Monthly Archives: May 2012

Caine Blog: “La Salle de Départ” by Melissa Tandiwe Myambo

This is the fourth post of five on the shortlist for the Caine Prize. This is a review of “La Salle de Départ” by Melissa Tandiwe Myambo of Zimbabwe. You can find the story here and see more reviews at the bottom of this post.

Melissa Tandiwe Myambo’s story is centrally about two characters and the how much difference distance can create. One, Fatima, is a divorcee with a son living in Senegal; the other is her brother, Ibou, who has gone to America to study. A bulk of the story takes place during a car ride to the airport, during which Fatima works up the courage to ask Ibou to take her son to America, and the dialogue between the two goes very far to show how much distance – both physical and beyond – has grown between the two. Throughout their conversation the two face a sort of disconnect. Ibou constantly struggles to find the right words – literally as he translates from English and figuratively as he navigates how to explain his reasoning – to explain why he cannot take her son to America.

The conversation takes on a number of themes, but they all revolve around the growing divide. Ibou is a man, after all, and he can fly, while Fatima can only nest, an idea Fatima returns to several times when thinking about her life and her son’s. This understanding of gender is just one way that Myambo addresses the division in the family. Class also plays a huge role, especially when Ibou reflects on how his partner, Ghada, interacts with her own family. Ibou is one of the few members of his family to achieve the dream of gaining success in America. By doing this, he becomes separate and different from the rest of his family. Meanwhile, Ghada has a health relationship with her wealthy Egyptian family. This fact stresses that class, and not blood, is what makes strong family ties possible. I think the decision to take a story about a family member removed from home and center it specifically on the resulting division was a good one. In doing this, how Ibou changes is only part of the story, and how Fatima doesn’t change, or how she changes in different ways, is another piece. How the two characters interact with each other is significant, and the dialogue in the back of an uncle’s taxi demonstrates this expertly well.

The great thing about this story is how much responsibility the reader has, which was my big problem with Stanley Kenani’s story last week.  Myambo gives you a dialogue filled with tension and emotion, and the reader has to decide what’s really going on underneath. Where Kenani stated everything outright, this story keeps a lot of things hidden – things you have to dig for. Ibou’s firm decision to refuse to take Babacar home could stem from a cultural divide, selfishness, or his honest belief of what was best for his nephew. Fatima’s frustration could have roots in her love for her son, her anger at not being able to do the same thing her brother did, or out of seeming necessity. There are a number of ways to understand the conversation, all while watching two siblings struggle to talk. That’s what I found really powerful in the story.

To read the co-bloggers:

Weekend Reading

From the moment the invasion of Afghanistan was launched, how to deal with the actual American war dead was always considered a problematic matter. The Bush administration and the military high command, with the Vietnam War still etched in their collective memories, feared those uniformed bodies coming home (as they feared and banished the “body count” of enemy dead in the field). They remembered the return of the “body bags” of the Vietnam era as a kind of nightmare, stoking a fierce antiwar movement, which they were determined not to see repeated

Of course, the election cycle alone is hardly responsible for our national love of weaponry and war. Even in today’s straitened fiscal climate, with all the talk of government austerity, Congress feels obliged to trump an already generous president by adding yet more money for military appropriations. Ever since the attacks of 9/11, surging defense budgets, forever war, and fear-mongering have become omnipresent features of our national landscape, together with pro-military celebrations that elevate our warriors and warfighters to hero status. In fact, the uneasier Americans grow when it comes to the economy and signs of national decline, the more breathlessly we praise our military and its image of overwhelming power. Neither Obama nor Romney show any sign of challenging this celebratory global “lock and load” mentality.

