Monday, 13 June 2011

Blogging the Caine Prize: Butterfly Dreams

This is a late post that should've been done on Friday (!), but real life got in the way, so here it is:

The second in the series of Blogging the Caine Prize is Butterfly Dreams by Beatrice Lamwaka from Uganda. She is published author and teacher and if interested you can read her story Vengeance of the Gods which was later turned into her first novel.

Butterfly Dreams is the story of a female rebel child soldier who comes back to her family after having been taken to fight by the Ugandan rebels in the conflict between the government of Uganda and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Acholiland.

For me, Butterfly Dreams reads much better than Hitting Budapest - there's a bit more structure to the story and there's actual plot development. However, there's too much overwriting in the some parts of the story and as a reader I felt like there was a slightly tortuous dragging out of the story rather than  purposeful repetition where new facts or twisted metaphors are added. In some places the repetition works, because the writer actually does something with the words or she lets lets the story tell itself.

Compare and contrast:

Exhibit A:
We watched you silently. In return, you watched us in silence. We gave you food when we thought you were hungry. You gulped down the sweet potatoes and malakwang without saying a word. We didn’t want to treat you as if you were a stranger but in our hearts, we knew that you were new. We knew that you would never be the same again. We didn’t know what to expect of you.
Exhibit B:
This is something that we don’t understand. This is our home, something that we don’t know how to explain to you. Something we took refuge in. This is our home that keeps us alive. Keeps us sane. Just huts. Grass and bricks. Just huts to hide our nakedness.
Clearly B is much stronger than A because B actually describes refugee camp where they live and also explores the emotions of the family whereas A is, well, just words. And too many of the same ones, they don't move the story along but stagnate it. At points it comes across as an 'art for art's sake story' because it embraces certain stereotypes about Africa. What Neelika at Africa's a Country calls 'mining for misery.'

Unimpressed by the number of cliches in this story, The Oncoming Hope said in this very frank post:
name an African development storytelling cliché, this story's got it, from child soldier to displacement camps to walking to school though bombs to cartoonishly evil rebel soldiers.
Again I ask, if these are the stories the Caine Prize shortlists, what does that say about how the Caine Prize as a literary institution - with all the power it wields within African literature -sees Africa or expects to see Africa represented?

Backlash Scott had a more balanced, but equally critical view:
 the tone of the writing was what separated this piece from other “poverty porn” types of stories for me. Even then I’m kind of torn. The story is about a family’s struggle to cope with a crisis as much as it is about showing you how bad children have it in the North. While I would hardly expect a writer born in Gulu to shed the atmosphere in which she grew up, it is interesting to see how many of these Caine Prize stories will cater to the troubled-dark-continent narrative. 
...When reading this story I was reminded of the late great Yvonne Vera's Under the Tongue which similarly works on repetition and lyricism - only that Vera brilliantly executes it. Don't believe me, go read her. it also deals with muteness as a result of child trauma and the woman-centered family - Grandmother and mother - become the conduits through which the protagonist, Zhizha discovers a new language with which to speak, it is a language that isn't filled with the trauma of the past. Being taught to read by her mother becomes one way for Zhizha to regain her voice and another is through her Grandmother's stories of the family's history and in speaking, Grandmother exorcises the skeleton's of her past and also regains her right to speak as a woman because her husband had often told her 'a woman cannot speak'. Similarly in Lamwuka's story, the matriarchal family is the healing unit for the protagonist - hence the constant use of 'we' but it's used in a 'we and them' way rather  than an 'us' - as seen in the family dynamics discussed below. Education is also a form of catharsis for the child - but strangely also her obsession. Curiously before she is conscripted and after the war has begun she still goes to school: 
Even when the war started and many children were waylaid, you managed to get there. You cursed the teachers and called them cowards when you didn’t find any children or teachers. Days after a heavy fight between the rebels and soldiers you continued to go to school. You never gave up even when you didn’t find anybody there.
In the present-time of the story Lamunu's about 11 years old, so she was younger before she joined the war. Reading this I wondered how realistic is this, what parent would allow a child to go to school under such circumstances? I know it's fiction, but come on. There's got to be a level of credibility.

In her book, The Body in Pain Elaine Scarry explores the silencing effect of pain and trauma, it 'has a resistance to language' thus making it difficult for the traumatized to speak. So as much as the authorial voice of this story wants Lamunu to speak, she cannot. The pain is 'unshareable' and the only place of refuge is the special school where, through therapy she will speak again and have a new relation to language that will enable her to unburden the horrors of war. On the morning of her first day at school, she speaks:

You said apwoyo. You said thank you to Ma. That’s the first word we have heard you say. 
But the family responds: 
We’re happy to hear you say something. We hope that you will be able to say a lot more. Tell us more than Anena, Aya, Bongomin, Nyeko, Ayat, Lalam, Auma, Ocheng, Otim, Olam, Uma, Ateng, Akwero, Laker, Odong, Lanyero, Ladu, Timi…. Most of all, we want to hear your voice.
If the family still want to hear Lamunu's 'voice', then they are not listening. She has spoken by saying 'thank you.' It's a breakthrough! You'd think they'd make a song and dance about it, but they don't. Perhaps this is why Lamwaka's character finds sanctuary in an educational institution whereas Vera's protagonist finds refuge in her family who educate her and give her a 'new language.' In both of these stories the acts of expression could be described as a gendered performance of orality (oral + literature) as language is a pre-dominantly patriarchal construction and privilege and the wars in both Uganda and Zimbabwe are largely patriarchally-constructed struggles. Mmm okay, nice feminist jab there, I think I'll leave that issue now.

