided by Lillian Feder (1980). Feder contends that there is no one description that evokes all the varieties of aberrant or bizarre thought and conduct that have been regarded insane throughout human existence (5). She defines madness as "a state in which unconscious processes predominate over conscious ones to the extent that they control them and determine perceptions of and responses to experience that, judged by prevailing standards of logical thought and relevant emotion, are confused and inappropriate" (5). Feder further argues that 'Thevarieties of madness created in Literature are m most respects no different from those to be discovered throughout human society" (7). Throughout this paper I have analyzed literary representations of madness as they appear in the text. As a literary scholar I am aware of the differences between actual insanity and its portrayal in literature. As Feder contends, the madman of literature is, to some extent, modeled on the act ual one, but his differences from such a model are at least as important as are his resemblance to it. He is rooted in a mythical or literary tradition in which distortion is a generally accepted mode of expression; furthermore the inherent aesthetic order by which his existence is limited also gives his madness intrinsic value and meaning (9). I have approached a mad literary character on his own literary terms, through the verbal, dramatic, and narrative symbols that convey the unconscious process he portrays and reveals. Even when a writer draws on her own experience of insanity as the subject or emotional source of her work, such as the novelist, and short story writer Bessie Head, what is of interest in this discussion is her adaptation of delusion, disassociation, or other aberration to the creation of a unique view of her society, her art, and her own mind.

Bessie Head's novel, A Question of Power (1974) is an autobiographical work that deals with Head's, mental breakdown and subsequent recovery and renewal. The narrative is based on the life experience of the author. The main character takes the author's name, Elizabeth. Like the author, she is born in a mental hospital because her mother was considered insane for having an affair with a black man. Like the author, Elizabeth is raised by a foster mother and thereafter by a harsh missionary. Like Head, Elizabeth joins a political party, meets and marries a womanizer, bears him a son, and after the breakup of the marriage, leaves South Africa permanently for Motabeng village in Botswana. In Botswana she engages in cooperative agriculture with the local and international people.

From Bessie Head's biographical record, it is clear that she is telling her own life story in this, novel. As Craig Mackenzie (1993) observes.

"two worlds co-exist on different ontological planes in the novel: there is a recognizable, social world of co-operative gardening, human interaction, everyday events in the village; there is also an inner, psychological constituted world, in which logic of the nightmare, and intuitive dream-association, predominates and the free play of ideas is allowed to proceed" (120-121).

It is through Elizabeth's dreams that the text adopts a certain narratological authority: the dreams are in fact the content of the text, the locus of "the real life" of the novel. It seems that by locating the action of the novel inside the mind of a character Head is adopting a distinctively modernist strategy; the "outer" world bombards the sentiment subject with a barrage of sensory impressions which must be configured by the subject's organizing intellect. The subject's ordering gaze, in other words, imposes an interpretation on a seemingly random universe (Mackenzie 121).

Head moves the narrative into the arena of psychic struggle by making Elizabeth's mind. become the site of a monumental struggle between conflicting forces. It is Elizabeth's mind that produces the central paradoxes of the novel. If Elizabeth represents the author's mind, than Felman (1985) point that "the madness silenced by society is given voice by literature" (15) becomes relevant to our discussion because Head uses Elizabeth's voice to air her grievances and thus her own personal madness. Elizabeth is alienated from all of society's power structures: as a "colored" she is denied full "self hood" in racist south Africa; as a "half caste" she is despised in traditional African society; as a woman she is oppressed because of the patriarchal hierarchies in both societies. Elizabeth therefore "creates" her personality from the sketchy details supplied by the Principal of the mission school in which she is placed as a young girl.

We have a full docket on you. You must be very careful. Your mother was insane. If you're not careful you'll get insane just like your mother. Your mother was a white woman. They had to lock her up, as she was having a child by the stable boy, who was a native (16).

Elizabeth is driven to madness by the psychological pressures of her society. It is only through her act of will that any sense of unity or coherence as a person can be built. As Mackenzie (1993) contends, Elizabeth's mind is invaded by vertigmous nightmare sequences drawn from the deepest wells of her unconscious (122).

In A Question of Power we have more questions than answers from the text. One is not sure whether the dreams in the text are a faithful record of the author's descent into insanity, or whether 'the author is experimenting a narrative technique that encourages the reader to be a producer rather than a passive consumer of meaning. By encouraging the reader to participate in the production of meaning in the text, Head is exercising post modernist tendencies. In her 1983 interview about the text, Head says:

It was like a book saying now, I'll tell you as much as I can, then you sort things out.. it" a sort of book that's written in such a way that it invites people to fill in gaps and notes where the author has left blank spaces (14)

Like post modernists, Head disavows traditional claims to authority, leaving the audience to fill in gaps and discontinuities in the text his, therefore, as Mackenzie argues inappropriate to construct a logical, coherent way through the lurid dream sequences of the novel (122). What is certain is that, the issues which are fore-grounded, and with which the dream personae Sello, Dan and other figures challenge Elizabeth, are those specifically related to her experiences as a half-breed exiled from South Africa into Botswana, a stranger in her homeland, and a stranger still in the place she would like to call her new home. It is her non-identity, statelessness, chronic loneliness, and life on the verge of her terrestrial hell, added to her inherited mental anguish that combine to make her a logical guest of the madhouse (Ode-Aje 134). The worst experience for Elizabeth is her unacceptability in Motabeng. Despite having lived simply in a village for many years and participating in communal work, Elizabeth remain s an "out and outsider and would never be in on their things". (26). Carol Boyce Davies (1994) cites Gloria Anzaldua's (1997) Borderlands and argues that Anzaldua's analysis of, boarders as those places where different cultures, identities, sexualities, classes, geographies, races, genders, and so on collide or interchange permit us to enter the idea of meaning of cultures in multiple contexts, and in particular the identification of dynamics of the experience of Black women and women of color (16). Elizabeth fits in this new consciousness proposed by Anzaldua -the boarder consciousness which supports "perpetual transition," but she is also an example of the problems identified by Bernice Reagons (1995) who states that any crossing of boundaries can mean occupying space belonging to someone else (18). Thus one of the tormenting voices within Elizabeth jeers at her because she does not know an African language... "You're not linked up to the people. You don't know any African language" (44). She is also haunte d by ideas that she is not genuinely African. "A persistent theme was that she was not genuinely African" (159). She also hears voices telling her, "We don't want you here. This is my land. These are my people. We keep things to ourselves." (38).

It seems to me that in A Question of Power the relationship between inner and outer is at its most tenuous. There is virtually no causal connection between reality and Elizabeth's nightmares. Elizabeth's struggle is entirely internal. One can argue persuasively that she undergoes what she conceptualizes as an experience of evil at its roots and emerges with an affirmation of good. In certain respect Elizabeth recovers herself, her mental peace and social being, through her participation in the collective project of the vegetable garden in which people of different races and different places are involved.

Despite being a difficult task, Head has successfully portrayed a character with an extremely insane, mental unstable condition. Elizabeth Evasdaughter (1989) contends that Elizabeth's mental condition meets the criteria set forth in the Desk Reference to the Diagnostic Criteria from Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, (1982) for paranoid schizophrenia. In other words she exhibits all the symptoms that characterize people who suffer from that disease.

For a while Nnu Ego bore it all without reaction, until her sense started to give way she became vague, and people pointed out that she had never been strong emotionally (224).

Buchi, Emecheta. The Joys of Motherhood

Buchi, Emecheta is another African female novelist who employs the theme of madness in her writings. Emecheta portrays a woman character Nnu Ego breaking into madness in her novel The Joys of Motherhood. She also acknowledges the fact that there are times when a writer releases her psychological repression through writing. Sandra Gilbert (1986) argues along the same lines when she contends that:

...the, country of writing ought to be a no where into which we can fly in a tarantella of rage and desire, a place beyond 'vileness and compromise' where the part of ourselves that longs to be free... can write itself, can dream, can invent new words (Introduction, xviii).

Emecheta confessed in an interview she gave at Sarah Lawrence college in 1990 that, during a writing spree her. heightened sensations and feelings can be likened to madness because of the speed and intensity which she composes, laboring to produce a piece of work often precipitated by deep emotional anguish (2).

In The Joys of Motherhood, Nnu Ego's first break with reality occurs when she loses her first son. Having suffered during her first marriage because she could not conceive and bear a child for her husband, Nnu Ego cannot stand the loss of a child who was proof of her womanhood:

she saw him, her baby Ngozi, lying there where she had laid him only a short while before, dead. Stone dead. She did not scream; she did not call her husband. She simply left the room, walking gingerly backwards, until she whirled round like a fierce hurricane and ran (55).