My point with all of this is to highlight the power of definition. When admissions offices take race into consideration it is defined as “affirmative-action” and therefore a betrayal of American ideals of meritocracy; when they take where your parents went to school into consideration it is simply a legacy admission, protecting the unique “traditions” of each school. Schools take lots of things into consideration: but somehow the act of taking race into consideration gets picked out, put into a separate category of decision making, and subjected to a separate critique and logic than do those processes which benefit white people. One of the privileges of whiteness, then, is its invisibility, as society naturalizes and normalizes the very processes that give white people advantage, sewing white privilege into the unexamined fabric of social reproduction, while subjecting to the most strict and withering examination any systems that try to remedy existing inequality by benefiting black or Hispanic students.

Teaching Students Racism

Last week my wife told me about an insane case in which a Texas high school had an annual tradition of teaching students about Nazism in the stupidest way possible – by having half of the students be Nazis, and half of them Jews. From the article:

The students playing Jews wear red ribbons. “[Red ribbon students] must do everything school faculty or other students tell them to, including picking up other students’ trash, being taken outside and sprayed with water hoses, bear-crawling across the hot track, carrying other students’ books, and even carrying other students,” says the suit, filed in federal court by Andrew Yara, 19. “Engaging in this exercise was compulsory, with it constituting 60 percent of a major test grade for students in their World History Class, and any student who did not do everything they were told were receive a failing grade.”

This is some insane shit. Giving one group of high school students unrestricted power over another group of high school students is ludicrous, and all it does – besides exacerbating bullying and other problems – is teach students to be assholes.

When I first heard about this, my mind went straight to Jane Elliott’s work in Riceville, Iowa in 1968. You might know her as the third grade teacher that split up her students based on eye color and treated them differently. She began by explaining to her students that blue-eyed people were smarter, cleaner, punctual, and more determined than brown-eyed students, and therefore deserved snacks, extra recess, and sitting up front in class. She noted the sudden divide between students as bullying occurred on the playground and grades rose and fell for the two groups. The next day, she reversed the roles and the third graders immediately swapped places, with grades and attitudes rising and falling according to eye color. The result was a particularly telling example of how prejudice can affect people, with a side of controversial treatment of children.

Elliott’s exercise isn’t without criticisms, and rightly so. It’s worth noting that treating children in such a way can lead to some sorts of trauma through emotional abuse (on which I’m no expert). Telling a third grader, “of course your homework is late, you have blue eyes” will probably have some sort of effect. As this paper (pdf) shows, while most of her students remember the two day experiment as beneficial and life-changing, albeit humiliating at the time, some are hesitant when thinking about whether or not to put their children through the same lesson. Whether you agree with her tactics, the strategy is clear: show all students what it’s like to be mistreated, and they will learn what it feels like to be judged based on their appearance, then they should spend the rest of their lives trying not to be racist.

Compared to Elliott’s exercise, the Perryton High School exercise goes farther in demoralizing students and submitting them to abuse, and I’m curious as to what sort of post-exercise lesson the students undergo. Giving students two days to treat peers as slaves is very different from a supervised two tier classroom setting, and Red Ribbon Days seem to not really do much teaching. News articles don’t point to any positives of the lesson whatsoever; there’s little supervision, some actions cause bodily harm (which has led to the current uproar, after a lawsuit was filed when a student was forced to carry another student almost double his weight), students don’t share both experiences, and the actual lesson doesn’t even address the core curriculum of teaching the Holocaust. It’s controversial and it’s dangerous. It’s also bad teaching.

Caine Blog: “Love on Trial” by Stanley Kenani

This is the third week of reviews for stories in the running for the Caine Prize for African Writing. This week’s short story is “Love on Trial” by Stanley Kenani of Malawi. You can find the story as a .pdf here and you can scroll down to see reviews by other bloggers.

Homosexuality in Africa (especially southern and eastern Africa)  has been in the news more and more, with countries recently cracking down even more while Western countries simultaneously decry human rights abuses. Most recently, and most encouragingly, Malawi’s new President Joyce Banda announced that she wanted Parliament to repeal the national ban on homosexuality. While far from actually repealing the law (as that headline would suggest), the speech could pave the way for a path separate from Uganda’s recent efforts to make homosexuality punishable by death. Enter Stanley Kenani, whose story is about a man arrested for “unnatural offenses” and “indecent practices between males.”

