You Can't Tell the Players Without a Scorecard
One of the overarching arguments in my current book project is that in Africanist scholarship, work by social historians has sometimes been difficult for outsiders to intuitively or empathetically grasp, that it is easier to connect to the historical experience of highly particular individuals even when they're very much unlike yourself, as opposed to identifying with or intuitively grasping the collective history of abstract categories of people. You may recognize the empirical truth of history described in those larger, more abstract terms, but it may be hard to grasp the humanity of it.
It is always easier to complain about the work of others than to do a better job yourself.
Hence my current dilemma. I've just re-read a long narrative section of one chapter where I'm talking about the political history of one chiefship, in particular the career of one of the central figures in my manuscript, Chief Munhuwepayi Mangwende.
Now keep in mind that I've been thinking about this particular history for about eight years now. Even I have trouble following the ins-and-outs of assassinations, poisonings, conspiracies, plottings, competing claims to the chiefship, intermingled familial histories and so on. As I re-read it, I feel a bit like Michael Palin's character in Monty Python and the Holy Grail who is trying to smooth tempers over after Sir Lancelot slaughters a wedding party: "Let's not bicker and argue over who killed who."
What is especially challenging for me as I think about my probable readers are the unfamiliar names of all the individuals, particularly given that some of the names actually repeat quite often within a generation. (I have to sort out at least three contemporary men who were commonly known as Gomba, for example.)
So a couple of questions for anyone reading.
1. Do you find kinship diagrams useful in general for following relationships within families? What about when they necessarily get really messy (The two chiefly lineages with which I'm concerned have a lot of cases where widows are remarried to rivals, sometimes forcibly, and have children by two, three or sometimes four men in their lifetimes)?
2. If you're writing about byzantine conspiracies and confusingly entangled lineage politics, is it ok if readers remain largely confused about what's going on, given that this is impressionistically what I'd like readers to feel anyway? Or does a rapid-fire review of plots, counter-plots and rival claims that features about thirty different African men with names unfamiliar to American readers just reinforce the feeling that African history is generally incomprehensible? (Basically I'm asking whether it's better to make a point about how complicated things are by laying it out in all its glory, or just telling you all that it's really complicated and boiling it down to its simplest particulars.)
Just to give you some flavor of what I'm dealing with, here's one largish chunk of this section of the chapter. My central character is Munhuwepayi Mangwende; here I'm trying to explain the background to the attempted assassination in 1940 of Munhuwepayi Mangwende by his cousin Raguma, with the probable cooperation of his half-brother Enoch.
Timothy Burke, Spiders and Captives, Chapter Three, draft, 2006.
"In the late 1870s or early 1880s, following a period of famine, the holder of the chiefship was Katerere, who only held the chiefship for a year. The circumstances of his death were unknown, but immediately after his death, Mungate Mangwende of the other lineage became chief. Several oral histories claim that at this time, Katerere’s son Chirodza attempted to assassinate Mungate and stage a coup d’etat by sending a flock of bees to sting Mungate to death.
Mungate survived this attack and decided to retaliate, asking his sons Gatsi and Muchemwa to kill Chirodza. They got him drunk and threw him in a river to drown with his arms and legs tied, and Mungate claimed the chiefship. Later, in 1892, Mungate and Muchemwa were also thought by many to have set up Chirodza’s nephew Gomwe to be killed by colonial police. Mungate also tried to “eat up” the rival lineage by giving away Chirodza’s wives to members of his own lineage, including to Muchemwa , but Chirodza’s younger brother Chibanda as well as some of his sons survived the takeover.
Muchemwa functioned as his father’s most ruthless political enforcer, but eventually became politically estranged from him after Mungate pursued alliances with Portuguese traders moving into the Zimbabwe plateau in the 1880s and later accommodated the new white colonizers who came north in 1890. At least one scholarly account argues that both Muchemwa and Gatsi became broadly popular figures with the general populace in the chiefdom due in part to their opposition to colonial intrusion, but at the cost of being estranged from the elites within both chiefly lineages.
Muchemwa was an important leader in the 1896-97 uprising against the colonizers, and unlike many, refused to surrender at its end. During the uprising, he murdered Bernard Mizeki, a convert to Christianity from Mozambique who had moved into Murewa to prosletyze for the Anglican Church. He also continued to settle dynastic scores largely unrelated to the struggle against white rule during this same period, killing and threatening many of his enemies within the district. Muchemwa waged a personal guerilla war until 1903, when he brokered an agreement with the colonial official William Edwards that allowed him to avoid criminal punishment but compelled him to live next to Edwards and remain under his personal supervision.