As Eustace Palmer (1983) contends, in a society that places such a premium on children as the means of ensuring the continuity of the family and clan, a woman's femininity and ego seems to consist precisely in her ability to bear children (39). Lauretta Ngcobo (1988) argues.

Marriage amongst Africans is mainly an institution for the control of procreation. Every woman is encouraged to marry and get children in order to express her womanhood to the full. The basis of marriage among Africans implies the transfer of woman's fertility to the husband's family group. There is a high premium placed on children and the continuity of each lineage.. .The reasons why African families desire high fertility have to do with human 'capital' and 'social security'. (142)

Nnu Ego's frustration can therefore be understood in terms of her failure to fulfil the expectations of her society. Despite the changes that are taking place in Lagos, Nnu Ego still subscribes to the traditional concept that "a woman without a child for her husband is a failed woman" (62).

Tracing Nnu Ego's ups and downs in the text one can say that her yearning for liberation as evidenced in the following statement "God, when will you create a woman who will be fulfilled in herself, a full human being, not anybody's appendage?" (182) and her determination to fulfill the roles of an African woman while still respecting the traditional concept of manliness drives her to madness. Busy flying to make ends meet, Nnu Ego can not stand to see another woman rich. When her co-wife's friend visits them, she breaks down and behaves like a mad woman:

Nnu Ego thought angrily, look at the expensive shoes she is wearing, look at the head tie, and even a gold chain-all this just to come and see her relative Adaku, and in this rain! God, the cost of the head tie! Whatever she paid for it would feed me and the children for a whole month. "Shut up! Shut up and go away You can't stand here. My baby is crying-go away!" Nnu Ego's voice was so loud that it was more thunderous than rain. (163-164).

Believing that a woman cannot have wealth, a good trading business, and children, Nnu Ego concentrates on her children. She fails to realize that these were different times. Unlike Nnu Ego, Adaku married to Nnaife as a second wife concentrates on her trade and instead of trying to become the woman with many children she quits marriage after being humiliated by elderly men because she can not have sons. Adaku tells Nnu Ego: "I am going to be a prostitute. I am not prepared to stay here and be turned into a mad woman, just because I have no sons" (168-169).

Taking into consideration that among the ibos a free woman like Adaku is considered an Ajadu (prostitute) whether she solicits men for sexual gratification or not, Adaku's move as Ogunyemi observes is a daring enterprise, an unspeakable course of action in the 1940's (249). Florence Stratton (1983) contends that Emecheta applauds Adaku's resoluteness, making clear that although she sells her body, she redeems her soil. This is a very courageous option that few women in Africa can take even at the present. Emecheta persuasively convinces us that although choosing prostitution over marriage may seem mad, it is probably holding on to an unsuccessful marriage that causes madness. Unfortunately this is what happens to Nnu Ego; frustrated because she is alone and unhappy, she becomes more and more isolated from her community. She later realized that she had made a mistake, but:

How was she to know that by the time her children grew up the values of her country, her people and her tribe would have changed drastically to the extent where a woman with many children could face a lonely old age, and maybe die a miserable death all alone, just like a barren woman (219)?

Eventually Nnu Ego does go mad. As Stratton observes, her final destruction is caused by her two sons. Having been sustained in all her travails by the thought "that one day her boys would be men" (161), their repudiation of the traditional communal values for which she hac! sacrificed herself in favor of western style individualism destroys her completely (158). After being rejected by Nnaife for the behaviour of their children, who he now. refers to as her children, Nnu Ego returns in disgrace to lbuza. Despite having several children, Nnu Ego dies in complete isolation by a roadside: the text says "She died quietly with no child to hold her hand and no friend to talk to her. She had never really made many friends, so busy had she been building up her joys as a mother: (224).

How do we account for Nnu-Ego's madness? Stratton argues that Nnu Ego's madness is a response to and a metaphor for the absurd contradictions of her life. She further states that it can also be seen as representing her last subversive act. Ironically it is only in death that Nnu Ego acquires psychic integration and that her explosive anger finds a revolutionary course (158). As revenge, Nnu Ego refuses to answer the call for children. However many people appealed to her to make women fertile she never did (224). Ogunyemi argues that by portraying Nnu Ego's madness, Emecheta associates the madness of women with the tyrannical hold of children and the stresses that women face as society becomes increasingly misogynistic. Ogunyemi stresses that most female madness is an extension of the, violated world around women particularly in the urban centers (230). Although Nnu Ego's madness may be due to a combination of many things, the most fundamental issue is partriachy which demands that women bare children and spec ifically male children. Like Ezeulu in Arrow of God (1965), Nnu Ego holds on to the traditional norms in a changed environment. I would strongly argue that it is Nnu Ego's conservatism that leads to her anxiety, madness, and eventual death.

