Friday, June 10, 2011

Caine Prize for African Literature - Story Blogging Week II

This is round two of the one in which I join a gang of awesome bloggers in reading and blogging on the entrants for the Caine Prize for African Literature this year, in an initiative hosted by Aaron Brady (ZunguZungu). You can read along with us -- all the stories are available online in PDFs and linked from the Caine Prize website. This week's story is Beatrice Lamwaka's "Butterfly Dreams." My post on the first story is here.

There was a nice minimalism to Butterfly Dreams that I liked. As in Hitting Budapest one sees the desire to withhold, to not say things outright. We're not told from the outset, for example, that they live in a refugee camp. We're not told, though we can gather, that, though they were probably not rich, they were definitely far from poor before "it" happened.

The point of view Lamwaka chose for the story is also worth praising. Butterfly Dreams is told by someone in the middle of the story who remains unnamed -- a family member, perhaps -- and this gives the appropriate mix of sadness towards Lamunu, a touch of defiance (like when the person was talking about the father and the food they now eat), quietly adamant denial, and mournfulness that permeates the entire story.

Unlike Hitting Budapest, though, I can see why this was written. There would be no story without the return of Lamunu, and she brings the people to which she returns into confront their own violent history. It is a history that no one will want to live through again, and one wonders why they are so welcoming of Lamunu, why they sought her out, listening for her name on the radio every day for five years. Yes, she is family, but no one should be forced to want something simply because it is theirs.

The story’s background is grim, but not without some subtle attempts at hope. The burying of the tipu served as foreshadowing of a new life for the family, a new future. The dream of the return of Lamunu is a butterfly dream. And Lamunu is the butterfly about the house that they watch in somber awe. Calling the story Butterfly Dreams, though, calls to question what the writer is trying to say. Are the characters mad for thinking that Lamunu’s return is necessarily the salvo they think it is? Can a figure of a horrible, violent past coexist in the house of a nation of people who survived its past? We end with Lamunu attempting to live a normal life, go to school like a girl her age, albeit with other children scarred from the same experience that she has had. But it’s an attempt at normalcy nonetheless. It will have to do.

You could probably tell that I quite liked the story, but I am not unaware of sensitivity towards stories of its kind. I’m generally in the camp that says we capped on the need of child soldier stories around the time when Ahmadou Kourouma wrote Allah N’est Pas Oblige, not because these stories are untrue and I don't trust a Western audience to read these stories and nothing else (OK, it's part of it). And even as I can discern clearly what the writer is trying to say about this family and, much broader, about the situation in the country, I'm actually quite ready to forgive that for the subtlety with which I think the story was told. There were no headless bodies on the streets, no raped girls and drugged up children with uzis, no gratuitous appeals for pity. Most of the all, there was a story. Perhaps I'm setting the bar a bit low, but I appreciate all these things.

It does bear repeating that we need more stories of contemporary, heavily-urbanized, not-a-giraffe-in-sight Africa. It's probably fair to say that African countries' citizens are not the same people as they were 50, 25, even 10 years ago. We deserve a literature that reflects our dynamism. While recognizing this, I don’t have a political point to make on the story, because whatever one may think, the story has a point, it has a reason that it was written, and it was indeed written very well. I am consciously staying away from the counterargument that effectively puts down literature like this, because I cannot deny its validity. Hell, I even agree to it myself. I will, however, put this forward: stories like this need being told, and I think this is actually a good way to do it.

Check out ZunguZungu for reviews by the rest of the bloggers.


  1. I doubt your standard was too low. I get tired of all the "African Poverty Porn" that our western readers tend to gravitate towards and would rather hear a story, even if it smells faintly of the ills warned by Binyavanga Wainaina.

    I can't wait to hear what you think about all the other stories! I've subscribed!!