What I really like about the story is its ability to weave separate stories into one. While the story is about Charles, the “offending” male, it is also very much about the local bar denizen who outs him, and, most importantly, about the intersection of religion and rights.

When Charles is interviewed by the presenter of a well-known television program, he comes with Bible in hand. When the interviewer asks Charles a private question, and he responds with a similarly private question, the interviewer chides him, saying that Malawi is a God-fearing nation and that they could not broadcast such obscene words. Later, the presenter cites the Bible to show that homosexuality is unnatural, and Charles responds:

We’re a secular state, by the way, not a theocracy. Only an individual can be regarded as God-fearing, but the collection of fourteen million individuals that make up Malawi cannot be termed God-fearing. Among the fourteen million there are rapists and murderers, corrupt government officials, thieves and those who sleep with goats.

Later, after Charles’ trial ends with a conviction, Western nations express their disappointment by threatening to withdraw aid funding. The Malawian Information Minister goes on the news saying that “donors are threatening to cut aid but we don’t care. We are a God-fearing nation.” The idea that Malawi’s 80% Christian majority could convert the whole of Malawi into a God-fearing nation, and by doing that require that homosexuality be a criminal offense, is something that we’ve all seen before, and not just abroad.

Kenani’s story itself is made up of a few parts. The parts centering on Lapani Kachingwe, the Chipiri resident that discovers Charles, touch on how Mr. Kachingwe gained his popularity by holding his story ransom for drinks, and how his health deteriorates after aid funding is stripped away from Malawi. The sections about Charles vary from his interview to his trial to a glimpse at his past through a woman’s attempts to woo him. What most of these sections share is a strong reliance on dialog, which I enjoyed reading. I like reading stories that have a good dialog, and this story has whole pages of conversation.

The only drawback to “Love on Trial,” and I’m not sure it’s a drawback or not, is that the message seems rather contrived, or at least forced. The story follows an almost predictable pattern, and the unexpected bits (like the end) come across as a fable teaching a child between right and wrong. While I agree that’s it’s probably bad to gossip about private matters that are also illegal, the ending of the story reads as Kenani telling me what happens, and not as me experiencing it as some literature can do. Despite this criticism, the story itself is good and deserves credit. More than anything, it was a good read, which is very welcome.

Note: The group-blogging experience has really made me do an about-face concerning Kenani’s story. I still think there are good aspects to the story, but my fellow bloggers have pointed out a host of problems with the narrative, the characters, and the writing. You should definitely take a look at what they have to say:

Weekend Reading

Finally, they took me to a room in the corner of the baggage claim area. It was becoming clear to me that at Ben Gurion, unjust things happened in corners. The guards asked me to open my bags. I did as I was told. I noted that the room was filthy. The Israelis were concerned with showing a clean and gleaming exterior—the floors of the airport outside shone–but for suspected threats and people like myself, behind closed doors, tucked away in dirty corners, they hadn’t bothered. A very butch young woman asked me to follow her. She led me to yet another room, where the walls were faded and filthy, and the floor was covered in dirty carpet, littered with small bits of paper and hair clips. It reeked of intimidation, and of humiliation.

There are 54 large photographs in the exhibition.  I know because I had to look at each one yesterday and complete a condition report.  (For those of you non museum people a condition report is a document completed when a loaned exhibition or item comes into a museum.  The condition of the piece is documented in case there are any issues which need to be reported back to the lending institution)  The photographs are emotionally devastating.  I was in collections storage by myself looking at picture after picture of emaciated women and girls as young as 14 who have completely destroyed their bodies in order to be “thin.” On each condition report I would describe the photo.  Below that section was the area of the form to note the condition.  In the museum world most conditions are scaled using the terms – excellent, good, fair, poor.  The photographs and their frames were pristine.  Underneath each description, I kept writing the word “excellent.”  After a while it felt like a sick commentary on the descriptions of the photos I had created above.  “Emily, 15 from Tampa, FL weighting 80 pounds”  Condition –  “excellent.”  It became harder and harder to write that word.