Old Man: Perhaps, perhaps. And yet no one goes mad in emptiness, unless he has a disease already in his head from the womb. No, it is men who make men mad. Who knows if Anowa would have been a better woman, a better person if we had not been what we are (124).

Ama Ata Aidoo Anowa

Anowa (1965) a play written and published by Ama Ata Aidoo, is another work by an African woman that deals with the theme of madness. This important work has received little critical attention and as Carole Boyce Davies states it occupies a marginal position in African literary studies and feminist criticism (59). Anowa in many ways echoes and modifies the popular African folk tale of a disobedient daughter, a tale which has received varied treatment from different writers (3). Anowa, the main character in the play, is a powerful heroine who refuses to many potential spouses from her hometown of Yebi. Against her parents will she choose Kofi Ako with whom she elopes. Because of her parents opposition to the man of her choice, Anowa and Kofi decide to make a success of their marriage away from their families. Through a cooperative venture they start a trading business between the hinterland and the coast. It is Anowa's indefatigable energy that makes their cooperative business a success; however, as Vicent Oda mtten (1994) observes, their relationship deteriorates as rapidly as their wealth increases. The clash of personalities and values leads to mutual recriminations and ends in madness and death (49).

As a play to be performed on the stage, Anowa can be divided into three major parts. Before the first part begins there is a prologue that introduces the play to the audience. The narrator in this prologue is an old man who gives the historical background of the area in which the play is set. I consider the reference to the forts as the most important part of the introduction because up to the present these forts are reminders of the "complicity and active participation of African people in that degrading trafficking of human flesh" (Odamtten 52). In reminding us about the crime of slavery the old man says:

And yet, there is a bigger crime we have inherited from the clans incorporate of which, lest we forget when the time does come. Those forts standing at the door of the great ocean shall remind our children and the sea bear witness (66).

The old man alerts the audience about those who did participate actively in the trade with the Europeans thus introducing Kofi Ako. About Anowa, the woman who is to become Kofi Ako's wife, the old man says "Anowa is not a girl to meet every day" (67). Part one takes place in Yebi sometime around 1870. We see Anowa's mother Badua concerned about Anowa's refusal to get married. Badua explains her worries to her husband Osam and says:
I want my child to be a woman
Marry a Man,
Tend a farm
And be happy to see her
Peppers and her onions grow.
A woman like her
Should bear children
Many children
So she can afford to have
One or two die. (72)

Part, one ends with Anowa's decision to marry a man not approved by her parents. Badua's disappointment, is expressed by the following words "of all the mothers that are here in Yebi, should I be the one whose daughter would want to marry this fool, this good-for-nothing cassava man, this watery male of all watery males." (77).

Part two takes place on the Highway. It is here that we witness the beginning of the misunderstandings between Kofi and Anowa, misunderstandings that will culminate in her madness. Describing their position on the Highway, Odamtten rightly points out that "they are at a spatial and historical juncture--neither here nor there--a temporal node" (66). Their prosperity in trade leads to their misunderstanding, Kofi contemplates and later buys slaves to the disappointment of Anowa. Objecting to the decision, Anowa says "I shall not feel happy with slaves.. .around Kofi, no man made a slave of his friend and came to much himself It is wrong. It is evil". Despite Anowa's objection, Kofi, determined to show his male chauvinistic arrogance, goes ahead with the idea, believing it is right because... "every one does it" (90).

The last part of the play, part three, is set in The Big House in Oguaa. Kofi is now a successful rich businessman and Anowa, as Davies says, has become a displaced figure. She resists all prescriptions concerning modes of behavior benefiting her husband's status and does not partake in his riches (6). It appears that Kofi's consultations with the medicine men for protection and wealth, his insatiable thirst for materialism, his acquisition of slaves, and his obsession with power contributes to Anowa's insanity. After realizing that Kofi has lost his manhood because of wealth and that they will never have children, Anowa blurts: "My husband is a woman. He is a dead corpse. He is dead wood but less than dead wood because at least, that sometimes, grows mushroom" (122).

