11 June 2011

Blogging the Caine Prize: "Butterfly Dreams"

(This is the latest in a weekly series of posts about the short stories nominated for this year's Caine Prize for African Writing. For more information, see my introductory post. To read what the other Caine Prize bloggers have written, see the post on this story at Zunguzungu, which is being updated as they come in, or follow the Twitter hashtag #cainepr.)

Reading "Butterfly Dreams" by Beatrice Lamwaka (PDF), I had constantly mixed feelings. Lamwaka is a Ugandan who has worked with FEMWRITE, a wonderful organization from what some of its members have told me, and so I went into the story really really wanting to like it. Certain elements caused me some problems, however, and I ended up with very mixed feelings about the story overall, though admiring some elements of it considerably.

From the first sentence ("Labalpiny read out your name on Mega FM."), it's clear the story is addressed to another character, making the narration almost an apostrophe, though the absence of the other person in this case is a psychological rather than physical one. The addressee, Lamunu, is a young woman who has returned to her family after having been abducted and forced into service as a child soldier; though she has returned, her experiences have made her unable or unwilling to communicate with her family.

The problem for me with this is that I have a somewhat irrational prejudice against stories told as addresses to another person. It feels coy. The writer knows the actual "you" is me, a reader, and so while the technique is one that is generally used to heighten verisimilitude, it affects me in exactly the opposite way -- it sounds forced and artificial. I'm all for artificiality in fiction, but I resent it when that artificiality pretends to be uncomplicatedly mimetic. The obnoxiousness of such artificiality, however, is very much in the eye of the reader -- for one of the other Caine Prize bloggers, Backslash Scott, the narration is one of the story's strengths, and not obnoxious at all.

And I'm torn here, too, because in many ways I agree that the narration is a strength, even if I personally find it grating. It is purposeful and effective -- as Aaron has shown quite well, there's a lot going on in that narration. The distances between Lamunu and her family are enacted, or at least represented, within the way the story is told. In many ways, then, apostrophizing is probably the best tactic for this tale.

To move from the form to the topic, what we have here is another in what has become perhaps the most common genre of African fiction to come out of the continent over the last fifteen years or so: the child soldier story. It's gotten to the point where a lot of readers, particularly ones concerned about how images of Africa are constructed and received, respond to child soldier stories with a knee-jerk scream of, "Ugh, not another one!"

Lamwaka addressed some of this sentiment in an interview where she responded to a question about her feelings on being nominated for the Caine Prize:
I have received congratulatory messages from lovers of literature around the world, which is really great because it gives me the confidence to write. I have also read very de-motivating articles that the Caine Prize promotes stereotypical African stories, but some people forget that there are wars in Africa, hunger, diseases, we laugh, rejoice and all, and as writers, we feel the pain or part of that society that is experiencing such circumstances. I will not apologize for writing war experiences because this is what I feel strongly about and I know that these stories must be told.
It's true, there have been some pretty sharp criticisms of the type of stories favored by the prize, especially this year's nominees. The effect of such criticisms may feel "de-motivating" to the targets of the criticism, but the purpose of the critics is clearly otherwise -- to try to convince people to value stories from Africa other than ones that fit into the "dark and suffering Africa, plus pretty landscapes" mold. Contrary to what Lamwaka says there, nobody who has read any African fiction, or even just watched some TV news, can possibly "forget that there are wars in Africa, hunger, diseases", because that's the non-African world's favorite story about the continent.

At the same time, there should be no need to apologize for writing about war, its casualities and perpetrators, especially when the world is certainly full of such horror. The problem is one of stereotypes, of easy, received emotion. (This can undermine even the works of extraordinarily accomplished writers -- see, for instance, Samuel Delany's criticism of Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye.) Cliché is an especially dangerous trap for writing about Big Subjects because it trivializes them and it does exactly the opposite of what writers like Lamwaka want: instead of thinking, "How awful! This must stop!", a reader confronted with clichés thinks, "Oh, I know about that already. La la la..." Clichés do not gain strength through repetition; they sag and wither. That doesn't mean cliché-prone material should be avoided; if anything, it should be confronted, its clichés exploded and questioned and undermined and revitalized.

