Tag Archives: Bookshelf

Two Ethnographies of Conflict

I’m peaking my head over the books to give a brief glimpse at two really incredible books that I read recently. In a course on insurgency, the state, and political consciousness, I’ve had the chance to read two ethnographies that present really interesting approaches to studying conflict: Danny Hoffman’s War Machines and Sharika Thiranagama’s In My Mother’s House. I’ve wanted to read the former for a couple of years, the latter I hadn’t heard about until I picked it up. Both are new books which hopefully haven’t slipped under everyone’s radar (and if they have, now you have no excuse!) – they’re well worth your time if you’re interested in how conflict shapes society and vice versa.

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Reading World War Z

In what is both a moment of procrastination (I don’t want to do homework) and an act of slight progress (I’m finally clearing out some of my blog drafts), I present an unpolished, never-quite-finished essay on the novel World War Z by Max Brooks. I started this thing almost a year ago, but don’t see myself working on it anymore. Might as well let you read it. Note that I have yet to watch the film adaptation, this is meant to be a reading of (specific parts of) the book.

World War Z is not a typical zombie story.  For one thing, the book is “written” in the aftermath of the conflict, and while some segments tell what happened during the zombie outbreak, there is a significant portion that deals with how humans were responding to the consequences of it all, after the war.  The book includes scenes of workers patrolling the arctic circle for thawing zombies and towns rebuilding after being cleared of the undead.  In addition, the novel is an effort to tell the story of the whole world rather than a region (like southern Georgia in The Walking Dead), a mall (Dawn of the Dead), or an individual (Robert Neville of I Am Legend).  It does this by framing itself as an oral history, a compendium of interviews conducted by a U.N. worker.

But oral history isn’t the same as history.  At its core, oral history isn’t so much the study of evidence but a study of memory.  World War Z isn’t a historiography of the zombie war so much as it is a glimpse at how survivors remembered the war.  Above all, since it is fictitiously compiled by an “author” (the U.N. worker) and also actually compiled by an author (Brooks), it is a collection of memories that Brooks thought best represented a history of his war – and a history of the world.  The story isn’t about the characters really (some interviewees reappear in the conclusion, but I had to go back to piece together who was who – there is little actual character development) so much as it is about the countries that deal with zombies and the notion of the global zombie war itself.

In an interview about the book, Brooks stated that “everything in World War Z (as in The Zombie Survival Guide) is based in reality… well, except the zombies. But seriously, everything else in the book is either taken from reality or 100% real.”  Adding zombies to reality, then, allowed Brooks to show what he thought of the world through its response to catastrophe, its governance, its resilience.  In another interview, Brooks called the book an effort to combat American isolationism and argued that he wanted to “break down the stereotypes Americans have about other cultures… and maybe give my fellow Americans a window into the political and cultural workings of other nations.”

But how did Brooks choose to represent the world?

Brooks’ decision to shed light on the outside world, if taken seriously as an attempt to enlighten us where our isolationism has sold us short, rests on the same old stereotypes and dangerous whitewashing that he proposes to combat.  A number of societies are portrayed in one or two short segments that are more about applying the zombie war to our preconceived notions than about opening a window to new cultures.  For example, the only two Japanese characters interviewed are a young, cyber-connected loner and an old, blind, traditional warrior.  North Korea is portrayed as an isolated and paranoid mystery.  South Africa’s role is framed solely by its apartheid history.  Iran takes the position of America’s greatest fear: the trigger-happy nuclear power.  The story’s structure doesn’t lend itself to much in terms of developing a more nuanced look at cultures or politics around the world, so this is your only glimpse at some societies.

Where foreign affairs don’t rely on stereotypes, they rest on a scary depiction of the “real world.”  The two countries that lead the world out of the zombie war are South Africa and Israel, two countries with infamous histories of dealing with actual hungry and helpless masses within their own borders.  Both countries have experienced decades of forced segregation that leave a significant part of the population isolated, oppressed, dying.  In portraying the world through the zombie war, it is implicit that these histories – of segregation, oppression, and degradation – are the reason that these countries manage to weather the storm of zombie infestation better than others. Continue reading

Book Recommendations – South African Edition

So, my online presence has been a bit quiet. Weekend readings and occasional tweets are still outgoing, but not much else. My first semester of grad school has come and gone, and the last few weeks have been spent polishing off two term papers, preparing proposals for my thesis, studying for a language final, and moving Henry James books around at the library. Now that all of that’s done, I wanted to recommend some of the many books I still have stacked on my windowsill.

For a South African history course, I wrote a term paper looking at how anti-Apartheid activists used their own trials as platforms to criticize the government. I concentrated on Nelson Mandela’s trials (when caught in hiding and then in the Rivonia Trial) and Steve Biko’s testimony in the Black Consciousness Trial, but found other examples too. I spent some time looking at court records on microfilm – like an old school historian – but these are a few of the more helpful books on the subject of trials during apartheid:

  • Donald Woods’ Biko is a great book for all things Steve Biko. A journalist and friend of Biko’s, Woods includes lengthy excerpts from Biko’s five-days-long testimony in the Black Consciousness trial which I’ve come to rely on. An alternative to this is Millard Arnold’s complete transcript of the trial, although it’s hard to find.
  • Michael Lobban’s White Man’s Justice, while not specifically addressing my topic, is a really good resource on how the apartheid state used trials to legitimate oppression.
  • Joel Joffe’s The State vs. Nelson Mandela: The Trial That Changed South Africa is a good account of the Rivonia Trial, on which Joffe served as an assistant counsel to the defense. His writing style isn’t the best, and he jumps back and forth from trial transcripts to his own narration without much notice, which can be frustrating if you’re doing research.
  • Mary Benson edited a collection of speeches given by activists in The Sun Will Rise: Statements from the Dock by Southern African Political Prisoners, which includes several statements I used in my paper in addition to other really interesting excerpts.

Another term paper I did was on the symbol of land and territory as a founding myth for South Africa. It was for my first ever sociology course, and I chose to look at South African history and the founding myth that Afrikaners had crafted. I used a lot of articles (by du Toit on the role of Calvinism, Templin on the Great Trek, and Marschall on monuments), but these books came in handy as well:

but nonetheless I’ve found these texts to be really helpful:

  • T. Dunbar Moodie’s The Rise of Afrikanerdom utilizes the sociological concept of a civil religion, and in this book he paints a clear picture of the role of the Boers’ Calvinist religion in their nationalism throughout the early twentieth century.
  • Leonard Thompson’s The Political Mythology of Apartheid examines the concept pretty thoroughly, looking at the history of the Great Trek and its place at the center of Afrikaner nationalism. It does a good job of looking at how this came about and when.
  • Another helpful text is Donald Harman Akenson’s God’s Peoples: Covenant and Land in South Africa, Israel, and Ulster. It compares the prominence of a covenant with God in the narratives of the Afrikaners in South Africa, the Zionists in Israel, and the Protestants in Northern Ireland. It doesn’t say much that Moodie and Thompson don’t already explain, but it’s a great comparative look.
  • The Frightened Land: Land, Landscape and Politics in South Africa in the Twentieth Century by Jennifer Beningfield was a great resource. Required reading for the history course mentioned above, it’s a really innovative look at how apartheid changed the actual landscape of South Africa. For this paper, the chapter on the Voortrekker Monument was essential – the whole book is well-worth a read.

And those are my recommended readings on South Africa. Hopefully someone finds these recommendations helpful. With the end of the semester, you should see more of me over the winter reprieve from school. While I might be done with these papers, I’d love any additions – feel free to comment if you know of other resources on these topics.

