The Butterfly Prison
Tamara Pearson 343pps
In her debut novel The Butterfly Prison, Tamara Pearson, an Australian journalist working for Latin American news site TeleSUR in Quito, uses a poet's sensitivity and language combined with a journalist's eye for reportage. She weaves storylines that situate the poor and alienated as actors in resisting the living prison which dehumanises them.
Her sharp observations paint a picture of Sydney of the late 1990s and early 2000s: the 2005 Macquarie Fields “riots”; the 2003 protests again the US Invasion of Iraq; the 2007 visit of George Bush; and the lives - and inner lives - of the unemployed, casual workers and refugees.
Two main story lines follow the lives of two sets of people. One group of friends lives in Macquarie Fields, in south-west Sydney. It is an area characterised by high levels of youth unemployment, dominated by public housing estates, run down community facilities and poor public transport.
It is a “no go area” where police harassment is the norm of daily life. Pearson invites the reader to enter the inner life of Paz and his friends. Paz has the soul of an artist, but has a black hole inside where something is missing.
The reader becomes privy to their unspoken dreams and begins to have a sense of the human potential that is crushed as they are trapped in the revolving door of the welfare and justice system.
Although written from a third person perspective, Pearson has succeeded in giving her characters a clear voice, identifying the humanity which belies the usual portrayal of those on the margins.
Running, parallel, the other story follows Mella as she moves from her father's home in Sydney's western suburbs to livie with Ben, an arrogant and aspiring young man.
Mella is shy and timid, and dominated in both relationships, which undermines her self worth. She also senses that there is “something missing” inside.
However, unlike Paz, over time she comes to articulate this feelong and starts to free herself. Her butterfly wings start to grow.
A turning point comes when she starts work at a department store opposite Sydney Town Hall (thinly disguised Big W) and meets co-worker Rafi, an Iranian refugee who is the union delegate on the job. Mella joins the union and is introduced by Rafi to the Western Suburbs Resist office in Parramatta, and begins a process of political education.
Her emerging political consciousness and activism gives her the strength to leave Ben. The political events of the period (the invasion of Iraq) are seen through Mella's eyes as an activist. As Mella grows politically and gains confidence, she becomes an organiser of the group that becomes The Army of The Poor. At this point in the narrative we move into the (near) future.
Reflecting back in her advanced years, “Mella thought of the things that people of her generation had grown up to believe would last forever: countries, poverty, and capitalism. Yet all those things were gone now. Nothing lasted forever, nothing was so powerful, except change.”
Mella realises the exact time when she identified the “missing thing” that was the start of its banishment. She writes in her notebook: “I realised what that painful hole in the air was when it was completely gone, when life was full and we were starting to win the war. I climbed on top of a bus stop roof in the middle of the day and wrote on the wall in red spray paint: 'They stole our humanity and now we're taking it back.'”
Interwoven with the two main narratives are historic examples of oppression and resistance coupled with the author's musings. These snippets are in a similar style to the writings of Uruguayan author Eduardo Galleano. The tone is pared down and at times whimsical.
Pearson writes: “Somewhere else: Monsanto patented what came out of the soil. And it patented pig breeding techniques, owned them, made sharing information illegal. It would have arrested the birds and bees for pollination if it could ...”
Pearson has obviously drawn from her years as a political activist and journalist in Sydney, where she was a member of the socialist youth group Resistance, and Venezuela, where she became active in the country's turbulent Bolivarian revolution that seeks to create a “socialism of the 21st century” based on the self-organisation of the oppressed. But it would be facile to see this novel as an “autobiographical first book”.
She uses her experiences and observations as a prism through which she is able to craft a novel that takes up the intimate struggles of the real “heroes” within the wider global context. The novel is a good read and recommended as affirming for activists.
Pearson has succeeded in her aim, which is spelled out in the novel's prologue. She says: “Every human was a living metaphor for the social and economic world they lived in, and people together were a patchwork quilt of stories.
“Stories touched; revealing as they did the complex connection between individuals and the bigger issues. Readers questioned and became, with each reflection, a little more alive.”