In August 1909, Muchemwa confronted two sons of Chirodza, Mutsvatiwa and Gururi, during a meal. Mutsvatiwa was the son of one of Chirodza’s wives whom Muchemwa had taken as a wife after murdering Chirodza. Mutsvatiwa would later testify that Muchemwa frequently chased or attacked him whenever they met, and on this occasion, their mutual hostility boiled over. Muchemwa asked why the two men refused to greet him, and then grabbed their food away from them when they refused to reply. Mutsvatiwa and Gururi got up and left the hut, returning a few minutes later armed with clubs. Mutsvatiwa accused Muchemwa of plotting to poison or bewitch him and then struck him across the forehead with his stick, opening a deep cut three inches long. Muchemwa was able to make it the local clinic on his own, but his skull had been fractured. His condition went unnoticed or at least untreated and he died almost two weeks later after a police officer noticed how bad his condition had become. The Attorney General of Southern Rhodesia refused to prosecute the men for murder, calling the crime “just”.
After Muchemwa died, his brother Gomba took one of his wives and completed the payment of bridewealth to her father that Muchemwa had begun. Here I arrive at the entangled relationship of Munhuwepayi, Enoch, Raguma and Raguma’s other victims, Mbumbira and Josiah. Munhuwepayi was Muchemwa’s son, born only a year before his death, in 1908. Raguma was Gomba’s son, born of Muchemwa’s former wife. Enoch was also Gomba’s son, but of a different mother, born before Raguma. Mbumbira was Munhuwepayi’s older half-brother, also a son of Muchemwa. Josiah was Munhwepayi’s nephew, the son of Muchemwa’s sister and the district officer William Edwards. (Or the son of another district officer, depending on which source you trust.) Just to make it more difficult to follow, let me also introduce at this point Raguma’s sisters Erica and Ethel, who were born after him, and whose bridewealth was eventually ostensibly to spark the dispute between Raguma and Munhuwepayi."
Timothy James Burke - 9/1/2006
Thanks! I'll take a look at it.
Angus Lockyer - 9/1/2006
Jonathan's point about Japan reminded me of Beth Berry's _The Culture of the Civil War in Kyoto_. In the first chapter (I think), she's trying to do a similar thing, in a similar way, with the chaos that follows things falling apart. Maybe worth a look?
Kurt Niehaus - 8/31/2006
as another outsider,
I agree with Brandon's impression that a second format is helpful. Furthermore, it may be particularly useful at the begining of a new "scene." That is, a graphical representation of the characters before and after a coup, highlighting the changes. Of course, numbering various characters (ala a SSN) may provide additional ease, at the cost of dehumanizing them (you guessed it, I'm an automation Engineer).
Ralph E. Luker - 8/31/2006
That strikes me as being one of the rare occasions when you should violate the rule of thumb.
Timothy James Burke - 8/31/2006
Yes, when it's a simple declarative claim. But some of what I'm saying later in the chapter (not in this section) is unreservedly idiosyncratic and observational so I think I want to own up to that very clearly one way or the other.
Ralph E. Luker - 8/31/2006
I don't want to berate the issue, but avoiding the first person doesn't require either the passive voice or the use of "one." "I think that M... was a passive/aggressive megalomaniac ..." becomes "M... was a passive/aggressive megalomaniac ..." easily enough. A simple declarative sentence can effectively launch or conclude a paragraph summing up the evidence.
Jonathan Dresner - 8/30/2006
With regard to the bitterness, it could be a very powerful narrative moment if you could show the roots of that: unless he's just a natural-born sourpuss who would never have been satisfied.
In addition to Otherness, you also have the African Delay issue: the kinds of Shakesperean drama you have here are what we think of as being in our distant past, not recent, and as such evidence of failure to develop. So even as we empathize, there's an undercurrent of "grow up, already" because of our own self-image and the Africa as time capsule problem.
Timothy James Burke - 8/30/2006
Thanks--you really speak to exactly the issue that worries me, and that is one of the driving arguments underneath the whole book. I think part of it is that empathy really is a product of a sense of familiarity and ownership. I was just reading a review of a book that dealt a bit with marriages and remarriages and rivalries within a European aristocratic house, and I thought to myself, "That's just not that different than my own case".
I think that to some extent we're so conditioned to think of Africans as Other, which the scholarship has encouraged, that dynastic rivalries of the kind I'm dealing with here that are readily comparable in certain human and empathetic respects to Shakespearean drama are made to feel remote before we even start.
But in this passage, you aren't getting a lot of the work I've done on a few of these individuals, it's true. Munhuwepayi, I *hope*, emerges as a "real" human individual in the book. Some of these other people, perhaps less so--they're the minor characters in his drama.
One of the tricky figures I need to deal with is a person that my research assistant was able to interview, one of the last sons of Mungate (in his late 90s in 1998) who I feel was a fairly bitter person. It's a complicated thing--how do you give people a sense of character and personality of particular people while trying to avoid the easy cross-cultural judgements that were characteristic of Westerners at other junctures in the last century when it came to Africans? I think that's partly why I want to use first-person, Ralph's caution notwithstanding: I want to be able to say, "I think this man was a jerk or a hero or a contradictory person" and have it be clear that this is just the feeling I get, the empathetic connection I have to the material.
