Friday, 3 June 2011

Blogging the Caine Prize: Hitting Budapest

As I explained before I'm co-blogging Caine Prize for African Writing  (read more here) and every Friday we'll be reading one of the five short-listed  short-stories up till the winner is announced on 11 July. First up is "Hitting Budapest”  by NoViolet Mkha Bulawayo:

I'm really happy that NoViolet was nominated for the Caine Prize because a. she's a Zimbabwean b. she's a blogger and most importantly, c. I've read some of her stories and they're alright and so I expected the story chosen for the Caine Prize to wow me. Unfortunately it didn't.

If there is a very,very broad genre of 'new writing' that now exists as a breakaway genre of post-independent Zimbabwean Literature, then this story belongs to that category of fiction. If in very simplistic terms 'new writing' can be described as the writing of the present socio-political condition(s) in Zimbabwe rather than the condition(s) of colonialism and the liberation war which has been the focus for many of Zimbabwe's well-known writers like the late Yvonne Vera (Butterfly Burning), the late, great Dambudzo Marechera (House of Hunger) and Tsitsi Dangarembga (Nervous Conditions). Violence, social breakdown and political strife with characters displaced inside and outside of Zimbabwe.

jacked from the dailymail

'Hitting Budapest' is the story of six children's journey to a part called Budapest with 'big houses with the graveled yards and tall fences and durawalls and flowers and green trees, heavy with fruit' which contrasts the shanty town, Paradise, where they liveTwo things struck me during my reading of this story; the woman from London and the names. I see an very uncomfortable parallel between the woman from London and the author. One scene reads:

"Do you guys mind if I take a picture?" 
We do not answer because we are not used to adults asking us anything; we just look at the woman take a few steps back, at her fierce hair, at her skirt that sweeps the ground when she walks, her pretty peeking feet, at her big jewelry, at her large eyes, at her smooth brown skin that doesn’t even have a scar to show she is a living person, at the earring on her nose, at her T-shirt that says “Save Darfur.”  
“Come on, say cheese, say cheese, cheese, cheeeeeeeese,” the woman enthuses, and everyone says “cheese.” 
Yes, she has the classic 'how to mock poverty porn' scene down to a tee, but how different is the author from the woman? She has a story published in the Boston Review which plays on the stereotypes of Zimbabwe as poverty-stricken, desolate place - with both good and bad effects as has been explored in great detail by ZunguZungu. What are Zimbabwean readers, who think critically about representation, to make of a story that is cynical of 'Save Darfur' and yet Budapest (presumably Bulawayo - the second largest city in Zimbabwe) is depicted as a near uninhabited, basket-case? And what are readers of African fiction to make of Caine Prize as a literary institution and it's consumption of Africa?

Moving on... 

Names have an important function in this story; for irony; the naming of the shanty town, Paradise - to amuse and shock; Bastard is the name of one of the characters, a name that can be read as symbolic of the socio-economic situation faced by these seemingly parent-less children. It's interesting that apart from Chipo (meaning gift in Shona), none of the children have 'standard names' - Stina means brick in colloquial Ndebele, is most probably short for something else like Sbho which on its own could mean 'let's see' and in the story everyone sees Sbho because she stands out, she is 'pretty, prettier than all of us here, prettier than all the children in Paradise.' 

Godknows, Darling and Bastard are 'dictionary names' - as in names made from words, we have a fair few Godknows in Zimbabwe, but you'd be hard pressed to find a Bastard and Darling (Darlington yes for a boy, but Darling is rare). So what's my interest in these names?
There's a systematic assignation of names to indicate behaviors and social situations which is as common in African writing, as in real life. For a reader who is not as familiar with Zimbabwe this might add a different dimension to the story and might seem like a clever play on names and meanings, but for someone who is knowledgeable, the obviousness of the names adds to the banality of the story and it's troubling representation of Zimbabwe.* (*updated on 4/06/11) For example ten year old Chipo is pregnant and they joke that she could have been impregnated by the teacher Mr Gono i.e Gideon Gono the Governor of the Reserve Bank, famous for slashing the zeros from the Zimbabwe dollar as an inflation remedy. Same goes for Bastard and Darling - antonyms as dictionary names, and rivals as story characters so much so that the protagonist, Darling imagines beating Bastard to a pulp:
I think about turning right around and beating Bastard up for saying that about my America. I would slap him, butt him on his big forehead, and then slam my fist into his mouth and make him spit his teeth. I would pound his stomach until he vomited all the guavas he has eaten, pin him to the ground. I would jab my knee into his back, fold his hands behind him and then pull his head back till he begged for his life. But I shut up and walk away. I know he is just jealous. Because he has nobody in America. Because Aunt Fostalina is not his aunt. Because he is Bastard and I am Darling.
No prizes for guessing what that fantasy could mean in political reality. Because its a nice action scene and because it reminds me of the fight between the siblings of Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga, this for me is probably the best bit for me in this whole story.  

As this is a collective reading and blogging exercise, checkout what other bloggers have to say about this story:


Anonymous said...

This is a great analysis, I love all of the Zimbabwe knowledge you brought in. Knowing more about the setting can do a lot to change what one reads, and it was pretty interesting to delve into the names aspect of the story. Thanks for joining in the co-blogging!

mel u said...

Hi-I just read the story for the second time-I wrote the first draft of my post and will complete it in the morning-I have linked to your post in mine

As to the issue of whether or not the author is like the woman from London who takes a picture of the kids to show her rich friends-well I understand the point of this-and further it may seem the whole Caine Prize event is really the rich shacking their heads at poverty-big issue -great question-my first response is OK I agree but could one not say the same thing of Charles Dickens ?

I will send you my link when I post my first Caine 2011 article hopefully tommorow-regards

mel u said...

My post on "Hitting Budapest"

KonWomyn said...

Thanks for this. I've sent it round to everyone and left a comment on your blog.

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