Lamwaka knows that hers is a common story -- a litany is repeated three times in the text: "We have heard the stories from Anena, Aya, Bongomin, Nyeko, Ayat, Lalam, Auma, Ocheng, Otim, Olam, Uma, Ateng, Akwero, Laker, Odong, Lanyero, Ladu, Timi, Kati." This is a powerful statement, and it goes some way toward expanding the story beyond its own margins, but though I think Lamwaka has made her story particular enough to overcome some clichés, I don't think it achieves all it might.

In 2007, I wrote a review for Rain Taxi of Ahmadou Kourouma's final novel, Allah Is Not Obliged, a novel told from the point of view of a child soldier. It's one of the most powerful and vexing novels I've ever read, and much of its power, and all of its vexatiousness, derives from how the story is told. Pardon me while I quote myself:

This is not simply a fictionalized version of a child soldier's story. We certainly see much that is expected in such a story -- the families and villages destroyed, the leaders who rise to heights of power from which they fall to ignoble deaths, the suffering, the insanity -- but again and again the plausibility of the monologue cracks and splinters, forcing us to reflect on the fact that there is literally too much here for any one boy to know. We watch Birahima try on the words of the worlds he travels through, without any understanding of what words his audience already comprehends. We see him attempt a pose of cynicism and indifference, a shield made from recycled phrases, a callousness that he falls back on when he gets carried away and then remembers someone is listening. He explains the machinations of various leaders, the ebb and flow of causes and effects, the meaning of actions that seem tragically meaningless. He chronicles people and armies and nations. Much is filtered through the warping lens of his consciousness, but much is presented with a certain sort of objectivity, too, or at least authority, like a newspaper report or well-preserved legend. 
Toward the end of Allah Is Not Obliged, Birahima gives his longest history lesson, a section of about twenty pages where, with only occasional and small breaks, he tells us all about Sierra Leone's warlords in the 1990s. As names and dates pepper the pages, all pretense of this being the testimony of a young boy disappears, though some of his familiar phrases and locutions remain, and the story is told with a wearily satirical edge. It is as if in the face of such horrific absurdity, Kourouma lost faith in the persona offered by fiction, as if he could not stomach pretending that the litany of abominations came from an imagined character's mouth, as if even so strong a voice as Birahima's could not carry such a burden of truth.
The greatest problem for me with "Butterfly Dreams" is not that it is a story of a child soldier and her return to her family, but of how it is such a story. This was clarified for me this morning, when I read an article shared among the Caine Prize bloggers, "The Child Soldier Narrative and the Problem of Arrested Historicization" by Eleni Coundouriotis, which makes some interesting comparisons between recent stories of child soldiers and earlier stories about war and, particularly, liberation struggles in Africa.

Coundouriotis writes in her conclusion:

Framed as a human rights literature, the child soldier narrative is too often sentimentalized and co-opted by ideas of the self that serve its accommodation with a largely first world, distant reader. The complexity of the historical, political, cultural, as well as individual circumstances of child soldiers requires the deployment of a less literal, more ironic and even allegorical method of narrative representation, similar to what we find already in motion in the broader literary convention of the war novel in Africa. Recent texts, both memoirs and fiction, come up short when they focus too exclusively on a portrayal of individual suffering without proper contextualization. An abstracted figure of the child soldier cast against a background of the “dark continent” revisited has been commodified as the new authenticity out of Africa. Indeed, the newer narratives that are most successful (those by Kourouma and Dongala, for example) are the ones that take this abstracted figure and parse it, examining it as an invented discourse about Africa.
"Butterfly Dreams" avoids some of the sentimentalizing effect of the child soldier narrative -- Lamunu's silence frustrates our (and the narrator's) ability to understand or know her, and so whatever sentimentalizing is committed by us (we know, or think we know, what "child soldier" means) or committed by the narrator is dramatized as an emotional event within the story being told rather than as an emotion demanded from the reader by the story.

But there remains the question of what this story demands of the reader, and that's where Coundouriotis's insights are especially appropriate. Kourouma's novel is effective and infuriating because it finally gives up on trying to reduce the life and personality of a child soldier to a neatly linear story, and it rejects the individualism and psychologizing of such stories. It is infuriating because it refuses to behave like a proper novel, and our readerly fury reveals to us the shame of our desires: We -- especially folks like me, the privileged and well-intentioned person who could just as easily read a novel about the trials and tribulations of lascivious vampires as a novel about child soldiers -- want the sentimental story, we want to feel that we feel, and that our feelings are appropriate, and that we are therefore good and deserving people. Yes, please! we say, Tell us stories of suffering children! Make us feel! Yes! Oh yes! Yes! Do it again! More more! Yes! Look how well I feel!

