24 June 2011

Blogging the Caine Prize: "In the Spirit of McPhineas Lata"

(This is the latest in a weekly series of posts about the short stories nominated for this year's Caine Prize for African Writing. For more information, see my introductory post. The other posts about this story so far can be read at: Method to the Madness, Zunguzungu, and The Oncoming Hope. To keep up with it all, follow the Twitter hashtag #cainepr.)


Lauri Kubuitsile's "In the Spirit of McPhineas Lata" (PDF) is a delightful little story about, among other things, sex. The story is written in the style and manner of a comic folktale, its characters cartoonish and its situations amusingly absurd. Though sex is the topic of the story, at its heart this is a tale of equilibrium lost and regained -- just about the most surefire and time-tested template for comedy.

I'm wary of saying much about this one, because it would feel a bit like trying to explain a joke, and explaining jokes is the quickest way to kill them. Certainly, there's a bit to say about the gender and labor relations in the story, there's a bit to say about the attitudes toward marriage and sex (the husbands are not, it seems, angry with McPhineas Lata because he is sleeping with their wives -- instead, they're relieved he's dead because he had such better lovemaking technique than they had and thus put them to shame; this is a refreshing change of pace from the jealous, pathological monogamy that fills the majority of stories we read and see), and there's even a bit to say, perhaps, about this being a story in the form of an African folktale by an American-born white African (I'm not the person to do that, though, being a white American with no expertise in folktales, African or otherwise).

But this doesn't seem to me to be a particularly ambitious or complex story, and I think that's its strength, and what makes it by far my favorite of the Caine Prize stories we've read so far. It's nice to read a Caine story that's humorous, and it's nice to read a Caine story that's not ponderous, thumping realism -- it's nice to read a story that has a sense of play in its plot, its form, and its language. Of the stories we've read so far, this is the first one I can imagine handing to somebody else and saying, "Hey, read this, it's worth the time."

So, hey. Read it. It's worth the time.

3 comments:

  1. Perhaps I took this story too seriously but I did not really like this story much at all-I found it to be racist and it seemed like a rejected script from the old 1940s USA TV show Amos and Andy that made from of African Americans-I did not find it particularly funny-I think this story very much fits what Edward Said says in Orientalism when he says western colonizers use “native experts” to cast people outside of Europe as inherently immature and in need of protection-I agree it was a change of pace-I have elaborated on this in my post

    I accept that it is good for readers of the Caine stories to offer a lighter work or do-I enjoyed your post a lot-

    if you have time I invite your comment on my post

    http://goo.gl/N5AuZ

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  2. Certainly, the story is wide open to various charges, and your reading is legitimate and understandable. I'm not even remotely settled in my own mind about the appropriateness or not of using a traditional rural Botswanan community as a setting for this story -- indeed, I think it pretty easily can be read as promulgating a "stupid, primitive Africans" idea. And that's unfortunate and a fault in the story.

    The mitigating elements for me, at least right now, are that the characters are cartoons in a story told in the mode of a folktale, and the amusement and laughter (and I laughed out loud reading this story a couple of times) feels directed not at the characters for being Africans or even for being in a traditional rural African community, but for the specific situation they're in. Now, we could say that Kabuitsile is able to make this a setting we'll accept because of Orientalist attitudes, or because of an idea that such settings are exotic and therefore more likely to have attitudes toward sex and marriage that are not common to, say, the average urban American -- and I think there's some truth to that.

    After all, what would we make of this story if it was set in a farming town in Vermont? (I could actually see this same plot and situation told as a story of a village in rural Vermont, say in the Northeast Kingdom. A story of perplexed farming men and their wives. It would be like a light Shirley Jackson story. But there isn't a tradition, really, of denigrating and oppressing Vermonters, and there is a very real history of that against rural Africans, and Africans in general, so it's not an equal playing field.)

    The key to the story for me, though, is not that it is necessarily an African setting, but a remote one -- it has to be set in a place where the characters don't have a lot of contact with the knowledge and mores of a larger society. It's a story of a small, isolated community having, losing, and regaining equilibrium in an amusing way.

    Do the characters seem stupid and ignorant because they are Africans, or because they are cartoons? Do we come away from the story thinking, "Oh, those stupid, ignorant, primitive, unenlightened, worthless Africans! Look at how silly they are!" Do we come away from the story feeling superior to the characters and their world -- flattered in our own enlightenment, happy we don't live in such a backward place? Does the story encourage a sense of white supremacy? Does it draw its energy from a tradition that is demeaning and harmful, a tradition of stereotyping? (Amos & Andy are designed to be funny not just because they are caricatures, but because they are caricatures of black folks, they are caricatures based on a racial idea -- the engine of the humor is not just cartoonish behavior and people, but cartoonish behavior and people that the general culture says are light exaggerations of qualities all black folks possess -- we are encouraged, even required, to extrapolate beyond the immediate situations and behaviors to the cultural "knowledge" that created those stereotypes, allowed them to disperse, and benefited in clear political, economic, social, and cultural ways from such demeaning stereotypes being spread -- white supremacy benefited from those stereotypes, and they were stereotypes that worked because of race [and were, thus, racist]. They were part of a long and painful tradition of racist stereotyping, one going back at least through minstrel shows.)

    Those questions (before the parenthetical there) are ones each reader must answer alone, I think, and if the answer to any of those questions is incontrovertibly yes, then it's a real problem. I think there's room for answering yes to most, maybe even all, of those questions in this story, and it's a reservation I have about it. But I didn't come away from the story feeling encouraged or required to answer yes to those questions, and I ended up feeling real affection for these cartoons.

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  3. you make very good points in your post-as I finished this story I did not feel superior to the people in the story (one does not feel superior or inferior to cartoon characters which is how I see the people in the story-)-I think making fun of Africans in the way this story does is almost like a story that makes fun of people of Jewish heritage as money grubbers or Irish as drunks-as to Shirley Jackson stories-I have read only "The Lottery"-I think "The Lottery " does a much better job of creating a credible background for the story-

    As I read the story, I did think "am I over reacting or being too harsh-is this, as you said, like a parable in which characters represent types or virtues and thus need not be "whole characters"?-maybe this is right but I did not get that feeling-about two years ago I read Yukio Mishima's The Sailor Who Fell from Grace With the Sea"-I found unless you read the story almost as work of Japanese theater it is terrible-understood correctly then it is a brilliant parable-

    so my response to the idea that this story should be seen as a parable so this makes it "OK" to use the people as cartoon figures is maybe-

    I think it is Orientalism that allows us to accept such notions-

    in defense of the story-perhaps the author is making fun of these attitudes-

    even if it is parable-as such I thought it was too long and too broad-

    I did not leave this story feeling superior or happy I do not live in the area where the story is set-I left it feeling kind of embarrassed to have read it

    maybe I am just being cranky but I did not find it all that funny-

    if you listen to the old Amos and Andy shows (they can all be heard online)-I thought they were over all better written than this story

    My post on the "In the Spirit of McPhineas Lata"

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