Torture is Wrong – But So Is Rape.

Wednesday night my wife and I went to see Christopher Durang’s Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them, a 2009 play that was being performed at the Yale Cabaret. It’s a story about how quickly things can escalate, especially when you’re surrounded by men with guns, and it lampoons conservative ideals that justify torture and promote preemptive strikes. It is also a piece of rape redemption.

It didn’t start that way (or maybe it did, more on that below). I was enjoying the show at one point, but by the end of it my wife and I were exchanging unimpressed, disapproving, and then angry-as-fuck glances. The rant we found ourselves in during our walk home informs this here blog post. Without further ado, Why Rape is Wrong, and the People Who Write Pro-Rape Plays.

I should’ve known something was up in the opening scenes, when our female protagonist Felicity realizes that her new husband Zamir drugged her the night they were married (and even says that he married her only so that she would sleep with him) and then drugged her again in a subsequent scene before fondling her unconscious body. Every time Felicity talks about this act – in which he drugs her and rapes her – she suspects him of slipping her a date rape drug. She never says he might have raped her. Not once. It may be inferred, but it is never said.

Felicity doesn’t know anything about Zamir, and suspects that he might be a terrorist, or a mobster, or a serial killer. Most of the rest of the play is Felicity’s fruitless effort to get an annulment (but every time she brings it up, Zamir threatens her with explicit violence) and her father’s misguided quest to stop Zamir’s alleged terrorist plot. Both Zamir and Felicity’s father have anger problems and love to put women in their place. Her father is the ultimate Crazy Conservative Dad, hating on Jane Fonda, blaming gay marriage for ruining everything, caring more about Terri Schiavo and fetuses than his own wife, and constantly threatening to use his 2nd Amendment right to blow Zamir to pieces.

The story is dotted with Felicity’s mother’s peculiarity, a peculiarity which is reaching the breaking point of unhinged. It also becomes clear that she is unhappy in her loveless marriage. These facts are not unrelated. At various points in the play, we see her battling with the role of the quiet, subdued woman whose husband tells her how to dress and how to act, eventually erupting in a monologue, declaring her own opinions, dammit, and reveling in her power to be her own self. And then she promptly goes back to being a kind, quiet wife.

The story progresses, things escalate (as they do when you’re around men with guns), and after an unfortunate series of misunderstandings, Felicity’s father captures Zamir and tortures him until he makes up a story about a bombing, while Felicity tries to convince him it’s all a misunderstanding. Ha, we’ve successfully made fun of the pro-torture crowd! That’s when Felicity halts the play and tells the narrator she wants to go back to before things all went wrong and make them better.

From this point on, things actually get worse as far as rape apologia is concerned. The Yale Cab’s program asks, “how do we create a reality that we find acceptable in a world gone mad?” Let’s see Felicity’s attempts to make her world more “acceptable,” to – in her own words – have “the same characters, only with better aspects.”

First, we reverse to the morning when she introduces Zamir to her parents. She has already been raped at least once and will be raped again that night, and the scene escalates in the same way it had before. She declares this a no-go, and we have to go back further – to before she ever met Zamir. This makes sense because the only “acceptable” world is one where men don’t rape women.

Rewind to the bar. She meets Zamir, and he promptly slips pills in her drink. She stops the scene, declares that a no-go and – rather than exit stage right and find a non-rapist man to date – she tells Zamir they’ve got to work on those types of things. Same characters. Better aspects. She then explains that the pills and the drinking were how she got herself into this mess, and so Zamir orders her a selzer water. At one particularly teachable moment, Felicity looks out at the audience and says, “women should make better choices,” just in case she hadn’t made her point clear enough. After a man just tried to slip drugs in her drink, she victim blames herself. She also tries to get Zamir’s rage in line, but it takes a couple more stop-the-play moments (that is, he has a couple more outbursts of anger bordering on violence).