From the very beginning of the play we are warned "Anowa is not a girl to meet everyday" (67). The play proves Anowa is an exceptional African woman; her refusal to marry someone proposed by her parents, her insistence on remaining true to her vision that slavery is wrong and that men and women must live by the fruits of their own labor, makes her a woman who lived ahead of her time. I am particularly concerned with her madness which surfaces at the end of the play. As Cixious and Clement (1986) argue societies do not succeed in offering everyone the same way of fitting into the symbolic order.; those who are, if one may say so, between symbolic systems, in the interstices, offside, are the ones who are afflicted... .with what we call madness" (7). It is Anowa in the play who is considered to be offside and therefore referred to as mad. The reference to her being mad appears several times at the end of the play. On all occasions it is Kofi Ako who insists that she is mad:

Kofi Ako: (speaking to Anowa) You are speaking as If your head is not there (115).

Kofi Ako: (referring to Anowa's complains) What mad talk (116).

Kofi Ako: (when Anowa refuses to go away) You are mad. I am alive (117).

Kofi Ako: (when Anowa calls the elders to seek help for Kofi's behavior) You are mad Anowa. (118).

At the very end of the play, Anowa admits that things have become too much for her to bear. She sends the slaves to go consult the oldest and wisest people on land if they had ever heard of a man who sought divorce from his wife and would not tell her why.

Go quickly and come back today and walk as you have never walked before. Come quickly for already I hear too many noises in my head and you must come back before my mind flies and gets lost (119)

It is evident from the text that Anowa is driven into madness by Kofi Ako. One of the slave girls says she would have gone mad just like Anowa had shereceived the same treatment.

If I had more money than I knew what to do with, but not a single child I should be unhappy. If my man refused to talk to me, I should soon start talking to myself; if he would not come to my room or allow me in his, I should pace around in the night. And after killing myself for him, he said to me one day, go away, and would not tell me why, I should than die of surprise (119).

It is not only the slave girl who realizes the reasons for Anowa's madness but the old man at the end of the play rightly points Out that "no one goes mad in emptiness, unless he has the disease already in his head from the womb. No it is men who make men mad." David Cooper (1965) argues along the same lines. He says "research into the origins of the major form of madness, schizophrenia, has moved round to the position that people do not go mad, but are driven mad by others who are driven into the position of driving them mad by a peculiar convergence of social pressure" (viii). It is Kofi Ako, who driven by the desire to acquire wealth, "to play a game of dipping with the stranger" (66) drives Anowa mad.

Carol Boyce Davies (1994) argues that Anowa offers a way of "creative theorizing" which is a central aspect of some Black women's writing. Anowa can be analyzed in many different ways, but what is pertinent to this paper is how Aidoo handles the theme of madness in the play. Davies rightly points out that her concept of madness is used in Anowa to stress the relationship between the character of Anowa and those women who for a long time have resisted patriarchal dominance. To illustrate her point, Davies quotes Cixous "The Laugh of Medusa" and Clement The Newly Born Woman asserting that: "the witch and Medusa are two constructions of women who respond overtly to patriarchal dominance." I think the difference between Western women's s resistance to patriarchal dominance and their African women sisters lies in the fact that African women do not dismiss marriage as an institution completely. What African women demand are changes within the institution, changes that will end male domination. This can be the reaso n for Anowa's reluctance to divorce Kofi Ako in the play.. Davies points out that feminist discussions of women and madness identify the trope of the mad woman as a resisting figure (77). Despite the mad woman being a resisting figure like Anowa, madness does not change structures in society. As Davies notes: "the hysteric interrupts phallic mastery but does not change it" (77). I would argue that although madness does not change social structures, it is one step away from male domination.

Possessing the Secret of Joy by Alice Walker offers a big challenge to Black feminist politics. It seems that despite Walker's poor method of challenging and fighting female genital mutilation in Africa her intentions are good. If we accept Carol Boyce Davies's proposition that

Black feminist politics can only be transformational if it seeks to challenge social condition and processes and give value to existences often rendered silent or invisible in current patterns of social ordering.

We also have to accept (although only to a certain extent) Walker's efforts in attempting to liberate black women from one of the worst kinds of female oppression in the world. .Possessing the Secret of Joy is about an African woman whose life changes after she voluntarily undergoes circumcision. Walker wrote this novel to expose the horrors of female circumcision and thereby invigorate the movement, to ban the practice world wide (Wilentz 1993). This custom, still practiced in many parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, is fully embedded in the culture of its people.