Onto the last bit, which I found really jarring:

Ma says that you will get special treatment. Most of the children are like you. They too have killed, tortured other children. They too fought in a war that they didn’t understand. The teachers will treat you well, Ma says. They have had special training.
'Most of the children are like you. They too have killed, tortured other children.' - From one sibling to another, eh? I get the feeling the family doesn't quite understand the new Lamunu or her condition and they don't seem to want to. Having already lost the father, lived in a refugee camp where they eat posho (a yellow maize meal like polenta that's often used as drought relief food in southern and parts of East Africa excl Kenya) that they used to feed the dog, they really aren't willing to deal with anymore tough emotional issues - they want to move on and be happy again. And they don't have the cultural capacity to do so, either:
"We had never been taught how to unbury a tipu. We only hoped that your real tipu was not six feet under."
For the family, any disruption would open the floodgates of tears and trauma they've tried so hard to keep shut, so Lamunu will have to go deal this at her 'school of the other children' and find her tipu

A list co-bloggers and their thoughts on this one:


mel u said...

Today I learned a new literary expression “African-poverty-pornography” in reading Zunguzunga’s very insightful post on “Hitting Budapest”-here is how the term is to be understood:

““If you were so inclined, in fact, the thing you could say about it would be that it traffics in the familiar genre of Africa-poverty-pornography, by which I would mean that its “story” is only an obligatory excuse for the parade of affect-inducing spectacles which are the story’s real reason for existing. Rather than building a character through back-story, you could say, the purpose of “Chipo” and her fellows is only to dramatize a particular sociological narrative about poverty, to put into view a picture of what you might call a collapsed mode of social reproduction.”

One of the interesting moment in “Hitting Budapest” occurs when the children are in a rich party of the city and a affluent very Anglozied woman asks to take their picture (to show friends back in London a picture of street children she “actually spoke to”)-clearly the woman is receiving a form of voueristic titilation from this encounter. The question then becomes is writing this story like taking a picture of the kids to show people back in London how close you dared to get to real poverty. Bluntly is the author of “Hitting Budapest” (and most of the other Caine Prize stories) writing a story those with high end literary literary educations (as many Caine Prize writers and probably most all readers) can ring their hands over at the poverty of the people of Africa? This did make me reflect a bit. Are these stories written to appeal to the Oxford based Caine Prize Judges?

This brings up the broad question-how much do author intentions matter. My first, and now second,response is that Dickens knowingly did just that. He wrote (certainly in his opening years) about the extreme poor of London (most of the people really) to sell magazines and books to the more affluent people who want only a literary contact with the poor. Does Dickens make use of Cliches about the poor in say Toto Oliver Twist or The Old Couriosity Shop. I am a life time reader and lover of Dickens but I would have to say yes he does rely on cliches and standard figures like orphans to arouse sympathy. Dickens himself came from poverty and wrote his way out of it.

To give another example, Robindranth Tagore, the first Asian writer to win the Nobel Prize, came from a family of incredible riches, the kind you can hardly even find anymore. He wrote many stories deeply sympathetic to the poor of India, especially women in which there is no hint of “poverty-porn”. He had no economic need to sell stories by pandering to his readers.

Related to this issue is the Dalit Literature of India which is written by and about the lives of what was once called the Out Cast people of India (apx 120 Million People). Many of these stories focus on the lives of toilet cleaners, street sweepers, and others in the lowest kind of jobs. Most of the authors have advanced degrees, some with Phds from Oxford. Their stories depict institutionalized poverty based on cultural norms going back 1000s of years. Dalit literature is treated as distinct sub-genre of literature. Some of it does feel a bit like “poverty porn”.

I recently read Edward Said landmark book, Orientalism. I think the bad feeling some of the Caine Prize stories arouses come from a Colonial sense that the authors are what are called “native experts” teaching the Europeans how to manage their subjects and being well paid for doing so. They know an over simplied view will sell better than an indepth analysis in which the full humanity of the people in the stories are disclosed. The authors are then, pushing this as devil’s advocate, paid informants and sell outs.

I do not agree with this but I respect it and I am trying to understand the harsh reaction these stories are producing in some readers.

mel u said...

I reread your post on "Butterfly Dreams" after I completed my post on the story-I found the story to be well worth the time it took to read it-as I feel you did, I thought the narrative method and structure of the story was badly flawed-the narrator is not a credible person-I do find it to be "poverty porn" and to display a level of knowledge a watcher of BBC international should already have-not a bad story

I really profited from your post and will seek out and read Yvonne Vera

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