Let’s be clear here. A man raped a woman multiple times, and she gets the chance to go back in time to make things better. And by make things better, she tut-tuts him for trying to drug her, divides the blame for her subsequent rape evenly between the date-rapist for drugging her and herself for drinking too much, and then tries to stay with him and make things better by keeping his rapist tendencies and bursts of violent rage in check with kind reminders. Women don’t need to make better choices, but Felicity sure does. The writer who created her had some other options, I’m sure.

Meanwhile, Felicity’s mother is back in full wife-mode, and is elated that her husband is feeling so much empathy that he said sorry when he stepped on her foot while dancing. There’s hope yet, ladies. Earlier in the play, she had said that she was still waiting for her husband to come around, after decades of unhappiness and feeling trapped. Also earlier in the play, Felicity talks to the reverend who married her and Zamir to get advice about an annulment. He asks if she could maybe forgive him, and she says “maybe I could forgive him in a couple of years,” but that “right now” she wants to get out of the marriage.

Again, let’s be clear. If you’re in a relationship with a man who doesn’t value you, pay attention to you, or respect you in any ways, just wait. If you’re in a relationship with a man who hurts you and you are angry, maybe forgive him.

At one point, Felicity’s mother says that she doesn’t know what “normal” is, and that that’s why she goes to the theater. But the “normal” that this performance projects is not a good one for women.

In the final scene, Felicity and a rape-redeemed Zamir slow-dance their way to the end. After showing Zamir as a rapist with an anger problem who hates “American women” and their opinions, the final scenes tell the audience that all Felicity needed to do was try harder at changing him and getting the better aspects of his character to come out. Faced with the possibility of changing the outcome, she opted to not be raped, but still stay with the predatory man who would have tried to rape her. It seems that Christopher Durang, the playwright, was so focused on caricaturing neoconservative warmongerers that he didn’t mind the rape apologia that came with it.

The play is billed as a satire, and it’s a good one when it comes to right-wing, hyper-masculine, trigger-happy men and the security state’s use of torture. But where it discusses the rapist tendencies of masculinity and misogyny, it is not written to draw laughs. Felicity’s moral lines in the closing scenes are the most revealing parts of the play’s misogyny. At the play’s most teachable moment, the play says this: if a man drugs you and rapes you and terrorizes your family and makes you feel insecure, just try to change him for the better, a la Beauty and the Beast.

A New York Times review of the play says that the story is marked by a “subliminal, creepy buzz generated by an addiction to violence that transcends cultures but is apparently coded in the male chromosome.” That might be right. But, while there is plenty of commentary on rage and gun violence, there is little said about rape and denying women agency.

According to the program, Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them lets the audience “laugh while also recognizing the painful truth of our present social and political reality” and shows “little glimmers of hope that change may, indeed, be possible.” But when it comes to the social ills of our present reality, rape culture was not among the things being criticized, and the change that came still had the rapist go home with the girl, he just hadn’t drugged her yet.


Contemporary Art/South Africa


"Contemporary Art/South Africa," Yale University Art Gallery

“Contemporary Art / South Africa,” Yale University Art Gallery

There’s an exhibition of contemporary art from South Africa running all summer at the Yale Art Gallery, and I think you should come over here and see it. Curated by a group of students from various disciplines, it explores a combination of ideas through contemporary art and South Africa.

The exhibition focuses in on three bisected themes, drawing attention to connections and separations of those themes and looking at South African history as well as art. These themes are the personal and the social, art and politics, and “here” and “there.” It includes established South African artists as well as some seldom seen outside of the continent.

I’ve put a couple of photos, links, and thoughts below the cut. I’d encourage you to come see the whole exhibition if this type of thing interests you and you’re in the area. It will run through September 14, although one video installation (Subotzky’s) will be taken down s
Continue reading

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 The 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.

Continue reading

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

Caine Blog: “The Whispering Trees” by Abubakar Adam Ibrahim

Here’s a belated addition to the Caine Prize blog carnival. The third story we’re reviewing is “The Whispering Trees” by Abubakar Adam Ibrahim from Nigeria. You can read the story as a pdf here and see other reviews linked at the bottom of this post.

