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Sunday, July 19, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bringing Sexual Abuse To Light -- Two Novels Explore Heroines' Traumas

Thanks to the works of contemporary African-American women writers such as Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor, Paule Marshall, and Colleen McElroy, the taboo subjects of sexual abuse and the complexity of mother-daughter relationships are now being explored in emotionally satisfying ways.

Two new novels by Alice Walker and Marita Golden expand on this recent phenomenon in diverse ways and in settings that range from village life in Africa to the civil-rights movement in Mississippi. Walker's book, unfortunately, too often resorts to a politically-correct preachiness, while Golden's novel succeeds by offering believable characters caught up in one of the most volatile periods of American history.

In Walker's fifth novel, "Possessing the Secret of Joy" (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $19.95), she challenges not only African tribal traditions, but also the dubious role of African mothers and grandmothers by examining the horrifying practice of female circumcision. Walker's method is to portray the lifelong effects of such genital mutilation - emotionally, mentally, physically and sexually - on her main character, Tashi Evelyn Johnson, and on those who love her.

Tashi was born in a village in the fictional African nation of Olinka, but spends most of her adult life in the United States. As a young woman in Africa, she voluntarily submitted to the knife of the elderly female "tsunga" and was circumcised in a tragic but well-intentioned attempt to hold onto what was left of her tribe's ancient traditions.

Tashi pays a steep price - progressive madness - when life and marriage take her to the United States. By combining grim descriptions of circumcision with Olinkan mythology encouraging the practice, Walker sets the stage for Tashi's descent into madness, which is told through the voices of Tashi and a host of other characters. These include Tashi's husband, Adam, and of his sister, Olivia - characters whom Walker's fans will remember from her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "The Color Purple," and from her last novel, "The Temple of My Familiar." Adam and Olivia, children of missionary parents, have been friends of Tashi since childhood in Olinka.

With the help of psychoanalysts in Switzerland and the U.S., Tashi begins to unravel the horror that has haunted her as an adult, including the trauma of the death of her sister at the hands of a tsunga. Her healing process is also aided by her "slow" son, Benny; by Adam's French lover, Lisette, and their bisexual son, the anthopologist Pierre. Too often, however, these characters do not come alive as distinct individuals with their own voices; they seem instead to be mere vehicles for Walker's own voice.

Tashi's healing journey is geographical as well as emotional and leads her back to her Olinkan village. Her newfound sense of self and her rage propel her to commit an act equal in brutality to the violence inflicted upon her and other Olinkan girls.

Golden's third novel, "and do remember me" (Doubleday, $19), is an emotionally satisfying story about Jessie Foster, a young Mississippi woman who escapes years of sexual abuse at the hands of her alcoholic father by hitting him in the head with an iron skillet, then leaving home.

The time is 1964, the Freedom Summer, and Jessie's action propels her into a life that begins in civil-rights activism and moves eventually to the theater world in New York City - all the while haunted by the spectre of childhood abuse.

After escaping home, Jessie is befriended by a young playwright, Lincoln Sturgis, and with him joins the civil-rights movement. They are thrown in with other activists, black and white, who are attempting to help black citizens in Greenwood, Miss., gain their civil rights. Among the rights workers is Macon Fields Hightower, a young woman who becomes Jessie's lifelong friend.

Along with civil rights, Jessie is introduced to the theater by Lincoln, who creates a one-woman play for her that leads to theatrical work throughout the South. Eventually, though, they end up in New York where they marry and continue their intimate and artistic struggles.

Jessie's estrangement from her family continues until her father's death many years later, and only then does she feel safe enough to make her own healing journey and resolve her complex feelings for her parents. Golden has given us characters we care about, and it is a joy to watch them move through lives that matter.

Charlotte Watson Sherman is a Seattle writer whose recent short-story collection, "Killing Color," won the King County Arts Commission Publication Award.

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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