In her efforts to portray the horror of circumcision, Walker discusses the worst type of operation, the one that involves the excision of the clitoris and labia. She makes the woman who undergoes the ritual have a mental breakdown. The irony is that the character goes made only after she leaves Africa and settles in the United States. Its only after she is in the United

States that she understands the gravity of humiliation and mutilation done to her body. Walker has received a lot of criticism-not for her activist struggle to end circumcision-but for her Western superior attitude towards Africa. Her sense of superiority is reflected in an interview she conducted with Esserice magazine in which she said:

They (referring to Africans) call on people they shouldn't even talk to--tying to raise money, appealing to people to fight their battles...So they can accept what I--someone who loves my former home-am saying. They don't have a leg to stand on, so they better not start hopping around me! (Quoted in Bass 3).

Reacting to Walker's approach, African scholars like Awa Thiam (1986) have argued that the "Continuation of the circumcision ritual is at least a partial reaction or response to colonialism and the imposition of western values of African culture" (122-123). I would suggest that, to avoid the ejection of western imported "empowerment' any change with regard to female circumcision will have to come from within. One of Walker's mistakes is to dismiss circumcision without considering that it is part and parcel of a people's culture. Ending circumcision entails more than the prohibition of body mutilation. Explaining why she voluntarily agreed to undergo the procedure Evelyn, Walker's main protagonist, says:

To be accepted as a real woman by the Olinka people; to stop the jeering. Otherwise I was a thing. Worse, because of my friendship with Adam's family and my special relationship with him, I was never trusted, considered a potential traitor, even. Besides, our leader, our Jesus Christ, said we must keepall our old ways and that no Olinka man-in this he echoed the great liberator Kenyatta-would even think of marrying a woman who was not circumcised (122).

This pride in African customs disappears when Tashi, now turned Evelyn in a foreign land, begins to internalize the significance of what was done to her body. Her problem culminates in some sort of madness.

I could not eat and was emaciated as a scarecrow; my clothes hung on me, and I wore nothing that wasn't black... I felt the violence rising in me with every encounter with the world outside my home (144).

Refuting the rumor that his wife is mad, Adam explains Tashi-Evelyn's condition as being hurt, Wounded, Broken, not mad. Immediately after he says that Evelyn laughs. Flinging he head back in deliberate challenge. The laugh is short. Sharp. The bark of a dog. Beyond hut. Unquestionably mad. Oddly fee (167). I propose to read Evelyn's madness in light of the postmodem position. My argument, like that of. postmodernists David Bailey and Stuart Hall (1994) is, identity in the 20th century is not fixed; as Tobe Levin (1995) notes: "who you are remains a function of where you - momentarily are, foreign soil is every where, there is no place for identity" (262). Tashi is circumcised because she once identified herself with the people of Olinka When she moves to the United States, Tashi becomes what Davies define as a migratory subject. She is neither Olinkan nor American but something in between, something with multiple identities that do not always harmonize (Davies 36).

Brown and Gooze (1995) argue that fluid identity (the tendency of being neither here no there)--what Anzaldua refers to as borderlands-permits facets of self to emerge and multiple oppression to be contested. It is then possible to live with and within contradictions (xv). On the other hand, as Brown and Gooze note "fragmentation results in failure to develop a self defined subjectivity, and in most severe instances, leads to madness and self destruction" (xv). Tashi-Evelyn is an example of a character whose fragmentation prevents her from developing a self-defined subjectivity and therefore leads her to madness. At the end of the narrative, TashiEvelyn kills M'lissa, the woman who performed the circumcision operation on her. This is a weak point in the narrative. Killing M'Lissa as a revenge for a practice that she personally ] went through and believes in, is not a solution. I think educating her on the repercussions of the practice to women would have been a better option, not only to M'Lissa, but to the s ociety as a whole. After killing M'Lissa Tashi-Evelyn is sentenced to death for committing murder. I find Margaret Kent Bass's (1994) response to Walker's novel very enlightening. She argues:

Sensationalism and punishment are not effective ways to systematically eradicate the practice of female circumcision, and well-intentioned mothers should not be sacrificed for performing what they believe to be parental responsibilities (9)

The point that Bass is making is very valid. African women are working to educate women and the society at large on the disadvantages of female circumcision., The process is not easy and will take a long time, but there is already hope that things will change. The proposal that western feminists should leave African women alone (Bass 9) is a bit problematic especially, if we take seriously Davies's proposition on the responsibilities of black feminist activists.