I have had some trouble trying to figure out what to write about Ibrahim’s short-listed story. This isn’t because I didn’t like it, and it isn’t because there aren’t things to say. The story says a lot of interesting things about death, is written with some wonderful imagery, and tackles religion and magic in an interesting way.

Twice in the story, our narrator wishes for death. Both times he sees, or imagines that he sees, the world of the dead, the gates of heaven, etc. but is denied entry and forced to live first with his blindness from a car accident and then without the love of his life after she finds somebody else. It is after this second encounter with loneliness (he kept to himself for the most part after being blinded) and the subsequent phase of depression (interpreted by his community as possession by the devil) that he finally succeeds in encountering the world of the dead. He sees souls in the woods, and begins to see them everywhere, regaining a new type of vision that moves far beyond sight.

I’m curious how this plays against the first story we reviewed, Tope Folarin’s “Miracle.” In that story, vision and sight and religion and magic also played a role. But there, we were shown that the power of magic and religion from the blind was really a ruse. It was an attempt to convince people that it was real, an attempt that showed that the miracle wasn’t that the narrator regained his sight (he didn’t) but that everyone saw that he had regained his sight. They all saw the miracle happen, and in that way, the miracle was real. But the reader knows that the narrator still needs his glasses.

In “The Whispering Trees” we see a narrator begin to actually see, but not the same type of sight that he had before. But we, as the reader, see it the same way the other characters do – real. There is no ruse here, no trick to convince the masses or sell sermon tapes. There is only an attempt to free people, to free their souls, and to free our narrator from his waiting at the gates.

Other posts:

Caine Blog: “Foreign Aid” by Pede Hollist

This is the second review of the Caine Prize 2013 shortlist. This week we’re covering “Foreign Aid” by Pede Hollist of Sierra Leone. You can read the story yourself here [pdf] and scroll to the bottom of this post to see the other posts discussing the same story.

Pede Hollist’s short story “Foreign Aid” chronicles the return trip of its protagonist, a Sierra Leonean who has spent twenty years in the States, to his family and home.  The return doesn’t exactly go the way that our protagonist, Logan (formerly Balogun), expects. He loses his suit cases, quickly spends most of the money he brought with him, and encounters trouble in connecting with his family over their needs.  As Aaron has pointed out, this last part is precisely because the journey “is just a visit, just a brief interlude, a long awaited vacation. This, it seems to me, is where his problems begin.” Logan is no longer of Sierra Leone, he is only returning briefly.  While I agree with Aaron that this is where Logan’s problems begin, Aaron calls the return a vacation, and I would push to describe Logan’s trip back more as a debt payment or a journey of obligation.  After all, when he’s preparing for the trip, Logan is not ecstatic to see his sister again or eager to catch up with his parents, he brings gifts because he is “motivated by guilt and a desire to make up for neglecting his parents and sister for almost twenty years.”  If the immigration officer asked him if the travel was for business or pleasure, it’d be hard to discern by looking at the events that follow.

Once in the company of his parents, Logan offers to pay for things or hands money to his family no less than nine times.  But it is clear throughout that Logan has twenty years of debt to pay back, and he never seems to get close.  His gifts are lost, his cash depletes, and his sister isn’t interested in his offer to take her to America.  Finally, in his effort to confront Ali Sayyar, the father of his sister’s child, Logan encounters the hard truth.  Logan tries to put Sayyar in his place, accusing him of being a foreigner and demanding that he support the unborn child, when Sayyar reveals that he is not just the father of the child but he is also supporting the entire family through a host of loans, and that he is a native Sierra Leonean, something that Logan can hardly say for himself after spending half of his life in America.