If the nation’s most venerable newspaper can get away with describing any dead person in these terms in the very first line of the piece, that means it really only stopped describing all women in those terms because they “had” to, in order to shut up those mouthy feminists. The journalistic “twist” of incorporating Lorena’s beauty into the piece “works” because the reader isn’t initially picturing a trans woman, but a biological one. It also works because it gives us exactly what we want: the dead, beautiful woman, her hourglass figure forever taken from our gaze.

In The Phantom Menace, there was a chamber drama about a trade dispute, an origin story about the prophesied chosen one, an escape romp, and a children’s farce with bantha poodoo. There was also an attempt at romantic predestination in which a small child swooned for a teenager he mistook for a “space angel.” All this happens against the backdrop of repeated shots and dialogue fragments meant to evoke the first three films, a cinematic version of rhyming stanzas, Lucas argued. In trying to explain precisely how incoherent and bizarre the movie is, one falls into a complicated web of ideas wherein the criteria for evaluating good and bad disintegrates. The Phantom Menace is the end of cinema not in the historical sense but in the topographical sense. It takes the linear story-driven movie to the limits of credulity, a simultaneous homage to and desecration of its origins.

Just as we might understand what religious people aspire to by studying what traits they attribute to their deity, we can understand Web worshippers by what they attribute to the Internet. These include such things as boundless creativity, innovation, unlimited potential for novelty, entrepreneurism, multifaceted, a shape-shifting network that rejects stable identities and embraces change. Following Ludwig Feuerbach’s hypothesis that man created God in his own image, one might say that the deified Internet embodies all the attributes of the perfect neoliberal subject that economic conditions require, offering a point of identification for the precarious worker and dignifying their situation. Perhaps this is why curation more so than creation has emerged as the fundamental mode of interaction on the Internet. Curators (or remixers or bricoleurs) model themselves as media for information transformation and transmission, performing a small-scale imitation of what the personified Internet does on a massive scale, rendering their identities legible.

Caine Blog: “Urban Zoning” by Billy Kahora

This is the second of five reviews for short stories on the shortlist for the Caine Prize for African Writing. This week’s story is “Urban Zoning” by Billy Kahora (Kenya), and you can read the story here (.pdf). At the bottom of the post, I’ll be adding reviews from other bloggers.

It took me quite a while to get into reading Billy Kahora’s shortlisted piece, the writing seemed jumbled and disoriented, but that is what it’s supposed to be. The first portion follows the central character, Kandle, as he navigates the Zone – a state of mind described as “the calm, breathless place he found himself in after drinking for a minimum of three days straight.” It’s a place that really unhinges you, and it’s a place that has taken a number of his friends; one had nearly bled to death, one died in a car accident, another became suicidal.

The Zone is like a symbol of the damage that Kandle has endured and doled out, and is a precarious place to be. To me, the writing reflects this. The writing about the Zone changes speed quickly, alters between topics, and goes between the present, out on Tom Mboya Street and Harambee Avenue, and the past, in boarding school and back home. In one flashback, the reader learns of an incident of sexual abuse that exacerbated Kandle’s disdain for physical contact. His hatred for contact led to him giving up rugby and moving on to a different stage of life. But, “same with life and the street, in the city – you needed to be natural with those close to you.” Kandle gave up on rugby since his hatred for contact wouldn’t allow him to do well, but he couldn’t give up on life, where he faced the same problem.

From this revelation, the story moves forwards to Kandle’s arrival at Eagle Bank, where he works, or worked. After a recent spell of absenteeism and being indebted to the accountant for a loan, Kandle is met by unamused employees as they lead him to a meeting with executives and department representatives to assess his performance. Presumably still in the Zone, Kandle sits down and listens to manger after manager explain the reasons for his behavior and express sympathy or judgement for him. In the end, Kandle expertly manipulates his superiors with tears and stories that convince them to allow him to keep his job. Beyond this, he is able to take a longer leave of absence and even keep the loan. On top of it all, the branch accountant asks Kandle for a loan, and even offers a blank check as repayment. Kandle navigates the meeting as well as he navigates the Zone.