Seat Belts and Human Rights Prosecutions: A Digressive Review

Having taken several classes centered on accountability for mass atrocity crimes, I’ve run across a lot of common questions. One question is the notion that we all know that killing is bad – mass killing exponentially so – so what effect does making it illegal or prosecuting it really have?

A couple of years ago I ran across, of all things, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood speaking on CSPAN (I know, right?). I have no idea what the circumstances were, but he detailed that in the past people rarely used seat belts despite knowing that they protected them. After states began to make it illegal to drive without wearing seat belts, more and more people wear them now. According to some surveys, many wear them not to be in line with the law but because they are safe and that is what you do when you are in a car. In a very weird connection and long stretch, you could say the same about atrocities – after a while the fact that one faces prosecution could change the mindset about actions one is willing to take. It’s weird, but it’s a connection. When society speaks up about what is wrong, fewer people are willing to commit that act.

Enter Kathryn Sikkink, professor at the University of Minnesota and author of The Justice Cascade. I’m currently halfway through the book and it makes a strong case for human rights prosecutions. The book gives an intricate history of human rights prosecutions in Greece, Portugal, and Argentina. Sikkink also works to debunk the notion that the specter of prosecutions is dangerous for transitional democracies, another concern I’ve heard in academia and in advocacy.

But the heart of the book is that Sikkink looks at the diffusion of justice and accountability between countries. The first change in the international justice system was to make individuals accountable instead of just states – and this has definitely grown as more perpetrators are indicted and prosecuted for their actions. She also notes the increase in international, foreign, and domestic human rights prosecutions across the board by using a database.  The database counts all “processes of prosecution” regardless of verdict and uses the State Department’s human rights reports as its source.

According to her research, Sikkink found that Latin America, which has had the most human rights prosecutions of any region, is also the leader in successful democratic transitions. Most of the allegations that trials could lead to a renewal of conflict seem rooted in an attempted coup in Argentina when prosecutions expanded to include more suspects. The coup failed and the trials continued and even spread across the region, fostering democracy. Somehow, the threat has lived on in policy circles.

She also found that more prosecutions foster better human rights practices, and that if four or more countries in one region have prosecutions, the countries nearby could benefit even without having prosecutions – accountability and deterrence cross borders. The question is if that deterrence only works in a regional context or if it can lead to a global deterrence through international prosecutions. I’m only partway through the book so far, but Sikkink makes a pretty good case for how prosecutions can impact societies for the better.

Rethinking Local

Recently, I’ve run into some interesting articles going against the “buy local” mantra, mostly via @cblatts. In particular, I read an article on the book industry and one on food – and while neither were groundbreaking, they did make me stop and think about what really helps the community – whether that community is where I live or a more abstract community like authors or farmers. This is stuff I’m not well-versed in and I definitely have some reading to do, but this is just a small part of me trying to clarify my opinion – and I’m taking you along for the ride.

The first piece I read was this Slate article explaining that Amazon was better than local bookstores. The author spends most of his time explaining why Amazon is better for the customer and for “literary culture”  because it can afford to lower prices, effectively allowing people to buy and read more books. I do a share of shopping on Amazon, but I also love book stores. I always enjoyed wandering the aisles in Borders and I got coupons for 30-50% off an item, which brought the prices down enough to be comparable. I love the stuffy, crowded atmosphere of Old Town Books in Tempe, and there’s even a cat that lives there. But I’m not delusional about the role bookstores play in the industry – or the role Amazon plays. I think the article is right in pointing to Amazon not as the killer of literary culture but its savior.