Jonathan Dresner - 8/30/2006
I was just sharing this discussion with my historiography students and I think the problem isn't really with complexity, as much as it is with empathy. Whether a narrative has five or fifteen or fifty individuals doesn't matter as much as the extent to which those individuals matter to the narrative and to the reader. I have this problem with classical Japanese history all the time: when I don't care about the people or issues, I'm considerably less motivated to follow them.
In this case you've got what seem like a fairly unsympathetic group, unless you can give them some character, or give the narrative a frame which makes following the story to its conclusion really worthwhile.
Michael R. Davidson - 8/29/2006
. . .you are looking at an issue where charts of the familial relationships would be de rigeur were you looking at material 500+ years before this. Go to it!
Brandon Scott Watson - 8/29/2006
I always find diagrams and charts very helpful, even when they get messy. Especially when they are messy. It is sometimes helpful to show the reader that the situation really is complicated, and not just a matter of making things seem more complicated than they are. Plus, having the same thing in two different formats is helpful -- what's obvious in one may not be obvious in another, and having both the reader's less likely to get lost.
Given the complexity of lineage politics in a complicated family like this, though, if you use a diagram you might think of breaking it up into several smaller figures, showing different stages of the shifting alliances and feuds within the family. That might allow you to put more than just genealogical relations into the diagram without getting things too tangled (e.g., you could have a brief note on one saying that Muchemwa murdered Chirodza and took one of his wives, or whichever key points you think most important for the reader to get).
Of course, you might not want to take the advice; the reason I said it is that Tolkien does something like this with the genealogies of the hobbits at the end of The Lord of the Rings, and I've always thought it made them easier to follow....
Jonathan Dresner - 8/29/2006
Have you considered rendering it as a screenplay? Hollywood needs to know just how dramatic history really is!
Seriously, though, there are similar issues in classical Japanese scholarship (though not quite so much violence, most of the time) and it's very common to include geneaological tables and to simplify names (in the classical tradition, many people were recorded in diaries, etc., by rank rather than by name, and names sometimes changed with status, as well, so it's conventional for scholars to pick one name and rank [e.g. Murasaki Shikibu, which is a nickname and her highest rank] and stick to it). That said, I often don't bother looking at that stuff, until I'm deep in the narrative and realize nothing makes sense.
You might consider picking one generation as your baseline group, and prefixing names with relationships every now and then "Grandfather Mungate", etc.
I think, overall, that the complexity is useful to preserve: it tells the reader in no uncertain terms what's going on, and how hard you've had to work, and if you've framed the material properly then there's an opportunity for them to work through it with you.
Ralph E. Luker - 8/29/2006
I'm glad that it's you, and not me, who has a story this complex to tell. It's quite a feit to have clarified for yourself where the twists and turns are. Then, how best to lay them out for a reader? I do think that the unfamiliar-sounding names adds to the problem for readers, but there's not much you can do about that. We probably agree that the rule of thumb about the first person is one of those rules that can be broken and that it's important to be pretty clear about why it's being broken.
Timothy Burke - 8/29/2006
One thing that isn't in this section, but comes a bit later, just to show how complex this is, is that there's another plotter who may have been involved inthe assassination who is the son of Munhuwepayi's *grandfather* Mungate. Moreover, lots of Mungate's other sons met with violent ends, some of them likely tied up in chiefly politics. Almost any death within these lineages could be viewed as arguably involving foul play (except, interestingly enough, Munhuwepayi's son Francis, who was murdered more recently, but virtually *everyone* agrees that was just a drunken fight, basically.)
Timothy Burke - 8/29/2006
I've struggled a bit with the use of first-person, but I've decided that in a few cases, it helps make the overall text more informal, friendly and readable. (Better than the construction "one", or passive voice). The overall book is very much about my personal critique of the historiography, so I want to highlight that. In this case, you may be right that it's intrusive, though.
Ralph E. Luker - 8/29/2006
The story that you're telling is much more complicated than my story about Vernon Johns, where there's a white progenitor who probably murdered his former slave mistress in a fit of jealously and their children eventually become witnesses in another murder case against their white father, who had nurtured them after he killed their mother. I do find genealogical charts helpful, in the story I'm telling at least. The only really complicating factor in mine is that I'll probably use italic print for the white folk on the family tree. I'm not altogether happy with that convention because it necessarily follows the American tradition that any lineage of color makes a person of color.
On your narrative, I think it is important to spell out for readers the complexity as you do. It seems to me much better than simply saying: there are complex familial relationships here. I think the only question I'd have is about the insertion of yourself into the narrative -- the I and me or my. I try to avoid doing that, thinking that inserting self references is a bit like a stage designer drawing attention to herself and in her construction of the scenery. It seems to me that all of the things from which the scenery is built or hung have to be there, but you don't necessarily want the audience to see them.