Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Caine Prize 2011 Short List-Story Three

"Butterfly Dreams" by Beatrice Lamwaka (2010, 12 pages)

The Short Listed Stories
Third of Five Stories

The Caine Prize for African Writing will be awarded on July 11 at an award dinner in Oxford.    The Caine Prize is one of the world's top literary awards.    It is given to the author of a short story from a country in Africa.   (There is additional background information on the award in my prior post and on the Caine Prize Web Site.)    This year I am doing a series of posts on the five stories short listed for the 2011 Caine Prize.

So far I have posted on "Hitting Budapest" by NoViolet Bulawayo and "What Molly Knew" by Tim Keegan.    Over all I liked both of these stories and felt the time spent in reading them was very worthwhile.   Once I have read all five of the short listed stories I will, just for fun, hazard a guess as to the winner.

"Butterfly Dreams" by Patrice Lamwaka is bolder in the narrative techniques it makes use of than the first two stories.   Lamwaka is the General Secretary of the Ugandan Women Writers Organization.    She is an internationally published essayist and short story writer.    She is working on her first novel.

Like last years winner, "Stick Fighting Days" and "Hitting Budapest", "Butterfly Dreams" is about desperately poor children.    It focuses on a young girl, Lamuna, who was kidnapped to be a child soldier at age ten and now has been rescued and returned to her family.     The story is narrated by one of her siblings.    When ever a child is rescued and brought to the World Vision center his or her name is announced over the radio.   Lamuna's family is overjoyed to hear her name on the radio.   They have given her up for dead.   The description of their first view of Lamuna is powerful:

"You returned home. You were skinny as a cassava stem.
Bullet scars on your left arm and right leg. Your feet were
cracked and swollen as if you had walked the entire planet.
Long scars mapped your once beautiful face. Your eyes
had turned the colour of pilipili pepper. 

When you returned home, Lamunu, we were afraid. We
were afraid of you. Afraid of what you had become"

The family knows she has been through a terrible experience and she has probably killed innocent people.     She may have been brainwashed into thinking what she did was right.    Her family fears her now even though they do not want to admit it openly.   She needs to be some how cleansed.    In this passage we can see how the narrative works and some of what might be not perfect in this story.

"Afraid of what you had become. Ma
borrowed a neighbour’s layibi. Uncle Ocen bought an egg
from the market. You needed to be cleansed. The egg would
wash away whatever you did in the bush. Whatever the
rebels made you do. We know that you were abducted. You
didn’t join them and you would never be part of them. You
quickly jumped the layibi. You stepped on the egg, splashing
its egg yolk. You were clean. You didn’t ask questions. You
did what was asked of you. It’s like you knew that you had to
do this. Like you knew you would never be clean until you
were cleansed. Ma ululated. You were welcomed home. Back
home where you belonged."

Does this seem like the speech of a child from a very poor family?    My guess is "ululated" is a word beyond the predictable vocabulary of  most American or Australian college graduates.   That it  is out of place adds to the feeling that the narrator is not well realized.   Also I do not really think it is a good idea to use expressions from the language of the people depicted in the story (which I an assuming to be Acholi based on a comment)  just to throw in "local color".    It distracts from the story rather than drawing you in which is probably its purpose.   

The story does skillfully show how the family tries to  adjust to her return home.   At first she barely can or will speak.   We know as does her family that this is because of the horrors she has seen.   They family and the others in her village never really overcome their fear of her.   They long for her to be the little girl she was when she left, to hear her laugh and they hope she will still want to be a doctor like she did before.

The narrator tells the returning child they now live in a camp and are guarded by soldiers.   They live from food provided by aid workers and have given up their traditional diet.   Then it what I found to be a really odd speech by the narrator we read

"Lamunu, we don’t know how to tell you that Pa is no longer
with us. You may have noticed that he is not around. We
don’t know with which mouth to tell you that he was cut to
pieces by those who you were fighting for."

Of course this is tragic but does it not seem odd to say that she "may have noticed" the father is gone?     And further, don't you imagine Lamuna would have realized they were living in a camp?    It is like the author wants to observe the holy dictum of the modern short story-show don't tell-but she does not quite know how to do it in this case.    She uses a first person narrator, a child, to do the work of a third party narrator supplying background information and sort of loses our faith in the story in the process.