The novels of Bessie Head, Buchi Emecheta, Ama Ata Aidoo, and Alice Walker, make it clear that madness is a common problem among black women The first three texts by African women writers identify patriarchy and migrations to new societies as the cause of madness for women who otherwise wold have been powerful figures in society. Elizabeth, Nnu Ego, and Anowa would have had better opportunities in their new societies had it not been for the displacement caused by their migrations in search of better opportunities. Their problems are made. worse because of the patriarchysocial institution which functions on the principal that "male shall dominate female" (Millet 25). The last character's problem is more of migration than patriarchy. Tashi-Evelyn is a woman of the 20 century, between borders. She is a product of what Davies calls "separation and dislocations and dis-memberings" (Davies 17).

(1.) The following African Women's text deal with theme of madness in some form or the other: Bessie Head's A Question of Power (1974), Aidoo's Anowa (1970), Emecheta's The Joys of Motherhood (1979), and The Family (1990), Saadawi's Women at Zero Point (1983), Ba's So Long a Letter (1981), and Scarlet Song (1986), Nwapa's Never Again (1975). Njau's Ripples in The Pool (1975) and Ulasi's The Night Hay Died (1,974).

(2.) Chikwenye Okonyo Ogunyemi explains in "Buchi, Emecheta: The Been-To (Bintu) Novel" how Emecheta wrote The Joys of Motherhood in six traumatic weeks because of her emotional anguish caused by the temporary break with her first daughter Chiedu The daughter upon being told that she hadn't the aptitude to study medicine, bulked at Emecheta's apparent lack of support for female professionalism. On Dec 22, 1978 Chiedu fled traitoriously to her father who had long since abandoned them. Ogunyemi concludes that writing is an unburdening of pent up emotions for Emecheta (230).

(3.) Amos Tutola's The Palm Wine Drinkard portrays a different version of the same folktale.


- Aidoo, Ama Ata (1985) The Dilemma of a Ghost and Anowa. London: Longmans.

- Andrade, Susan Z. (1990) "Rewriting History, Motherhood, and Rebellion: Naming an African Women's Literary Tradition." R.A.L. Summer 22.2.

- Anzaldua, Gloria. (1987) Borderlands! La Frontera. The New Mestiza. San Francisco, California, 3pinsters! Aunt Lute.

- Bailey, David and Stuart Hall. (1992) "The Vertigo of Displacement". Tens 8 vol. 2 no 3

- Bass, Margaret Kent. (1994)., "Alice's Secret." C.L.A. Sept, 28:1.

- Bazin, Nancy Topping. (1995) "South Africa and the Theme of Madness: Novels by Doris Lessing, Bessie Head and Nadine Gordimer." In International Women's Writing New Landscapes of Identity. Ed. Anne E. Brown and Marijanne E. Gooze. Westport: Greenwood Press.

- Brown Anne and Marijanne Gooze (1995) "Introduction" International Women's Writing New Landscapes of Identity. Westport: Greenwood Press.

- Buckman, Alyson R. (1995) "The Body as a Site of Colonization: Alice Walker's Possessing the Secret of Joy" Journal of American Culture. Sept, 18:2.

- Bushfield, Joan. (1994) "The Female 'Malady? Men, Women, and Madness in Nineteenth Century Britain." Sociology. Feb, 28:1.

- Cixous, Helene and Catherine Clement .(1 986) The Newly Born Women. Trans. Betsy Wing. Int. Sandra M. Gilbert Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

- Cooper, David. (1965) "Introduction" Madness and Civilization by Michell Foucault. London: Tavistock publications.

- Davies, Carol Boyce. (1994) Black Women Writing and Identity, Migrations of the Subject. New York: Routledge.

- Emecheta, Buchi, (1979) The Joys of Motherhood. London: Heinemann.

- Evasdaughter, Elizabeth. (1989) "Bessie Head's A Question of Power Read as a Mainer's Guide to Paranoia." R.A.L Spring, 20:1.

- Feder, Lillian. (1980) Madness in Literature. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

- Felman, Soshona. (1985) Writing and Madness Literature !Philosophy/ Psychoanalysis, Trans. Martha Noel Evans, et al. New York: Cornel University Press.

- Foucault, Michell. (1965) Madness and Civilization, A History of Insanity in the Age of reason. Trans. lchard Howard. London: Tavistock Publications.

- Gilbert, Sandra. (1986) "Introduction" The Newly Born Woman by Helene Cixous and Catherine Clement University of Minnesota Press.