Then we wipe our tears away, and maybe we write a check for $25 to a relief organization, and we go back to our lives, and now and then we think, "Oh, those poor children," and we're grateful that our lives are so much better than those other ones, and we are happy that we feel appropriate feelings, because that means we're really good people at heart.

I fear that "Butterfly Dreams" plays into that fantasy, at least for readers of privilege. What space is given to the reader in this story? What are our options for response? Is there room at the end for anything other than a simple response of, "Oh, how sad." Should there be? I don't know.

(And yet...)

Perhaps a comparison will help me explain my ambivalence -- or ambivalences.

I ended one of my courses last term with the plays Blasted by Sarah Kane and Ruined by Lynn Nottage. The plays' purposes and effects are vastly different, which is one thing that makes them work well together. Both are concerned with, among other things, war and violence -- power, really. Blasted is eviscerating, nauseating, grotesque. Ruined is harrowing and emotionally affecting, its first act, especially, I think, brilliantly written. Ruined won a bunch of awards and is now among the most frequently produced plays in the U.S. Blasted is rarely performed because it makes extraordinary demands on actors and audiences.

I like a lot of Lynn Nottage's plays, and a lot of Ruined, but I am troubled by its ending. That trouble ties to something Nottage said in an interview about the play, which she originally conceived as an adaptation of Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children set in the Congo--
I was interested in looking at the emotional life of Mother Courage. I think that Brecht, so much of what he talked about is the alienating effect, is distancing the audience so that they can confront the reality. But I wanted to do the absolute reverse, which is make them confront the emotional reality so that they have a very strong, visceral response, because I do think that we act more quickly upon the emotions.
This explains, I think, both the final scene and the popularity of Ruined, which ends on a far more hopeful note than Mother Courage does. Nottage didn't just want to create visceral emotion in the people who watched her play, she wanted to create a particular kind of emotion: one that contains hopefulness and the possibility of happiness for the characters. Noble emotions, certainly, but I'm not sure how appropriate they are as emotions given to an audience of generally privileged people (privileged enough to afford theatre tickets). Audiences can leave the theatre feeling okay. They know that terrible things have happened in (if they're in a U.S. theatre) some far-off place, but the characters they have been concerned with while watching the play mostly endure, reconcile, and look toward a better future. For all the horrors its characters go through, Ruined is, in the end, a feel-good play about the worst conflict on the planet since World War II.

Blasted, too, ends on a certain note of hope -- I tend to think of it as a moment of grace, actually, because the world of Blasted is too bleak to contain hope, and the main characters are a woman who has been brutalized in every imaginable way and a man who has not only done much of that brutalizing, but who has also been himself brutalized, had his eyes sucked out, and reduced to starvation until he was able to eat the corpse of an infant child. The last image is of Cath feeding Ian a bit of food and gin, then sitting away from him and sucking her thumb. He says, "Thank you," and then there's a blackout.

Nobody but a psychopath leaves the theatre after watching Blasted feeling good. Even reading the play is, in some ways, a masochistic experience.

I think Nottage is right that we act more quickly on emotions, and so a work with any sort of didactic purpose is going to need to employ some emotions if it has any hope of succeeding, but the thing is, Mother Courage is an emotionally corruscating play. Distanced, sure; deeply unsentimental and even anti-sentimental, absolutely. But Mother Courage loses everything she values, and is left, at the end, alone with her cart of wares. Watching a good production of the play is devastating.

The end of "Butterfly Dreams" is more along the lines of Blasted and Mother Courage than Ruined, though certainly not so extreme. But we are left with the narrator's hopes for Lamunu's future as Lamunu heads off to school: "We know that your dreams will come true. You will be a doctor some day. Do the work that Ma does but wearing a white coat." There's irony here, though: the narrator's hopes are not likely shared by the reader. We see the silence of Lumunu. We hear the hollowness of the hope. We are not going to leave this story feeling good, nor should we.

And so at the end, once again, I am torn. It's an entirely appropriate ending, and a skilled one, and yet I still wanted something more. What that something is, I don't know. Perhaps, by the end of writing about the Caine Prize nominees, I'll have come closer to figuring it out.

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