Any one who watches the BBC New Channel or CNN international will know about the abduction of children in Uganda to be used as soldiers.    

Is this story "African Poverty Porn"?    This a new to me expression I learned from others blogging on the Caine Prize stories.   Basically I think it means a story which  contributes no real new insights into the life of the poor in Africa and is meant to play on and into the sympathies of Western liberals by evoking the media cliches of African poverty.   (Of course a story could be brilliantly written and fall under this description .)      I would say that "Butterfly Dreams" will for sure be seen by many as "African Poverty Porn".   In this case it may be amplified in that we know Lamuna will have been raped many times.  

"Butterfly Dreams" is worth reading.   I think the only real flaw is in the vocabulary and persona of the narrator.   

You can read this story and the other Caine Short Listed Works HERE

This is my second year blogging on the Caine Prize short stories (my 2011 posts are HERE).   Last year I think I might have been the only blogger to post on the stories, this year there is a very politically aware group of bloggers posting on each story.

One  simple way to see the postings  is by doing a Twitter search on "Caine Prize".

I urge anyone interested in African Short Stories to consider purchasing To See The Mountain, which contains the five short listed stories plus twelve others written at the Caine Short Story work shop.    It would be a great book for school libraries.

I am really enjoying and profiting from reading the other posts on these stories.   Once I have posted on the short listed stories, I will probably post on the twelve other stories in the Too See the Mountain in groups of four.   

Mel u


Suko said...

Very interesting new project! To See the Mountain would be an excellent addition to libraries, as well as to my own book collection.

Short Story Slore said...

I think you just sold me on To See The Mountain. Can't wait to read the rest of your reviews on these! It's such a fun project. I'm going to try to read these and make my prediction as well.

Elisabeth Ritchie said...

I have to disagree with you, I'm afraid. Beatrice Lamwaka's story is not about poverty (as in 'African Poverty Porn', a rather insulting expression to use); it is about the psychological impact of abduction both on the victim and on the family. The awkwardness with which which the family address the main character has to do with the traumatic effect of what happened to their daughter and their difficulties in alluding and responding to it. By the way, 'ululated' is a common enough word in African/English and, indeed, for 'college graduates' in Britain. There is no other word which could be used for the distinctive sound which the writer is describing. The use of local language is appropriate where there is no direct equivalent in English - it is common in Scots writing, for example. In this case, the words are in Acholi - that is explained within the text of the story. I am not sure why you assume they are in Swahili, which is not commonly spoken in Uganda. I don't think the fact that the subject is known from the western media should mean that it should not form the subject of a short story. People in the west may know the factual details of what happened. This story is about the human impact. Some telling details include the reaction of the neighbours, for example. In the end, it is education, aspiration and hope which offer a future for the main character - a pretty good way to conclude.

Mel u said...

RitchiesinUganda-first thanks for your great very thought filled comment-I learned the term "Africa Poverty Porn" from other bloggers, mostly from Africa-I find it a useful expression and will continue to explore the general concept-I meant no insult and see no grounds for the reaction but if I offended it was not intended and if you realize in my prior posts I have reacted to the term I think your mind will be at ease-as for assuming the language was Swahili-OK just a mistake-I have seen the use of Scottish terms in the style you mentioned just like it is used in modern Filipino short stories (I am in Manila)-I think it is not done because there is no English equivalent but to try to add flavor to the story-I do not care for the practice (especially when the author inserts a glossery-of course the story is about more than just poverty but it is in part about that for sure-all the stories have an additional subject-I think the subject matter of the story-child soldiers is very well known in th western media-as to the use of the word "utlated" I am not aware of a place on the net to check would know that term and who would not but I am quite comfortable sticking with my original claims-I do not see it as a huge issue-as to the ending with the character having hope for the future through education-I saw this as a bitter ending knowing the dreams will not happen-as if all they can think to be is a doctor-almost like a painful joke on the children-

I do not find the notion of "African Poverty Porn" insulting-I think the consideration of these issues just an extension of the matters considered in Edward Said's Orientalism-

final words -thanks so much for your very well thought out comments and your visit