- Gordon, Daniel, (1991) "Female Circumcision and Genital Operations in Egypt and the Sudan: A Dilemma for Medical Anthropology" Medical Anthropology Quartely Mar, 5:1.

- Head, Bessie, (1974) A Question of Power. London. Heinemann.

- Head, Bessie,. (1989) "Bessie Head Interviewed by Michelle Adler, Susan Gardner, Tobeka Mda and Patricia Sandier, Serowe, 5th January 1983", Between the Lines: Interviews with Bessie Head, Sheila Roberts, Ellen Kuzwayo, Miriam Tlali. Ed. Craig Mackenzie and Cherry Clayton, Grahamstown: National English Literary Museum.

- lnnes, C.L. (1995) "Conspicuous Consumption: Corruption and Body Politic in the Writing of Ayi Kwei Armah and Ama Ata Aidoo" in Essays on African Writing No 2 Ed Abdulazak. Gurnah. Oxford: Heinemann.

- Levin, Tobe. (1986) 'Women as Scapegoats of Culture and Cult: An Activist's View of Female Circumcision in Ngugi's The River Between." Ngambika Studies of Women in African Lt. Ed. Carol Boyce Davies et al. Trenton, N.J: Africa World.

- (1995) "No Place for Identity: Jeanette Landers Migratory Women Aesthetic." In International Women Writing. Ed. Anne E. Brown and Marjanne E. Gooze. Westport: Greenwood Press.

- Lorenz, Paul H. (1991) "Colonization and the Feminine in Bessie Head's A Question of Power" M.F.S. Autumn, 37:3.

- Mackenzie, Craig. (1993) "Allegiance and Alienation in the Novels of Bessie Head." In Essays on African Writing No.1 Ed. Abdulrazak Gurnah, Oxford: Heinemann.

- Millet, Kate. (1971) Sexual Politics. London: Hart-Davies, 1971.

- Nicholson, May Nana. (1983) "The Affirmation of African Womanhood in the Woks of Ama Ata Aidoo." M .A. Thesis, University of Florida, Gainesville.

- Ngcobo, Lauretta. (1988) "African Motherhood-Myth and Reality." In Criticism and Ideology Ed. Kirsten Hoist, Petersen. Uppsala: Scandinavian Institute of African Studies.

- Odamtten, Vincent. (1994) The Art of Ama Aa Aidoo Polylectics and reading Against Neocolonialism. Gainesville: University of Florida Press.

- Ogunyemi, Okonjo Chikwenye. (1996) Africa Wolman Palava: The Nigerian Novel by Women. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

- Ojo-Ade Femi. (1983) "Madness in The African Novel: Awoonor's This Earth My Brother." In African Literature Today No.13, Ed. Eldered Durosimi Jones. London: Heinemann.

- Palmer, Eustace. (1983) "The Feminine Point of View: Buchi Emecheta's The Joys of Motherhood'. In Africa Literature Today No. 13, Ed. Eldred Durosimi Jones. London: Heinemann.

- Reagon, Bernice Johnson. (1983) "Coalition Politics. Turning the century." in Homegirls A Black Feminist Anthology. New York: Women of Color Press.

- Rooney, Caroline. (1991) "Dangerous Knowledge and The Politics of Survival: A Reading of Our Sister Killjoy and A Question of Power." In Motherlands Black Women 's Writing from Africa, the Caribbean and South Asia, Ed. Sushila Nasta. London: The Women Press.

- Rose, Jacqueline. (1994) "On The Universality of Madness: Bessie Head's A Question of Power" Critical Inquiry. Spring 20:3.

- Savan, Ponnuthurai Charles. (1987) "Bessie Head A Question of Power and Identity." In Women in African Literature Today. Ed. Eldred Durosimi Jones. Trenton N.J: Africa World Press.

- Stratton, Florence. (1988) "The Shallow Grave: Archetypes of Female Experience in African fiction." R.A.L Summer, 19:2.

- Thiam, Awa. (1986) Black Sisters, Speak Out, Trans. Dorothy Blair. London: Pluto.

- Tucker, Margaret E. (1988) "'A Nice-Time Girl Strikes Back: An Essay on Bessie Head's A Question o Power. "R.A.L. Summer, 19:2.

- Walker, Alice. (1992) Possessing the Secret of Joy. New York: Pocket Star.

- Wilentz, Gay. (1993) "Healing the Wounds of Time." The Women 's Review of Books. Vol. 9:5 Feb.
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Author:Osaki, Lillian Temu
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Date:Jun 1, 2002
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