The story is, at its heart, about how much Kandle changed. In the meeting, all of the bank’s employees reference how Kandle was a smart and determined worker who never missed a day. In the story, however, the only Kandle we really know is one who is a manipulative, womanizing, uncaring, alcoholic thief. He has crashed down into a different world than he was intended, he has come of age in an unconventional way, epitomizing the failure to achieve. And yet, in the final scene, he and the accountant exchange a special kind of laughter, recognizing Kandle’s success in spite of his detractors. Kandle, continuing his downward spiral in society, navigates the bank like he navigated the Zone, and like he navigates Nairobi.

Co-Bloggers:

Unpaid Internships Need to Change

Earlier this month the Times ran a story on college graduates flocking to unpaid internships. The story is about how the bad economy has driven many graduates into the arms of unpaid work, and includes interviews with some interns who have sued for wages since their internships violate Labor Department regulations. But as Derek Thompson points out, internships are “an inextricable part of the college experience and a pre-req for post-graduate employment.” And that’s key. Graduates are okay with, or at least will settle for, unpaid internships because they’ve been told to. Colleges have been pushing internships in all sorts of fields, and industries are more than happy to bring in free work. Unpaid internships have become a standard in too many fields, and it puts everyone at a disadvantage.

In my four years at college, I raked up 10 weeks of an unpaid internship abroad (I independently won a $1000 scholarship, which covered less than the flight there, let alone the flight back, tuition, and living expenses) for one major and four months of unpaid internship at home (during which I was explicitly barred from working, which a number of those in my cohort ignored), along with three prior semesters of 6-hours-per-week internships, for another. I was one of the more privileged ones, with my parents covering tuition and my employer willing to hire me back when I returned from Uganda. For many students unpaid internships mean less wages to pay for the mounting expenses, and an internship that’s far away means usually means quitting whatever job you’ve been using to pay for things.

Internships are integral parts of many professions, and for some it actually makes quite a bit of sense – but that doesn’t mean they should be unpaid. As far as I can tell, education majors have always had to complete a student teaching requirement. Experience in the classroom is essential to teaching, and having a mentor teacher help you navigate through your first semester can be incredibly helpful. I knew this was a requirement, and so I planned for it, worked beforehand, and relied on my wife and parents while working long days and taking work home for four months. At my university there was very little help in ensuring that such a sacrifice was possible, and the little help available was reserved for math and science teachers, as per everyone’s obsession with those fields. For the elementary education majors, my alma mater has decided to double the student teaching requirement to two semesters, which does not bode well. While my own student teaching experience was unorthodox, to say the least, it was hugely beneficial and supplemented my education in a way that really couldn’t be replicated in a university – I just wish I had a little bit of help.

Other degree programs require internships that are flexible and, therefore, leave students open to being exploited even more. Student teaching, usually, offers the student a mentor and a classroom experience through effectively replacing the classroom’s teacher. The school gains little (outside of additional funding), but the student gains a lot (albeit while struggling to pay bills). Interning in many fields means one of two things (or both). You either do work that directly benefits your employer (at no cost) like completing research, reviewing books, and conducting interviews, or you do menial work and chores that don’t benefit you and could easily be left to the already-employed, such as picking up items and cleaning out offices. The first type of internship needs to be paid, and the second should really just end.

The culture of internships is apparently here to stay, but that doesn’t mean we can’t demand some changes. It’s pretty clear that a lot of unpaid internship programs violate minimum wage laws, and many of them shouldn’t even qualify for school credit based on the assigned tasks. If employers are going to require internships to be on prospective employees’ resumes, they should be offering at least minimum wage (which we all know is too low already) to their own interns. But for these same reasons, schools should be finding ways to offer stipends for students if they are going to require internships for graduation. If schools and employers both made the right decision across the board, they would end up having more experienced graduates and hiring better employees, and interns would be able to gain useful experience without making huge sacrifices. It’s not just a more fair option, but it’s smarter too.