The second piece I read was a short note from Ben Casnocha about buying food locally versus globally. Buying local (and organic) is definitely become a trend for the suburban hipsters among us. I visit the ASU Farmers Market every once in a while for some good tamales, but I’ve never gone full-local for my produce. But what I never thought of was what buying local does to the global – the farm workers in poorer countries that aren’t benefiting from the trend. Casnocha later put up quotes from Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist:

This is what it would take to feed nine billion people in 2050: at least a doubling of agricultural production driven by huge increase in fertiliser use in Africa, the adoption of drop irrigation in Asia and America, the spread of double cropping to many tropical countries, the use of GM crops all across the world to improve yields and reduce pollution, a further shift from feeding cattle with grain to feeding them with soybeans, a continuing relative expansion of fish, chicken and pig farming at the expense of beef and sheep (chickens and fish convert grain into meat three times as efficiently as cattle; pigs are in between)

As people continue to buy into the whole organic lifestyle, it inevitably bleeds into more than just your neighborhood farmer’s market. But that quote is (in my opinion) an important thing to remember – rural farmers in developing countries have been selling organic and local for years because they have to. The best way for them to increase their revenue is by increasing their inventory or by expanding their customer base. When you barely make enough to cover expenses and survive, it’s difficult to invest. When not abused, things like pesticides and international barges can help tremendously. While many suburbanites with the time and money continue to choose to buy local, it’s important to remember that not everything that’s good for your community can (nor should) be extrapolated to the global level.

Caine Blog: “The Mistress’s Dog” by David Medalie

Here is the fifth and final, albeit late, entry on the Caine Prize for African Literature. Today I’m reviewing “The Mistress’s Dog” by David Medalie, which can be downloaded here. Next week the winner of the prize will be announced, so it will be interesting to see where the prize goes. To see all of the co-blogging phenomena scroll on down for a list.

A quick glance at the co-blogging list shows that Medalie’s story, a concise story about a woman named Nola and the dog which she cares for, is a clear favorite. A number of reviewers have named it their choice for the prize, and I won’t begrudge them. But I’m not sure where I’m at. Perhaps I’m lacking the literary mind that my colleagues have. Don’t get me wrong, I thought the story was good. But it’s not a clear favorite for me so much as it is on par with Keegan (although they are very different).

The important parts of the story have all happened before it begins. The story itself takes place over only two days, chronicling the life of Nola through her eyes. She has outlived both her husband and his mistress, left with the mistress’s dying dog. No one has a name in her eyes, the dog’s former owner falters between her profession (the secretary) and her romance (the mistress) throughout, and Nola’s own husband is only referred to as “the powerful man.” That is all he is and ever was to Nola, it seems.

Nola’s background is one of subtle revenge. She describes the simple victories she had in belittling the mistress, from referring to her by calling her names to arranging dinner parties so that she sticks out like a sore thumb. She seems to have reveled in her small victories, but her best victory – the chance to leave the dog in Johannesburg – was turned down. She decides to keep the dog and in the end the dog becomes her only companion. It really tells the story of how Nola is trapped by her life’s past – haunted by a dog she never wanted, left over from a life with a powerful husband and his affair.

I thought the story was quite good, but I’m not quite sure which story is my favorite. I definitely came at this blog-a-thon with a foreign eye, never really being quite the literary critic. This story’s point was concise and the solitary main character was rounded by her view of others. I’m looking forward to seeing who wins the Caine Prize next week.

For the co-blogging:

Method to the Madness

Zungu Zungu

The Mumpsimus

The Oncoming Hope

The Reading Life

Caine Blog: “In the Spirit of McPhineas Lata” by Lauri Kubuitsile

This is the fourth review from the Caine Prize blog-athon, and I’m glad you’re still with me. The story the crew is reading/reviewing this week is “In the Spirit of McPhineas Lata” by Lauri Kubuitsile from Botswana. You can and should find the story as a pdf here, and you can find the other bloggers’ thoughts at the bottom of the post.

This story is, when it’s all said and done, a really fun read. It’s a very interesting set-up and a fun story with comedic characters doing absurd things. It’s fun. The story is about sex, but it’s also about society and sex’s role in that society. It’s a pretty interesting take on the whole thing, providing an interesting and fun look at how men and women interact in this village. Plot summary: the village ladykiller dies (while performing one of his duties, fittingly), and the village responds in probably the weirdest way possible.

What’s interesting is the way the society had been set up in the first place. The men spend all of their time working in order to give their wives better lives, and the women are all greedy and mean to their husbands. While the men work a lot and are not good at pleasing their wives, McPhineas Lata doesn’t really have a job (nor a wife for whom to provide), but he’s mighty good at pleasing everyone else’s wives. Somehow, the town has adapted to this fact – it’s how the society works. Lata’s actions kept women satisfied so that men could keep working. The first lines of the story explain this: it’s not the rampant adultery that is causing a strain in relationships between couples, it’s the death of Lata that causes a rift between the two sexes.

And so, with Lata’s death, the story begins. After the burial, the women decide to go about humping his grave while the men commiserate over beer and try to figure out how to have sex right. The men’s decision is one of the more out-of-place reactions: they turn it into a science experiment – or, if you want to, they turn it into work. The men divide the labor amongst them and start trying things out when the women aren’t mourning Lata’s death, discussing successes (like three-minute massage of the shoulder) and failures (like attempting to milk a breast) at the local bar. The men methodically figure out how to please their wives and replace the vibrant memory of McPhineas Lata. It’s also worth noting that sex is continually referred to as “the business,” another reference to the men’s affinity for doing work instead of sex. In a similar vein, throughout the story no one is ever seen… working.

If the men’s response to use the scientific method to improve sex is funny, what’s even funnier is that the women immediately know that something is afoot when their husbands begin to try things, and many simply play along to see where it’s going. Their final response is to see that their old lover is continuing his tricks through their husbands, and the women take it in stride. Lata’s lifestyle was what held the society together, and his death caused a huge problem for the men and the women. Interestingly, the men and women find the silliest ways to reshape their relationships to make things work. And you can finish the story with a laugh, reassured that everything was okay.

Other co-bloggers:

The Oncoming Hope

Zungu Zungu

Method to the Madness

Mumpsimus

Sky, Soil & Everything in Between

The Reading Life

Caine Blog: “What Molly Said” by Timothy Keegan

So, here is blog post number three of the Caine Prize series. This week the group is reviewing “What Molly Said” by Timothy Keegan of South Africa. If interested, you can download and read it here. We’ve got two more stories to review before the award is announced, so this post brings us past the halfway point.

For starters, this story was really good. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and I hope the last two Caine Prize readings continue on this trajectory. The story didn’t read like it was a story about Africa written for Westerners, it read like a story written for readers. Quick set-up: the story is about a woman and her reactions and actions following the news that her estranged daughter has been killed. The story follows her, but includes her angry brute of a husband to whom she is devoted and the inspector who is investigating her daughter’s murder.

A few things struck me in this story. The relationship between Molly and her daughter Sarah is strained at best, but the unrelenting conflict between the two is described as the glue that held them together. In trying to cope with the loss, Molly wonders “why should you change the habits of a lifetime just because your reason for being had come to an end?” It hits at how important Sarah was to Molly, despite repeated mentions of how difficult their relationship was. The story does a good job of driving home the type of relationship they had.

And it was two men that caused, or at least added to this strain. One is the son-in-law, Tommie, whom Molly resents for two reasons. She sees Tommie as the reason for Sarah’s estrangement. She believes that he filled her head with reasons to hate Molly and her husband, reasons to never go back, which leads Molly to believe that he is a bad person. She also sees Tommie as an outsider in every way. Not only is he black, but he is a Mozambican, an activist, a radical, a thug. With the story set in South Africa, it has special meaning to see the ever-present existence of an “other.” Because of her disdain for him (telling the inspector that she hates it when he refers to Tommie as her son-in-law), she eventually comes to the conclusion that her daughter’s no-good husband was also her murderer.

What’s interesting is that you never really get to know Tommie. You understand Molly’s opinion of him. Because of the type of person he is (black and foreign) you see both the inspector and Molly’s husband treat him with the same regard. But he’s the type of character I would have liked to learn more about. He’s Mozambican, but he’s half-Portugese. He’s an immigrant to South Africa, but he’s very involved in the anti-aparthied movement and is involved with the ANC. He’s a psychologist, and his wife was killed in their home. Everything else is left up to the reader to invent.

The only other character of any depth in the story is Molly’s husband, Rollo. He is a devil of a man – an aggressive drunk with a side of philandering. It’s clear that he beat Molly after spending evenings at bars, and that his presence drove a wedge between Molly and Sarah. His control of his home is so absolute that Molly wonders to herself whether or not he will want to go to her daughter’s funeral (and as a result, whether or not she will be able to go). He has no real redeeming qualities. When made aware of his step-daughter’s death, he shrugs it off and finishes his day at work instead of consoling his wife. When confronted with his upset wife, he tells her that, once she gets over the “shock” of her daughter’s death she’ll realize that she’s better off.

His devlish ways extend even further when Molly find a letter Sarah wrote to him, threatening to come forwards with what he had done to her – giving the reader and Molly a motive for him to be Sarah’s killer. The reader simultaneously realizes why Rollo was so quick to say that their lives would be better off without her and just how powerless Molly is in her own life. His control of Molly, and her dependence on him, lead to her turning a blind eye to his multiple sins – sins including drunkeness, infidelity, aggression, battery and probably rape and murder. But it’s not just him having control over her, it’s her full submission to the life she’s living. In the beginning of the story it is explained that she married him in order to find support and live a good life. But she’s not living so much as surviving, holed up in the house she never leaves, being beat and berated by her husband, not talking to her daughter (mostly because of the abusive husband). She’s forsaken any hope of agency or independence in the story, which makes the reader (or me, at least) want to shake this woman and make her realize what she’s doing. In the end, the story is about Sarah’s murder, but the focus is how Molly deals with everything, and it is that story which is really fascinating.

Two other themes occurred in the story that drew my attention. One is race. Race is a huge part of the story, but it’s very subtle. From the get-go you get the impression that Sarah is white and she left her family for Tommie, who is black. But this isn’t in writing until much later in the story. Not only is this kind of a metaphor for Sarah leaving the abusive white family for an activist black community (in which she was an activist), but it’s also a metaphor for South Africa at the time. Rollo says that Sarah had it coming, getting involved with those types of people – surrounded by radicalism and drugs, the comment seems to really be about race. The inspector talks about how people in the new South Africa are supposed to be equal, but he still views two types of victims: the ones that live sordid lives and get what they deserve and the ones that are innocent and quiet and should never encounter such crimes. You can probably figure out which is which. Molly’s hairdresser also makes comments on the interracial anti-aparthied couple living in a white neighborhood. And the pinnacle of the race theme is when Molly, Rollo, and the inspector attend Sarah’s funeral. The speaker draws attention to them, and the audience of black radicals turn to face the older, white people in the back of the room. While the reader doesn’t know how the eyes treated these characters, one does know that Molly becomes anxious and Rollo angry.

Another theme is memory. While I’m not any sort of expert on South Africa, I can imagine that this takes place before or in the beginning stages of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The TRC’s main focus was to provide amnesty (in some cases) in exchange for testimony. It was seen more important to create a national history – a national memory of the tragedies – than to bring justice to criminals. And so memory has since become a foundation of South Africa’s state. With this in mind, there are two references to memory. In the beginning, the reader is made aware of why Molly dislikes Tommie. In doing his part to “turn” Sarah against her mother, Tommie helped Sarah face issues that she had in her past. Issues that she had repressed. Issues having to do with her family, and Rollo in particular. And so Molly sees this as turning her daughter against her, when really Tommie was trying to help Sarah face her memories. Meanwhile, the inspector tells Molly that he is beginning to get news about whether or not Tommie was involved in Sarah’s death because witnesses are beginning to come forwards. He tells her that the neighbors are beginning to remember more since he gave them a few days. A few days to dream up how to pin everything on the local black radical. Lastly, you see throughout the story that Molly has decided not to suppress memories so much as ignore them. Rollo’s sins are mentioned multiple times, and Molly clearly is aware of them, but instead of addressing them she puts all of the blame on Tommie. She takes her memories and turns them away. When faced with even more grave incidents in her family’s past, she destroys them completely.

