27 May 2012

Blogging the Caine Prize 2012: "Love on Trial"

This is my third post for the great 2012 Caine Prize blogathon. (See my first post for some details.) 

My initial response to "Love on Trial" by Stanley Kenani (PDF) was: This is a terrible story. Preachy, obvious, awkward, tedious.

But then I thought about a letter I wrote to one of my college teachers back in the '90s, when people still wrote letters.

I had transferred from New York University after putting in three years toward a BFA in Dramatic Writing, and was now an English major at the University of New Hampshire. There were a few reasons for my transfer, mostly have to do with money, with a sense of disillusionment with the world of New York theatre, and with a crisis in confidence in my abilities as a writer of much of anything, dramatic or not. I got involved with the student theatre group at UNH and was cast as the lead in Paul Rudnick's play Jeffrey. I was coming to this after having spent three years trying to write the most obscure, abstract, confrontational, and bizarre theatre I could imagine. I had also spent a lot of time exploring various ideas of sexuality. My favorite teacher had been an avant-garde playwright and actor who often wrote difficult, complex, and sometimes sexually-explicit plays and monologues, generally from a very queer sensibility. I remembered him saying something in class about Jeffrey as a shallow play, or a reactionary play, or something like that. (He was a very kind and gentle fellow, and I think that's why I remembered his comment, or at least the general import of his comment: Jeffrey is not a good play.)

Our production of Jeffrey was, as far as anybody knew, the first gay play to be performed at UNH, and certainly the first play to be performed there with an opening scene in which men are in bed together talking about condoms, sex, etc. We easily sold out all of the performances and I've never, before or since, experienced the same sense of a community needing a particular piece of theatre so much. It was very much the right show at the right time in the right place.

And so that's what I wrote to my teacher. It was a revelation for me — it wasn't, I said, that Jeffrey is necessarily a bad play, but rather that it is a play that needs particular sorts of audiences, and the work it will do is different depending on those audiences. For a downtown New York theatre crowd, it's really not much. For the University of New Hampshire in the fall of 1997, it was just the catalyst necessary for all sorts of conversations that had been festering beneath the surface of the university's culture. (My teacher replied that he thought it was a very good insight, and also highlighted one of the unique virtues of the theatre: people enacting stories for each other in a specific place at a specific time.)

Which brings me back to Kenani's story, and not just because it, too, is about men who have sex with each other. (Basic plot: a local drunk in a Malawian village stumbles upon two young men having sex in a bathroom. The event becomes a national news story, the one man who can be identified is put on trial and sentenced to jail, and a TV news reporter has a long interview with him in which the young man expresses no shame in his gay identity and argues with the interviewer about the Bible, etc. Western countries find out what happened and impose economic sanctions on Malawi, causing much hardship across the country, including for the drunk who now can't afford alcohol and so has the DTs, as well as HIV, which he can't get medicine for because of sanctions.) I can imagine that there are probably audiences for whom this is a very good story — a story that dramatizes various perspectives on homosexual behavior, and ends with a sort of fable that suggests ignoring threats to the lives of people different from yourself is not, in the end, a winning strategy.

As a reader of this story, I'm in a similar position to that of a chic, über-post-postmodernist downtown New York audience watching Jeffrey. The central section of the story, the interview, feels to me like a Cliff's Notes version of Heather Has Two Mommies.

But as readers we sometimes need to get over ourselves. The sorts of questions and answers in the interview may seem embarrassingly basic to me, but they are also ones I've heard all my life, and ones that could be, for all I know, entirely plausible within the setting of the story. (I know very little about Malawi, sadly.) None of the arguments made by the interviewer are exotic, none of them require anything other than a certain type of religiosity and a certain type of ignorance. Neither is in short supply throughout the world. (Sometimes, too, the religiosity is just a camouflage. I vividly remember my own childhood feelings against what my father called "the queeries" being founded on the idea that the Bible said it was an abomination. Despite the fact that I and my father, from whom I'd gotten this idea, were not at all religious and never resorted to the Bible for any other information. For both of us, the argument covered a deep homophobia: in myself, from fear and confusion over my own nascent desires; for him ... well, I don't know. But he hated nothing and no-one more than gay men. They were the only monsters worse than anti-gun liberals.)

Perhaps I should try instead to make the best case I can for the story. To argue against my initial feelings and perceptions, which are, I know from experience, sometimes untrustworthy.

The argument I would find most convincing in this story's favor would be one that reconfigured its didactic elements, because it is the didacticism that I respond most forcefully against. I do not like fiction that tries to teach me lessons, not because I think fiction has no ethical power, but because didacticism short-circuits the ethical strengths available to fiction as a form.

From such a view, then, the interview would exist in the story not to convey to us an argument, not to appeal to our compassion for the character of Charles and his plight, not to convince us that homosexuals, in fact, deserve respect — but rather, the interview would exist for its inherent dramatic qualities. The story would then more be about the power of surveillance, curiosity, ignorance, and the power of media than it would be about The Value Of Being Nice To The Homosexuals. Instead, what we should look at in the story is the way one of the least respected people in a village is able to manipulate the village's vulgar curiosities and ignorance to his own advantage, and then how his advantage becomes the TV's station's advantage, and how the situation fuels the arrogant pride of the self-righteous throughout the country, but then how all of this ends up having terrible effects for just about everyone involved. (Though why it has terrible effects is worth noticing, too: Not because, from your own perspective, it is bad to punish homosexual behavior, but rather because rich countries may not like it if you do so, and they will punish your little, vulnerable country in response.)

The story remains didactic, but more complicatedly so in that interpretation.

If all of this feels like strained justification ... well, it is. Nothing is going to make me see this as a good work of fiction, even if I can imagine that there is an audience somewhere that could value it. Didacticism, after all, doesn't have to destroy a story. Kurt Vonnegut's work is profoundly didactic, but it's also, at its best, complex and a heck of a lot of fun to read. There is just nothing in "Love on Trial" that I can see to offer any readerly pleasure. No particular depth of thought to set our philosophizing minds a-spinning. Flat attempts at humor. Straightforward, functional, reporterly prose that not only offers little aesthetic pleasure but also keeps us generally distanced from the characters, so we don't have any of the pleasures of detailed characterization. As with the didacticism, no one of these elements is at all a guarantee of a bad piece of fiction, but all of them together pretty much doom it in comparison to more lively, skilled, and complex work.

One of the negative effects of the Caine Prize is that it sometimes puts too great a burden on stories that can't bear such a burden. The Caine Prize stories gain an international audience. They are no longer merely stories. By being nominated for The! Caine Prize! for African! Writing!, they suddenly must bear the burden of being seen as Exemplary African Stories by all sorts of different audiences.

Most stories from anywhere can't bear such burdens. "Love on Trial" certainly can't, and it's unfortunate the Caine Prize judges thought it could.

Other bloggers on "Love on Trial":
Method to the Madness
Stephen Derwent Partington
Backslash Scott
Black Balloon
City of Lions
Practically Marzipan