LRA Commander Captured! What Does It Mean?

Over the weekend, news broke that LRA commander Ceasar Acellam Otto was captured by UPDF soldiers on the border between Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo. In his 60s, Acellam is a former UNLA fighter, meaning he’s been a rebel since before the LRA were in the game, so he’s a pretty big catch. He was allegedly in charge of intelligence for the LRA, and defectors have alluded to him being the link between Kony and Khartoum. While Acellam is not one of the remaining leaders that has been indicted by the ICC, he is one of the top commanders of the rebel force. His capture could mean a lot of things, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the end is near.

The LRA has been increasingly on the run, but has regained some strength. After a long silence in the last months of 2011, during which LRA leader Joseph Kony allegedly ordered his troops to lie low, the rebels have been making a comeback with attacks on the rise in Central African Republic. This is in addition to the steady flow of attacks in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where UPDF soldiers cannot follow.

Against this backdrop, the BBC recently reported on allegations that Sudan was again supporting the LRA, which comes as no surprise. Khartoum supported Kony for years during the 1990s and early 2000s, and with increasing tensions along the Sudan-South Sudan border it would benefit the government to partner with the LRA once again. Indeed, as far back as late 2010 people were saying that Kony could be on his way to Darfur, where he would be safe from international pressure.

While Acellam’s capture could deal a huge blow to the LRA, if Kony is already in Sudan then there is no change in the manhunt. As Mark Kersten has pointed out, it’s like playing hide and seek with the seekers in one house and the child hiding in another. No matter who the coalition of soldiers captures, Kony might not be where they’re looking. Ending LRA violence is obviously in the interests of many, but capturing Joseph Kony has been the stated goal (and means to ending the violence) all along. If the LRA is getting support from Sudan, it’s even more likely than before that LRA fighters and indicted leaders are seeking shelter under Khartoum’s wing. If the LRA leadership enjoys safe haven and impunity, the conflict won’t be over.

Update: Mark Kersten has written a pretty thorough addition to the discussion of Acellam’s “capture.”

Weekend Reading

It’s the weekend, so let’s do this thing:

There is a traditional terms of alliance between liberals and radicals in American social movements: through civil disobedience and direct action, the radicals create a fire on the liberals’ left that makes them seem relevant as a moderate alternative; the liberals keep us out of jail. In this case, the liberals spectacularly failed. Over the winter, rather than making an issue of the extraordinary illegal violence of the evictions, they chose, instead, to create an almost histrionic moral crisis over a few broken windows in Oakland months before. But when OWS re-emerged in the spring, the abandonment of the liberals, the drying-up of the money, have become an almost miraculous blessing. Activists have honed and polished their street tactics and democratic process. New alliances have been created, with community groups, immigrant rights organizations, and, increasingly, labor unions.

It is simply false to suggest that the Allies had some kind of high-minded respect for neutrality during World War II. When strategically expedient, neutrality was violated, at times for reasons that were far more legally spurious than U.S. drone strikes against al Qaeda. Al Qaeda, after all, is at least engaged in conflict with the U.S. In the case of Iran, not even the justifications used for planned or actual violations of Norwegian and Scandinavian neutrality – the presence of German naval vessels or personnel supporting them, or German invasion – were present, instead it was done as a naked attempt to secure logistical assets necessary for aiding the Soviet war effort. The war on terror is obviously not World War II. But what is rather bizarre – and it is a problem that is certainly not limited to Tom Parker, but to those who write about international security issues more broadly – is the casual and ahistorical use of World War II as some kind of moral standard for wartime conduct.

