Sunday, September 15, 2013
Review of Vuto by A.J. Walkley
Author A.J. Walkley spent time in the Peace Corps after graduating from college, working as a health volunteer in the country of Malawi in Africa. Her experiences during this time inspired the novel Vuto, a moving narrative that describes what happens when two cultures collide and how help from a well-intentioned outsider can be viewed as interfering and have far-reaching consequences.
Vuto is a 17 year old who is giving birth to her third child when the novel opens. Samantha, a white Peace Corps volunteer, watches and wonders why she is alone, no family or friends present to provide comfort and support. The nurse explains that Malawian tradition dictates that the woman gives birth alone, as a sign of strength. As the narrative switches back to Vuto's perspective, readers soon learn that her birth name is not Vuto, but she is called Vuto, meaning "problem" because she is deemed a troublemaker. Her two previous children, both boys, died soon after birth. Her third child, a girl, whose birth Samantha witnessed, dies on her 13th day. Tradition dictates that the woman and the child stay isolated for two weeks after birth. If the child lives past this time, then and only then, does the mother introduce the child to the father. Because all of her children have died before this time period, Vuto has never been able to show her husband their children. She has carried the burden of her grief alone. After the death of her daughter, whom she had named Mwala, meaning "Rock", Vuto summons her courage and confronts her husband in front of a tribal meeting of elders, in order to force him to see his dead daughter. She is immediately ordered to be banished from the village with only the clothes on her back for her disobedience and violation of cultural traditions. As she leaves, desperate, heartbroken, and unsure of what she will do next, she encounters Samantha, who remembers her from the clinic. Upon hearing her story, Samantha offers her a place to stay in the small hut that she is provided as a volunteer. Because Samantha's home is not outside of the village borders, Vuto is violating her order of banishment by staying there. Leona, the nurse, sees Vuto enter and secretly goes back and tells that she is there. Enraged, Vuto's husband shows up at the house and attempts to attack her. Samantha defends her new friend by stabbing Vuto's husband with her Swiss Army knife, killing him. Panic-stricken and faced with the realization that Samantha may face murder charges, the two women flee, but only after Vuto reasons through Samantha's naive beliefs that the authorities will understand that the murder was self-defense and that the Peace Corps will come to her aid. Vuto narrates, "she didn't see it from my point of view, only hers, and her point of view was American, not Malawian. Not African at all." After Vuto tells the story of how a former Peace Corps volunteer was raped by a village elder and the organization swept the incident under the rug to avoid bad publicity, Samantha realizes that she is on her own. Along the way, they receive help from Samantha's boyfriend Hunter, a fellow Peace Corps volunteer, and when they reach the Peace Corps headquarters in the capital, things come to a sad, troubling end.
A.J. Walkley majored in English Literature and spent a year in the Peace Corps in Malawi after graduating from college. In addition to Vuto, she has written two other books. She currently works as a writer and blogger for The Huffington Post. To learn more about her, check out the Q &A on the Author Interviews page of this blog.
Vuto tackles tough issues in a thoughtful, realistic manner. The Malawian characters, including Vuto, are torn in their feelings towards the Peace Corps volunteers. On the one hand, they welcome the help that is so desperately needed. On the other hand, they resent and distrust them, viewing them as yet more white outsiders who have come in to change and destroy their way of life. Vuto herself questions and disobeys some of her culture's traditions, but it is even worse when a white outsider such as Samantha does the same. Samantha sorts through her own internal conflicts. Many of the things that she sees, especially the treatment of women and children, goes against her own belief system. However, she wonders who she thinks she is to come in and criticize or try to change a culture simply because its traditions don't align with her sense of right and wrong. The Peace Corps forbids volunteers from interfering in cultural traditions, which is one reason why Samantha cannot expect them to defend her. However, Samantha's-and the reader's view of the Peace Corps as a benevolent humanitarian organization is tarnished as she learns just how far it will go to maintain good public relations. Perhaps what makes this story so real and compelling, is that all of the answers are not presented neatly tied up in a nice ending. Samantha's efforts to help Vuto-although well-intentioned, lead to tragedy. In the end, although she saves Vuto's life, she cannot save her from her overwhelming grief, nor rebuild her broken spirit that has been crushed by years of cruel disregard and even abuse in the name of tradition. The reader, like Samantha, is left to wonder what-if anything can be done to bridge the gap between Western culture and the rest of the world, after so many years of oppressive brutality and colonialism on one hand, and misunderstood and sometimes abusive traditions on the other.