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The Butterfly Prison Paperback – August 18, 2015
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About the Author
Tamara Pearson is a writer, journalist, activist and teacher. Currently based in Ecuador as an editor for an international news organization, she has been a journalist for 14 years, working from Venezuela as a reporter and respected analyst, as well as for Green Left Weekly in Australia. She has also written for a range of other media in English and Spanish in Bolivia, Mexico, Pakistan, Zimbabwe, and more. She campaigned for refugee rights and against the war in Iraq in Australia, and was involved in community organizing in Venezuela. She also worked at an alternative school in Venezuela promoting creativity and imagination as tools for expression and empowerment.
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Using vivid imagery she has created a world in one of Sydney’s (Australia) poorest suburbs, Macquarie Fields, which in 2005 was rocked by 4 days of revolt and police confrontations - a mini Baltimore. However the participants were mainly white with a sprinkling of youth from other cultures such as Aboriginal, Samoan, Tongan, Maori, and Arabs. The riotous reaction against police harassment, which had been building, was sparked by the death of two local youths in a police chase. The deaths being the catalyst that enraged a poor suburb.
The book does little to touch on these events. Instead it gets inside the heads of several inhabitants of Macquarie Fields to reveal their frustrations, their pleasures and their creation of an alternative vision by using their combined experiences and imagination.
Many of the pictures that Tamara paints in the book are from a vivid recall of her childhood in Australia. We can all immediately relate to those images. However nobody has painted a canvas of words better than she has. A scenery that is so recognisable, so intricate and descriptive, that it allows us to recall as much from within ourselves and our own imaginings as we read. Many of these images are hidden in the deeper recesses of our memory and obliterated by contemporary life. Now they are brought out into the open again, stirring our youthful curiosity. Tamara’s observation and attention to detail is something to behold as snapshots and reflections of life are described both lyrically and poetically.
Reading this book I was reminded of what Jeremy Corbyn had said at his victory speech after being elected as the leader of British Labour Party. One of the things that stuck in my mind was Jeremy saying that ,“the seeds of hope reside in every one of us”, and “that no matter what happens, hope will remain deeply embedded within us.”
By that he meant hope, for a roof over your head, freedom from fear, an end to exploitation in the workplace, a decent wage, an end to war, a future for children, free and equal access to education, a habitable planet and so on.
Butterfly Prison Is a book about the hope and dreams, of ordinary young people overcoming the drab existence of disadvantage. The hopes and dreams of characters are drawn out in elaborate illustrations, on a canvas, featuring flowers, birds, clouds, familiar things around us, things that we construct and the not so familiar.
Interspersed with Butterfly Prison’s hopes and imaginings are the short stories that emanate from the harsh reality which fractures our dreams. This is the reality of suffering that we must all grapple with. A history of dispossession and subjugation. These harsh reminders as interjections in the narrative are the wake-up calls that shake us from our slumber of dreams and imaginings.
The reality bites in the book are used in a manner not to destroy hope. They are tools and knowledge for us to build and overcome adversity and cruelty. Tools which remind us to say “never again”, and to build a world that is possible as it exists in our own imagination and our own communities.
For all of the dreamers that exist in this political and economic system of purgatory this book is a passport perchance, not just to visualise the world how actually is, but better still, how you would like it to be.
Meanwhile the city government closed the street stalls near the venue and walled off the poor quarters. Thirty-five thousand police kept protesters away. If they could, the government would have gathered up the sun too and put it inside a crystal cage in the centre of the summit, leaving just the crumbs of yellow light scattered about for the rest."
"Sitting on the fence, he imagined/remembered a photo of his mum's eyes when she slept. A close up of one eye that was still, but not peaceful. The skin eyelid skin was pulled tightly, as though it was toiling. Paz gave the photo detail; skin lines crossing, the eyelashes dark and gentle."
The Butterfly Prison is an absorbing, rewarding and challenging reading experience. Pearson's language, a rhythm of description and reflection, is punch-the-air, breathtakingly good when it soars, drawing you seductively in to the perspective of her two protagonists, and carrying the fury, the despair, the strength and finally the hope of the world's poor with it.
Poverty Pearson sees as the theft of not just resources, but of joy, of creativity, of a life with possibility and variety from most of the world. The novel is a long scream of protest at this theft, and unlike many overtly political books, never simplified, never superficial.
Pearson, who grew up in Sydney's west and then spent most of her adult life in Latin America, draws seamless lines between the experiences of the world's poor, whether in Mexico City or Redfern, Venezuela's Merida or Macquarie Fields. The portrait of the latter - "Every day in Macquarie Fields, police cars parked in groups of three outside the supermarket, the station and the park. Officers patrolled the quiet public housing streets, and their shadows stuck to the public housing walls, haunting people even when they weren't around" - is searing, indictatory, confronting an instantly recognisable. It would have been easy to set this tale of poverty and resistance in a country renowned for both, but by setting the tale in Australia, Pearson confronts the reader to understand the universality of poverty, of theft and of the war being hope and hopelessness. She refuses to allow a middle-class Australian to look away, to pretend the problem is elsewhere.
The main technique employed here - the use of interspersed paragraphs of world history, works particularly well, and serves to break up the lengthy and occasionally repetitive, narrative (and in a surprising connection, reminded me somewhat of comic writer Warren Ellis' integration of headlines and story, albeit with a more driven tone).
Which is not to say the novel is grim. Far from it. Pearson has such love for humanity - her protagonists' creativity shines, and their love for housemates and collaborators gives the novel bounce and energy. A key theme of the novel is the families we construct for ourselves, the importance of loving and being loved, of being part of we and not just I.
The book is uneven - not unusual for a first novel - with clunky constructions popping up and pacing issues, particularly in the first half which drags too much. The author has time and space to grow, to make the soaring heights of the book closer to the normal terrain. I was a little worried that I wouldn't love this book, but while the flaws are real, there's no question that this is one of those which creeps inside you and changes something.