When Logan explains the situation to his family, arguments break out left and right over the rapidly growing number of debts the family owes this one man.  Logan shrinks into solitude for the remainder of his trip, realizing that his absence had left his family in debt, and that his trip to repay his own debts to his family had done close to nothing. His last bit of respite is to go on a date with his sister’s friend Tima, and even this ends terribly.  After walking into the hotel “with high expectations, like an indebted gambler into a Vegas casino,” and then he is stood up.  His attempt at a last hurrah before returning home to his wife (to whom he might also be indebted, since she refuses to send him more cash as he requests) is dashed, and later explained by a note from Tima explaining her inability to date a married man. Is the house always wins in Vegas, perhaps Sierra Leone always wins when those who leave try to return with only money and intentions.

Besides the frequent presence of debt and obligation, the other major theme here is couched in the title, “foreign aid.” Logan engages in two types of giving, he hands out cash to all of the distant relatives at the party his parents throw for him, and he also gives specific amounts to his parents for specific purposes, such as his mother’s doctor’s visit and his father’s car parts.  He also works to change his family for the better, offering his sister a ticket to America and to help his parents understand the benefits of going.  As several other bloggers have discussed, this attempt fails miserably.  In his effort to set things right with Ali Sayyar, things fall apart even more.

In the confrontation between Logan and Sayyar, it is revealed that Logan’s nativist sentiments collapse under the realization that he is the foreigner in the situation.  While it is important to acknowledge that Sayyar is in some ways more native that Logan, it is also important to look at Logan’s prejudice against Sayyar as it relates to the theme of foreign aid.  Logan’s attempts at assisting his family, both through handouts and direct (shall we say conditional) aid, fail to meet his community’s needs.  Meanwhile, Sayyar is able to pay every member of his family regularly, to the extent that he virtually owns the family and literally owns their home.

Despite his Sierra Leonean citizenship, Sayyar is still a stand-in for the West’s growing competitors in African development: China, India, and the Middle East.  As Kola notes, the boy at the end of the story talks of an “opposite migratory pattern eastwards,” moving to Nigeria to learn to become a pilot rather than travel to America as Logan did.  I saw these as fairly explicit nods to the growing presence of the greater “East” in confrontation with America and the rest of the West.

Lastly, I feel the need to note how much this story reminded me of last year’s shortlisted story, “La Salle de Depart,” by Melissa Tandiwe Myambo (pdf of the story, my review).  It doesn’t remind me of the story because of the similarities, but for the differences.  In Myambo’s story, also of a man going back home to visit family, his sister begs him to take her son to America and he refuses because he does not believe it is a good decision and he is wary of its effect on his life back in America.  In Hollist’s story, another man goes home and tries to bring his sister to America, but she refuses, saying that “America has problems too” and that she has heard stories of friends who are “worse off in America than here.” I thought it was interesting to see just how directly opposite the two stories were in their depiction of the return trip and of life both leaving your home country and of life being left behind. While much of this story is long and ugly, I think putting it in context of other depictions of the divide between diaspora and home softens it up a bit.

Other bloggers’ thoughts:

Some Thoughts on Justice in The Hunger Games

After many years of people telling me to read The Hunger Games, I used my first weeks without school to read through the trilogy. I liked it quite a bit, and it was nice to sink back into some good fiction of the fantasy/sci-fi variety (it’s been a while). I hope to write about it some in the future, but for now, some thoughts on justice. Obviously, spoilers abound.

One thing central to the series is the role of justice. The building at the center of the town square in every district, the building in front of which the Reapings occur and the Victor’s Tours stop, is the Justice Building. Not the Treasury or State Building, not a library or monument. The Justice Building. And the Hunger Games themselves are held every year as punishment for a previous secession. But it’s bizarre just how central of a role justice plays in the events that transpire in Mockingjay.