So, in summary, the story about Molly really revolves around the type of person she is and how that changes given the circumstances. She begins as a woman you should pity who is stuck in a series of motions rather than life. She ends as a woman who not only rejected her daughter’s pleas but in the end even rejected any chance for justice, independence, or even satisfaction. The story was incredibly well-written, and I really enjoyed following the other themes as they went and watching the characters develop (or stay assholes), and this is definitely my front runner so far.  Because, you know, I’m qualified to award prizes in literature.

For the co-blogging experience!

The Oncoming Hope

Method to the Madness

Mumpsimus

Africa is a Country

Zungu Zungu

The Reading Life

Caine Blog: “Butterfly Dreams” by Beatrice Lamwaka

Here is part two of my five-review Caine Blog series. This review is of the short story “Butterfly Dreams” by Beatrice Lamwaka from Uganda. You can download and read the story yourself here.

Let’s start by pointing out that this story is by a Ugandan, about northern Uganda. Beyond that, let’s get to the first thing I liked about this story: it’s written in second person. I always felt that there was something alluring about writing in the second person – it really puts the story onto the reader in a way that I don’t think is really possible without using “you.”

The story is told from the perspective of what I presume to be a family member, to you, the recently returned victim of a Sudanese rebel group’s abduction – (the region and descriptions lead me to think that it’s more than likely the LRA). You were a little girl when you were abducted, but you didn’t return home until five years later – where you were welcomed home with open arms – once you were cleansed.

What I found interesting in this story was the struggle for the narrator and the rest of the family as they navigate through rehabilitation of the reader. The reader doesn’t speak, doesn’t smile, doesn’t really show any recognition of the family. Having buried her spirit while she was still missing, the family worries that they’re left with a shell of the girl who was taken, and there are quite a few short scenes that show her dealing with her demons alone. On top of this, though, the family struggles with their own circumstances in an IDP camp. One of the more memorable descriptions about the camps was this:

Our children no longer know how to hold a hoe. They have forgotten how the ground nut plant looks. Now, our land buries our children. Our gardens grow huts. We now live in a camp.

It’s a cruel revelation, that the reader has returned from abduction to see her family in a camp, with their livelihood ruined. This family wasn’t forced to leave their land behind like thousands of displaced in northern Uganda – they had their land taken from them by the displaced, as the government declared their land an IDP camp.  The narrator describes the “empty huts with empty people” who had lost their spirits – just like the reader, whose spirit had been buried.

We see ourselves – as the reader – go from a freshly returned abductee to being slowly rehabilitated in an IDP camp and eventually going back to school. We see the family struggle through rehabilitation and living in the crisis of displacement. There was little literal progression of the story line, but the narrator revealed more and more about the predicaments of both the family and the abducted girl as the pages went on, which gave a deeper dimension to me, but still it seemed like something was lacking. The writing toggled between past and present several times, which sometimes worked, sometimes made it feel disjointed; the writing also changed form a bit here and there along with the setting, sometimes as story-telling and sometimes as a sort of testimony. Maybe I just don’t have a soft spot for short stories?

In the end, the tone of the writing was what separated this piece from other “poverty porn” types of stories for me. Even then I’m kind of torn. The story is about a family’s struggle to cope with a crisis as much as it is about showing you how bad children have it in the North. While I would hardly expect a writer born in Gulu to shed the atmosphere in which she grew up, it is interesting to see how many of these Caine Prize stories will cater to the troubled-dark-continent narrative. At the outset of this co-blogging experience, Aaron pointed to this, a critique that the Caine Prize was judging African writing based on stereotypical Africa (as viewed by more developed, Western countries). The argument is that, over the last ten years, the Caine Prize has guided African writing into exactly what people here think about Africa already – ignoring the greatest satire on how not to write about Africa. (Props to my friend Heidi for first showing me that piece last month, by the way). Bulawayo’s and Lamwaka’s stories seem to fit that genre of look-what-happens-to-children-in-Africa. At least this story didn’t have a stereotypical Westerner in it too, plus it had a radio in the beginning!

