Words are the world

2011-08-29 09:31

‘There are some things that are so awful you wish you had not heard them. Ever. What Winifred told me today is one of those things.” That is Bul-Boo’s diary entry.

It offers a glimpse of the kind of burden a secret places on a child who would rather be preoccupied with happier things, such as picking fights with her twin sister, Madillo, and playing with the next-door neighbour, Fred.

The Butterfly Heart draws its name from the shape of Zambia, where this lyrical story is set. It is told in a humorous and childlike manner, yet there is nothing childlike about its subject matter – forced marriage.

Author Paula Leyden sensitively introduces this culturally controversial issue through the eyes of Bul-Boo in the first person, interspersed with a narrative from Ifwafwa, the snake man who not only saves the day, but saves Winifred’s life.

Leyden, who partly grew up in Zambia and Kenya, says of her decision to tackle forced marriage: “A school friend of mine disappeared into a forced marriage when we were both in primary school. The thought of her never left me.

“So, in a way, this story is for her and others like her all over the world who have found themselves robbed of their childhood, health and their right to become young women in their own time.”

Choosing to tell the story through the voice of a young narrator is part of how Leyden introduces a magical element into the story – Ifwafwa. Bul-Boo’s sister doesn’t get a voice in this story. Says Leyden: “You’ll have to wait for the sequel to hear about the life of Madillo! In The Butterfly Heart, I felt Bul-Boo’s take on the issue suited the story and I hope she worked well as an alternate voice to that of the snake man.”

Bul-Boo’s classmate, Winifred, is from a poor family and after the death of her father, her uncle imposes himself upon the family, marrying her mother according to tradition. Unlike Winifred’s late father, her uncle is a cruel, imposing and violent man. Winifred’s mother has no reproductive rights. She is forced to bear child after child under unpleasant circumstances.

Things become worse when Winifred’s uncle decides to give her hand in marriage to his drinking buddy. She is forced out of school to prepare for this ordeal.

The girls, aided by their neighbour, Fred, seek counsel from Ifwafwa, the local snake whisperer, who is said to have supernatural powers.

Thrown into the storytelling mix is the girls’ teacher, a nun, who has wild stories to tell the children. We also read about the twins’ happy home life that they share with their Zambian father and English mother.

This is in stark contrast to Winifred’s desperate home life.

Perhaps the most taxing part of this story is Leyden having to step through the potential minefield of tradition versus modernity while also taking into consideration the rights of the people in her story.

“I think anywhere you find yourself in the world, you become aware of old ways and new ways rubbing against one another. It is how history is shaped. Comfortable traditional ways of doing things come up against new and untested ways.

“We muddle along and find a way for these to work together, or to find a way in which one displaces the other. The new then gradually becomes the old. It is a timeless thing. It is part of life and part of fiction.”

But Leyden adds that her novel also addresses the way parents listen to their children – or not – dismissing their stories as just that.

“I think that one of the lessons I have learnt as a parent is that I should listen to my children when they talk (not in the sense of obeying them, mind you!) and really hear what they have to stay

“Quite often, children will pick up things that may be happening to other children that they are in contact with. As parents and adults, we need to hear these things and not dismiss them as silly child talk.

“For example, in the abuse scandals that have hit the church, one of the common threads to emerge in subsequent inquiries is that often children were not listened to; they were not taken seriously. This had grave consequences.”

The book has been endorsed by Amnesty International UK as “contributing to a better understanding of human rights and the values that underpin them”. After the book was launched in Ireland, now the author’s home, schools were encouraged to get involved.

Scholars from schools in Kilkenny met with Leyden and created visual representations of their understanding of the story. This was all in the interest of getting young people to read and, more importantly, to read stories that they can relate to, or use to help understand the lives of those around them.
The Butterfly Heart tells a magical tale that is full of wisdom and wit. This is an incredibly touching story that respectfully speaks to tradition in a simple but powerful way. It is definitely one for the shelves of the young adults in your home. 

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