When Katniss Everdeen takes up her role as the symbolic leader – the Mockingjay – of the rebellion in the districts, she is tasked with being filmed in a series of propaganda spots. The first one the rebels film, one that they have worked on for a long time with a script prepared specifically for this moment, is one in which Katniss declares, “People of Panem, we fight, we dare, we end our hunger for justice!” I think it’s particularly interesting that District Thirteen, which has spent generations plotting how to fight back against the Capitol, has decided that justice would be the rallying point for overthrowing the government. Reading the previous two books, of course there is a sense of injustice in Panem, but the daily lives of citizens seems to be one wrought with inequality, oppression, poverty, and isolation. Why would a farmer from District Eleven find “fight for justice!” more appealing than “fight for freedom!”?

Perhaps this is a hint to the nature of District Thirteen’s mission. There are several hints that President Coin of Thirteen doesn’t want to tear down the Capitol and refashion a new system, she wants merely to take President Snow’s place. Perhaps fighting for equality or freedom didn’t occur to a people who didn’t want actual equality and freedom. But justice, something which traditionally has a victor and a victim, a judge and a prisoner, allowed for Thirteen to come out on top. It’s later revealed that Thirteen didn’t care about the people of the other districts beyond their ability to help fight the Capitol. According to President Snow’s theory, Thirteen planned to allow the other districts to bear the brunt of the fighting so that it could rule. If true, it’s surely not equality or freedom they’re after, but rule. And you can’t have absolute rule until you have justice on your side.

If Thirteen is concerned with justice because it allows the new regime to punish the old, Katniss preempts this early on. In accepting the role of the Mockingjay, she establishes conditions that include an amnesty for captured victors from the 75th Hunger Games. After those Games resulted in a number of heroes surviving to either escape to Thirteen or be taken away to the Capitol, Katniss quickly realizes that the government in Thirteen assumes the prisoners have given up information and are therefore the enemy. In asking for amnesty before they are even in Thirteen’s custody, Katniss pushes transitional justice forwards, establishing the grounds for how those who cooperate with the Capitol are to be treated. She does this primarily for her love for Peeta, but she asks for the amnesty to be extended to all of the victors, because of the fact that they have been taken prisoner by the Capitol and therefore their allegiance to the war shouldn’t be up for debate. They’re prisoners and conscripts, brainwashed and interrogated by the enemy.

In Uganda, amnesty plays a huge role precisely because the rank and file of the Lord’s Resistance Army are viewed as prisoners and conscripts, indoctrinated by Joseph Kony’s spiritual rituals. Forced to fight against their own people in Acholiland and elsewhere, these soldiers are never fully viewed as the enemy for their former communities. And so many civil society groups petitioned for the amnesty program that lasted from 2000 to 2012 (and was recently reinstated). It was a blanket amnesty that encouraged escapes, if you surrendered you were forgiven, no matter what. This is radically different from other amnesties such as the ones that Argentinian and Uruguayan military juntas required before relinquishing power. Those amnesties protected those that society as a whole deemed most guilty. The amnesty in Mockingjay, like in Uganda, is predicated on the fact that the target population is as much victim as traitor/perpetrator. District Thirteen even has a rehabilitation program in which some of the rescued victors undergo treatment to deal with their PTSD and other effects of their torture.

If we fast forward to the final chapters of the book, though, this conception of justice shifts dramatically. After the war ends, we are left trying to piece together recent events as a trial that we never see finds President Snow guilty of a crime we never know, sentenced to death. Meanwhile, it is slowly revealed that the rebel leaders may have planned an attack that both murdered Capitol children and rebel nurses in an act that is simultaneously the last nail in the Capitol’s coffin and also an egregious war crime. As Katniss navigates the immediate aftermath of the war, it is never fully revealed how it was decided that Snow should be executed, all that matters is that he is.

When Coin assembles the remaining victors to decide the fate of the Capitol, they are told that popular opinion is to wipe out all of the citizens of the Capitol. Whether this is true or just something Coin uses to justify more atrocities, genocide as punishment for the previous regime’s crimes is perhaps the most extreme and total form of victor’s justice. It eliminates the enemy completely, while cleansing the rebels’ crimes by framing them through justice. The only way around such atrocities, according to Coin, is to host a final Hunger Games to serve as punishment for the citizens of the Capitol. The victors, themselves victims of the Hunger Games specifically and Capitol crimes broadly, debate the issue. During the debate, Peeta questions the cycle of violence, a common complaint that arises amid accusations of victor’s justice. If the new rulers simply trade places with the former ones without addressing grievances in a constructive way, resumption of violence is almost guaranteed. Half of peace deals fail in the first five years partially because of this failure to embrace true transitional justice. That’s what Panem faces as the victors debate revenge killings.

After the group ends up endorsing the next Hunger Games, with Katniss’s vote, we see that she never intended for Coin to follow through with the plan. When she serves as President Snow’s executioner, instead of killing him she looses an arrow into President Coin, avenging her sister’s death (who was a nurse targeted in the attack on Capitol children) and delivering some justice against District Thirteen, which she has never fully trusted. But in the aftermath she is diagnosed as crazed with grief for her sister and what can only amount to PTSD from her wartime experience instead of coherently acting on a legitimate grievance. Her trial goes on without her, and she is cleared of all charges. Because she is tried in absentia, she never gets to defend herself. While this may actually have saved her life, given her unwillingness to play a role unless it is to save others, it also papered over the past. The new republic misses an opportunity to truly address atrocities on both sides and perhaps get a true – or at least truer – history of what happened during the war. Transitional justice has a huge role to play during such a radical change as this, but it is completely sidelined by the rebels’ desire to be the victors. Instead, the Capitol remains evil and the rebels immaculate. Justice has been doled out, albeit in incredibly uneven ways.

The world we’re left with at the end of Mockingjay isn’t clear. A new president is elected, and there is talk to trying to run the country as a democratic republic. Public services like hospitals are being established across the country in order to better serve the people of Panem. But the question of what the government does with citizens of the Capitol and – more importantly – captured Peacekeepers is not answered. The question of whether the atrocities committed by District Thirteen and the rebels have been revealed is also unanswered, although odds are that they haven’t. As Plutarch argues, “we’re in a sweet period where everyone agrees that our recent horrors should never be repeated… [b]ut collective thinking is usually short-lived. We’re fickle, stupid beings with poor memories and a great gift for self-destruction.” Without an effective transition to bring the two sides together and balanced justice to begin mending wounds, the future of Panem may be bleak.

Caine Blog: “Miracle” by Tope Folarin

This is the first of five review posts on the shortlist for the 2013 Caine Prize for African Writing. This review is of “Miracle” by Tope Folarin of Nigeria. You can find the piece in .pdf form here, and scroll to the bottom of this post to see additional reviews and analyses by the other participants in the Caine Prize blog-carnival.

In the last two years that I’ve written about the shortlist for the Caine Prize, all of the stories have been set in Africa. It’s a welcome change this year that at least one, “Miracle” by Tope Folarin, is set in America. I think it’s fitting, since so many of these writers have spent at least some time outside of Africa (Folarin graduated from Morehouse and Oxford and now lives in Washington, DC), that some of these African short stories deal with non-African aspects of African lives. The setting is central to this story, as the narrator – a Nigerian in the Midwest – tries to define a miracle from the vantage point of life in the diaspora.

The narrator is attending a Nigerian church service in north Texas, and the gathering of churchgoers excitedly participates in the festivities of churchgoing. They’ve arrived, gathered from across the region, to witness miracles. But instead, they’ve often been left unsatisfied, or at least misled. For example, at the beginning of the church service, the churchgoers have to stop at the beginning of each song in order to figure out what song is playing because there is no cue, no leader to guide them through the music. Instead, they must fend for themselves. When they sing, they sing songs of hope, “hope that, one day soon, our lives will begin to resemble the dreams that brought us to America.” But even in successfully coming to America, a feat that can only be described as a miracle, they have been misled.

The prophet that is visiting the church tries to guide them, but it is literally the blind leading the blind. He leads his followers on a meandering road, telling them to thank God that they have been blessed enough to arrive in America, but in the same breath condemning America for making them accept their ailments. And yet, in neither instance is he leading his followers anywhere new. The narrator describes the needs of the community thus: jobs, good grades, green cards, a clearer understanding of identity, to replace failing organs and limbs. And what does the prophet attempt to fix? The narrator’s poor eyesight. There’s no effort to fix what needs fixing, only to get rid of the narrator’s glasses. When the prophet begins by chasing away the bad spirits, the crowd cheers without conviction. It’s no small wonder that the narrator has the same feeling on an individual basis once he has been singled out. He cheers, but with no conviction. His sight remains lost, just like the prophet’s.

If seeing is believing, and the narrator’s sight is still blurred in the end, then his participation in the event is worth noting. After the prophet performs his miracle, the narrator thinks back to his father’s daily reminder of their place in society – in America. Compared to the journey out of Nigeria and into America, his sight is a minor problem that is no need of miracles. Not when people need jobs and green cards and new organs. Not when he suffers from asthma. But his eyes are what the prophet tries to heal. And so, when the prophet sets about correcting the narrator’s vision rather than his breathing, the narrator plays along, aware that he must in order to keep up both the miracle of healing, the miracle of life in the diaspora.

From the co-bloggers:

Blogging the Caine Prize!

The shortlist for the Caine Prize for African Writing has been announced, which means a growing cabal of bloggers will be writing reviews/analyses about the five stories soon. This will be our third year going, and I’m really excited about it. The stories are always really interesting, and I get exposed to things I would never find otherwise. The shortlist itself is often more exciting than just the ultimate winner, and seeing the various types of stories that make it this far is really interesting. I’ve learned a lot from my co-bloggers in how to read a text, and it’s helped me recently as I’ve been organizing the African Studies Reading Group here at Yale, an ad hoc eating and close-reading group of folks, within our department this past year.

And so, with that, I’m excited to announced that I’ll be joining the ranks in reading the Caine Prize shortlist this year in the last week of May and throughout June. If you want a taste, feel free to click the “Caine Prize” tag and see posts from the proceeding years, and I hope you’ll check out posts by the whole crew of bloggers at the bottom of each of my reviews. If you’re interested in joining us, please do! Drop me a line and I’ll make sure to link to it.

The shortlisted stories for the 2013 Caine Prize are [links to pdfs]:

We’ll be tackling them weekly and in that order, starting the week of May 27th. Won’t you read with us?

Putting Kony 2012 in Context

In the last issue of Journal of Human Rights Practice, there was a debate about the Kony 2012 film and campaign by Invisible Children, four authors contributed analyses of the phenomena that captured the world’s attention last March.  Now that we’ve passed the campaign’s self-imposed “expiration date,” it’s worth revisiting it to explore some of what these authors critiqued, to offer yet more criticisms on the campaign, and also to defend some of the campaign’s accomplishments.

All four essays are worth reading. Sam Gregory explores the important pitfalls of centering a film around its audience the way that IC chose to, especially in regards to how the film was interpreted outside of that context.  David Hickman rightly points out that the film lacks an observational mode, rendering any exploration of the war’s history impossible.  Meanwhile, Lars Waldorf correctly observes that the campaign has raised the alarm, and that online attention must transition into real action. Mark A. Drumbl offers a strong analysis of the depiction of child soldiers. These are all important aspects of the film from which IC and others seeking to replicate their success can learn. But there are a few moments when the essays address the pitfalls of the film without considering the context in which it is set and the other activities of Invisible Children.

When he questions IC’s failure to garner offline support, Waldorf cites the poor showing in April’s Cover the Night activities.  However, I think it is important to situate Kony 2012, both the film and the campaign, within the organization’s almost decade-long campaign to raise awareness about the LRA conflict.  The fact is that IC has translated its surface appeal into real action on numerous occasions, with tens of thousands of American youth committing to day-long actions to draw attention to various aspects of the conflict.  In addition, IC and its partners were able to mobilize over a thousand supporters, myself included, to descend on Washington, DC, in 2009, helping usher the LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act into passage.  It was hailed as the largest lobbying initiative for any Africa-related bill, garnering record-breaking bipartisan support. This law would later be the foundation for President Obama’s decision to deploy 100 military advisers to the region and the stepping stone for the post-Kony 2012 lobbying push to gain more funding for civilian protection programs in LRA-affected regions and to expand the State Department’s “Rewards for Justice” program to include LRA leaders, both of which have passed.  In November, long after the luster of the viral video had worn off, IC was able to host a massive summit in DC that included political and civil society leaders from LRA-affected countries as well as representatives from the AU, UN, and ICC, with an audience in the thousands. Whether you support the goals or not, this is a record that overshadows the piecemeal results of Cover the Night, and the number of victories IC can claim is a testament to the depth and breadth of the organization’s grassroots support.

When Drumbl criticizes IC, he argues that the organization fails to provide other needs that victims may require beyond the capture of Joseph Kony.  Here he makes the same mistake, failing to look beyond the film itself while criticizing the organization as a whole.  IC’s programs in Uganda have included scholarships for children to return to school, employment in a number of agricultural and craft-making programs, teacher exchange programs, and efforts to rebuild schools and provide better sanitation in villages. In an effort to criticize IC’s humanitarian proposals, Drumbl also states that child soldiers are often not rescued at all; most former abductees actually defect.  But IC understands that, and while they may urge their donors to “help bring them home,” their efforts to make that happen are actually through leafleting and radio broadcasts specifically targeting conscripts, encouraging them to defect.

One critique that Waldorf levels, however, is very important to expand upon.  In this video, as in their other videos, IC has taken clear sides in the conflict between the LRA and the Government of Uganda, depicting Kony as pure evil.  While Kony has committed egregious acts of violence, often on innocent civilians, it is imperative that an organization with the platform that IC holds turn some attention to the Ugandan government, which has allowed Kony’s terror campaign to continue to benefit its own agenda, which has employed devastating tactics on civilians under the auspices of anti-LRA missions, and which has forced millions of civilians into displacement camps with such deplorable conditions that they have been described as torture and genocide.  Anything less is a misrepresentation of the situation and a disservice to the mission of ending the conflict.

Another problem that IC has chosen to ignore was highlighted by Drumbl, and that is that the organization fails to depict the complexities of opting for prosecuting Joseph Kony over other alternatives, such as Uganda’s recently-ended amnesty program.  While Invisible Children’s programs fund radio come-home messaging aiming to encourage defections by promoting amnesty, the organization’s video made no mention of how the amnesty complicates the ICC’s indictments for Kony.  And worse, when the Ugandan government chose to end the amnesty program in May, Invisible Children failed to use its platform to adequately condemn the decision, choosing to sign a joint statement [pdf] with other organizations, but without broadcasting very much information to its massive support base.  When coupled with its support for the ICC indictments and Uganda’s military solution to the conflict, Invisible Children is involved in what is an increasingly militarized, judicial agenda that is replacing amnesty and negotiations.

What we have seen in the last year is that IC’s support base has grown, but its policies have remained the same.  The group is still using a simplified narrative to gather massive amounts of support, pushing a military solution as the only way forwards.  On this, their critics and I agree.  However, it is important to also consider the places where IC has succeeded, in its ability to raise awareness, in its efforts to support the local population, and in its work to protect civilians.  It seems that we are past debating whether Invisible Children has had an influence or whether they are doing any good at all; the debate should be about whether the net influence is positive, and whether the good work comes at a cost. As we move forward in 2013, it is critical that Invisible Children do three things: give a more nuanced and balanced depiction of the conflict, including naming and shaming the government where it is desperately needed; take a step back from its pro-military agenda, allowing room for amnesty and protection of soldiers forcibly conscripted into rebel ranks in their messaging; and stop dismissing critics, engaging them in a healthy dialog about how best to resolve the conflict.