Co-Blog!

Africa is a Country

The Oncoming Hope

Zungu Zungu

Method to the Madness

The Mumpsimus

Sky, Soil and Everything in Between

The Reading Life

Caine Blog: “Hitting Budapest” by NoViolet Bulawayo

This is the first of five reviews of the stories that were shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing. This post is about “Hitting Budapest” by NoViolet Bulawayo from Zimbabwe. You can download the story here if you’re interested.

So, it has literally been a couple of years since I have read anything literature. My reading has been dominated by academic non-fiction, and my downtime has miraculously been spent reading the same. This is my first foray into African literature (besides Beasts of No Nation a few years back), and I’m excited to see where these five stories will take me. If you want to read more reviews, scroll on down to the bottom where I’m compiling the list.

I would start with a summary of this short story, except I don’t really know what to tell you. Because not a lot happened in this story. It is told by a girl named Darling and it is about a group of children who head from their slum-neighborhood (ironically called Paradise) to the nice part of town (called Budapest) to steal guavas. They meet a British expat who takes their pictures, they steal guavas, and they find a dead woman in the jungle. They scream at the expat, they eat said guavas, and they steal the shoes off of the dead woman. But there’s no progression in the story, and no real conflict beyond what seems to be the normal bickering among children and some tension when the children’s regard for the British woman goes from curiosity to anger. The story isn’t really all that eventful.

There are interesting things in the story. For starters, the character Chipo is described as being slower than everyone else “because her grandfather made her pregnant.” That’s a heavy piece of information to be dropping mid-sentence a few paragraphs in, and nothing comes of it. It just becomes part of the setting. In the middle of discussing how to leave Paradise and become rich, one of the children argues that “I don’t need school to make money. What Bible did you read that from huh?” which presented an interesting dynamic of prosperity and proselytism in these kid’s lives, I suppose.

When they ask the British person what she has (asking about the food she is eating) she assumes they are asking about her camera, which they really don’t care about but which she must think separates her from them, but nothing really happens with that either. In the same scene she tosses what’s left of her food in the trash and it sets a stark contrast, as Darling explains that “we have never seen anyone throw food away,” followed by rebuking her for acting as if “she had never seen anybody pregnant,” referring of course to ten-year-old Chipo. What’s normal for one’s life is not normal for the other, but again – nothing comes of it. They let the woman take pictures of them and then they leave and scream at her for, apparently, throwing away food.

Maybe I’ve been away from literature for too long and I’m missing something. The uneventfulness of the story reminds me of the worst summer reading I ever did, A Separate Peace. But that’s about where the similarities end beyond children arguing and the story going nowhere. But, maybe this is how it’s supposed to be. The story is very much a-day-in-the-lives-of-us, so I guess it shows that their lives are rather uneventful. At the same time, I feel like it’s attempting to show the ruin of Paradise – the kids aren’t going to school and living in good homes, they’re stealing food and they only have one set of clothes and one of them was raped and they find a dead woman on the road home, all while being the slum tourist photo op for the British woman. But I feel like a story needs to do more than show children being children or poverty being poverty. Overall, I’m not too impressed with this story, but maybe it’s just not my type of writing.

As for the co-blogging experience. Check out these awesome bloggers and their analysis of “Hitting Budapest:”

Zungu Zungu

The Oncoming Hope

Sky, Soil and Everything in Between

The Mumpsimus

Method to the Madness

Africa is a Country

The Reading Life