A president endorsing, even as a “personal position,” marriage equality for gays and lesbians is, as Vice President Joe Biden once said, a big fucking deal. But Obama has endorsed marriage equality federalism—not the notion that marriage for gays and lesbians is a fundamental right guaranteed by the Constitution that can never be taken away. Obama has adopted the same position that Vice President Dick Cheney did in 2004, when Cheney said he believed in marriage equality but that the states should be allowed to decide by a show of hands, as North Carolina did Tuesday, whether gays and lesbians have the same rights as everyone else.

Caine Blog: “Bombay’s Republic” by Rotimi Babatunde

This is the first of five posts in a series reviewing the shortlist for the Caine Prize for African Writing. This week’s short story is “Bombay’s Republic” by Rotimi Babatunde of Nigeria. You can download the story as a .pdf here. Like last year, you can find links to a growing number of fellow bloggers’ posts at the bottom of this one.

This story starts off about an African soldier’s experience fighting in the Burma Campaign during the Second World War and after he returns. But the story’s motif is the expansion (and disruption) of his perception of reality. Bombay, the soldier, encounters numerous realizations that confound and expand his understanding of what is feasible. Some of the villagers in Ceylon visit the African soldiers in their showers to see if they really have tails, which Bombay finds to be absurd. The Japanese soldiers flee his platoon because they do not want to be eaten. Others dismember the bodies of dead African soldiers so they don’t come back to life. Time and again Bombay hears things about his people that he can’t even fathom. He seems to take it all in without comment, simply digesting the new ideas.

But another thing that he couldn’t fathom before war is the vulnerability of the Europeans. The story opens with a reference to the black Native Police constable saluting the white District Officer. “This was how the world was and there was no reason to think it could be otherwise,” Babatunde writes. But after Bombay’s captain goes mad when their search party comes across the tortured remains of his lieutenant, Bombay’s reality expands again. Bombay realizes that the captain had been transformed into nothing but an animal, and that perhaps the white District Officer back home could also be reduced to such a beast. War is constantly reshaping his understanding of reality. Driving this point home is Bombay’s killing of a rogue white soldier. Bombay imagines a scenario straight out of Things Fall Apart, but instead he is applauded for his quick action – flipping the traditional colonial reality on its head. The war ends, and Bombay goes home with new perspective.

But Bombay’s perceptions reach beyond reality, and he follows a different path than you might expect. While we expect his new take on life to disrupt the status quo of society, Bombay turns in on himself. Instead of joining activists after the war, he eventually calls the old jailhouse home and unilaterally declares his home a sovereign nation. The adults in the community mock him and ostracize him as he crafts busts of idols for his new country. He spends the rest of his years considering himself as the head of state of one of the first independent African nations, winning dozens of elections.

It’s no coincidence that his “independent” residence was an old jailhouse. Before leaving Asia at the war’s end, his platoon leader lamented that they were on the Forgotten Front of the war. Indeed, much of the fighting in South Asia is marginalized when compared to the rest of the Pacific. Bombay says that he doesn’t need memory, but his return to his home country is marked by his self-isolation from the changes around him. His reality becomes distorted upon his return, as he acts less and less like a decorated veteran and more and more severed from society.

I was expecting his encounters at war to shape his life back home – perhaps as a dissident or at least a sympathizer to the revolution. Instead, they changed him into a man who spends his time telling stories (to children about leeches instead of to adults about the Europeans’ war), until he finally sequestered himself in his jail. There’s a direct clash with what his experiences should have taught him, and what he did with the new knowledge. After freeing himself in Asia from the constricting realities of colonial life, he became constrained to his own jail in his own country.

And after seeing that a white man could be reduced to a creature and hearing that some people believe Africans have tails, Bombay transforms at home. He sees himself as turning from a veteran into a head of state, but those around him see him turn into a beast. His skin is dotted with burn scars from leeches. When tax collectors bother him at his house, he urinates on them. People even begin referring to him as a leopard. Ultimately, Bombay does change the status quo back home, but only for himself and his republic, not for the society around him. As the final sentences point out, he considers those of his birth country to be foreign, because he has separated himself from them (and they have kept their distance from him). To them, he’s just a memory, something which he never really cared for anyways.

Co-Bloggers: