Round 3 of the Caine Prize blogathon and I’m really excited about this one. Read this week’s story here.
At a crucial point in Stanley Kenani’s “Love on Trial” there’s a showdown between the young hero, Charles Chikwanje, and an interviewer from Malawi’s national TV station. Charles is a reluctant spokesman for gay rights, having been caught in the act and outed nationally by a local busybody, but the interview shows him more than equal to the task. He cites the story of David and Jonathan from II Samuel as a possible example of homosexual love, at which point the interviewer retorts that “the devil, as Shakespeare says, sometimes quotes scripture for his purpose.”
The interview goes on from here but my attention lingered. What does it mean, in the context of a story about homosexuality in Malawi, that the devil can quote scripture for his purpose? The interviewer uses it to shut down Charles’s subversive questioning; for him, David and Jonathan had a Platonic relationship and homosexuality is a sin, “full stop.” But Charles insists on asking suggestive, insinuating questions: “’Don’t you read more into that relationship than a simple friendship between two men?… Do you yourself have a male friend whose love for you is more than a woman’s?… He could have been bisexual, no?’”
The difference between the interviewer’s heavy-handed moralism and Charles’s agile questioning is crucial, since this story can be misunderstood as a simple, moralistic defense of homosexuality against the hypocrisy of its critics. That’s all in there, of course, but the story as a whole is much more subtle and canny about how moral truths circulate in society. Even if “Love on Trial” is an “issue-led story,” the issue that animates it isn’t just gay rights but what homosexuality means, how stories about it are created, and how they find impact in a media-saturated society.
For one thing there’s Mr Lapani Kachingwe, the man who outed Charles and who crassly sells stories about him:
“In principle his story is for free, whether he is sober or drunk, but in practice if you want to get down to the finest details, ‘the juiciest parts’ as he calls them, you have to buy him a tot of kachasu, the spirit distilled at Mr Nashoni’s Village Entertainment Centre on the outskirts of Chipiri village.”
What keeps people coming to the unsavory Kachingwe is prurient curiosity. They want to know “how is that possible between two men?… Who, in the process, was performing the functions of the man and who was the woman?” For these putatively innocent souls, homosexuality is about sex. Full stop. Naturally Kachingwe reveals just enough to make sure that he and his drinking buddies are kept permanently in their cups. His villainy, though, has nothing to do with homosexuality. He’s an unscrupulous storyteller who excites the prurience of his audience for his own gain. As a consequence, “Every day the story spreads like oil poured on a sheet of white paper.”
“Love on Trial” is also preoccupied with the media, who willingly provide reams of paper for the oleaginous story to be poured upon. Note that it’s Malawian media who have the largest presence in this story, not the international media that people who love Africa love to hate. Most of the story is taken up with the above-mentioned interview, which Charles gives to a national TV program called Reach Out and Touch:
“Reach Out and Touch is a programme on MBC television which reaches out to, and touches the hearts of millions of viewers. Ordinarily the programme is designed to bring rare human-interest stories to the nation’s attention, so that those who are touched to the heart might also be touched to the pocket to help the victim.”
Again there’s a relationship between storytelling and money, but it’s not necessarily perverse. In the most generous reading, the program produces what Benedict Anderson called an “imagined community.” It provides a way for viewers in the country of Malawi to feel deeply for a stranger who is ostensibly connected to them only by virtue of also being Malawian. What’s more, it allows viewers to transcend the distance implied by broadcast media and, by giving a donation, actually influence the fate of another human being, supposedly for the better. While the story offers more than a whiff of cynicism about this show – it’s about manipulating people’s emotions to give money, it’s about playing God with people’s lives – it also allows the show to be the forum where Charles actually does reach out and touch people with his eloquence.
For me the twin themes of storytelling and homosexuality come together in the question that the interviewer for Reach Out and Touch asks Charles: “’How do you do it, man to man?’” The question repeats the same prurience that the people who buy drinks for Kachingwe want to know: “How is that possible between two men?” But at the same time it encapsulates the promise of a show like Reach Out and Touch, the elusive promise of genuine interpersonal connection, “man to man.” Why would these two themes be linked in this way? I think it’s because the story is trying to look at homosexuality as being not about sex, or about right(eous)ness, but about love. That’s why the foreign countries that cut their aid to Malawi in the wake of Charles’s incarceration only make things worse – they’re treating homosexuality as an issue of rights, not love.
To say that “the devil can quote scripture for his purpose” is to promote a single reading of the Bible, in this case a homophobic one, at the expense of any confusion or ambiguity. In contrast, while Kenani’s story promotes the high-toned idea that homosexuality is about love, he doesn’t ignore the way that it’s also about law and power. By the end of the story Charles is still in jail and Kachingwe is dying because some western government has cut funding to the village’s AIDS program. So law and power are not ignored. But at the same time the story opens the possibility that telling new stories about homosexual love, and providing new interpretations of old stories, can actually touch people where it counts. It’s not a command, but a suggestion.
More thoughts on the story: