On ‘The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas’, by Hauwa Ahmadu

They

 

The wretched child hears everything now that it doesn’t cry anymore.

Mother has not come here to save it. And Father

What happened to Father again? Was he ever there? Outside?

Someone tall and dark taught it to skip pebbles across the lake. They liked to watch ripples across the surface of the water. On windy days, those ripples would spread with a loud “fwoosh” and buoyed by the sound of the wind, they became a many coloured kite with a braided tail of purple, red and blue. A kite unbound on the wind, bucking high above the people, trees, and mountains. The clouds looked close. The clouds looked like something sweet.

What did sweet taste like again, Mother?

Falling, hair streaming as they fell downward. Dropping like the almost round pebble in its hand, into the lake. They watched while sinking, eyes alit with wonder. The ripples spread out from beneath and light beams caught on the murk. Pretty colors. Ah! Its straining ears couldn’t hear it anymore. The “FWOOSH! FWOOSH! FWOOSH!”

A clang fills the tiny room; they flinch and clasp hands over ears. Afraid of the coming eyes, the child scrambles backwards knocking into the horrible mops which clatter across the cold stone floor. The child listens, shuddering in their filth. One pair of feet. Food. They waited for the footsteps to retreat with a second clang. Safe now from prying eyes, they sniffle and clean snot on soiled clothes without fear of a scolding. No tears. No Mother. Only the bell, sounding–

GONG.

GONG.

GONG.

The sound flows into another memory and with a running start they jumped straight into Mother’s arms.

“Let’s sleep by the fire today!” they said. Mother chuckled in a low voice but didn’t say anything as they settled in front of a fireplace. The fire was red, yellow, and blue; it twisted and turned on itself like a dog chasing its own tail. They smile radiantly but in that windowless room with the locked door and sparse light but no one is there to see a beauty no amount of filth could hide. It hums, gleeful as the scratching sounds emerge from its dry throat till sleep steals in.

At daybreak, a guard arrives to feed the child and is met with twitching remains. This happened sometimes. The wretched one sheds its body in haste. Figures gather, looking on intently with faces stoic. Even in death, no kind gestures must be made. No one would mourn it. There was the business of the next child who must be brought soon for the good of all.

Now don’t ask me how they pick one. There is always a method to such things! Maybe the chance to offer up a child passes from one family to another. Or the children, innocently playing in the square, may be called into a splendid building to draw lots. But what I do know is that some mother, father, brother or sister will be counted among those who walked away from clamouring bells and colourful dancing processions. Away from the city—Omelas.

Commentary

In “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” Ursula Le Guin envisions a utopian city of happiness that hinges on the suffering of a child. Some residents are unable to accept or change and thus choose to leave the city (Guin 1973, p.1). Though it wasn’t in the list of suggested texts for creative responses, the central idea of a scapegoat in this short story gives a perplexing moral dilemma worth carrying into the future. When I first read the original, I went weeks writing gloomy status updates on Facebook and Twitter (don’t judge me; that’s how this generation deals with issues). This was mostly because I realized that the dehumanization and scapegoating of children—the weakest members of humanity—was a regular occurrence. I also realized that most people became onlookers, distancing themselves from the horrific events when faced with such situations.

Thus, the main aim of this creative response is to imagine an interiority for the confined child while bringing to fore its double role as both scapegoat and spectacle. As Laurie Langbauer puts it, they “come to stare at this child for themselves, to take in the spectacle” (Langbauer 2008, p.100). And although described as imbecile, the child is aware of being watched and knows when “the eyes disappear” (Guin 1973, p.5). An unwilling participant in the ethical conflict every citizen of Omelas faces, the child is the focus of their mental preoccupation as they go through the cycle of “impotence” and “tearless rage” to gain an understanding of “the terrible justice of reality” and “compassion” (Guin 1973, p.5-6). With regards to the family, the child remembers “its mother’s voice” (Guin 1973, p.5) but there is no mention of other family members. Whether this means there are none or that they were complicit in the confinement is left to our imagination—hence, my listing of possible family members among those who walked away.

Using Richard Courtney’s argument that “[y]oung children’s imagination is directly expressed in action” (Courtney 1971, p. 445) as a cornerstone, I have depicted a lost child grieving its parent’s abandonment to complicate the public/private sphere dynamic. Providing a certain autonomy by means of memory and the power to imagine even as those faculties become increasingly frayed changes the confined child, who becomes a less pitiful character. Almost throughout the narrative, the child is referred to in non-flattering terms and only while crying “I will be good,” it says; “Please let me out. I will be good!” are any other pronouns used besides a dehumanizing “it” (Guin 1973, p.4-6). To elevate the position of the child and maintain the gender neutrality, I opted to use the pronoun ‘they’, as the Oxford English Dictionary states there is precedent of  plural words denoting a singular meaning.

Le Guin evokes nature and the earthiness of colours, using phrases like “old moss-grown gardens and under avenues of trees,” the liveliness of children who “dodged in and out, their high calls rising like the swallows”, and “crossing flights over the music and the singing” all amid the sounds of bells (Guin 1973, p.1). The exposition at the start has a fairy-tale feel that almost overloads the implied reader’s senses with a technicoloured vision of the city. Omelas is a city with fluid spatial and temporal dimensions because it hovers on the edge of the imagination. It is an undefinable and almost incomplete vision which continuously unfolds as the narrator prompts the implied reader into some kind of response with interjections like “If so, please add an orgy. If an orgy would help, don’t hesitate”, offering the reader a choice, with suggestions of what constitutes a utopian city (Guin 1973, p.3).

The description in the narrative encompasses the surroundings of the city and its inhabitants before it narrows as it falls into the lower echelons of the city and the lone child in the room. Employing a 3rd person narrative voice while using the child as the main focalizer, I tried to work in the opposite direction, outwards from the dark basement, then transitioning out of the room and using tenses to blur the past/present. The child’s fading memory, imagination and death are a means of escape.

While writing this piece, I composed a playlist of World Music which included a Deep Forest (1992) track titled Nightbird. Sherylle Mills describes such albums as:

a haunting example of how non-Western music can become prey for the commercial music industry. In 1992, two Frenchmen, Michael Sanchez and Eric Mouquet, created an album which fused digital samples of music from Ghana, the Solomon Islands and African pygmies with “techno-house” dance rhythms (Mill 1996, p.59).

The artists have been accused of exploitation and leaving the ethnomusicologists who collected those samples powerless to deal fairly with the natives. The real-world implications of scapegoating are endless, especially for someone from Nigeria like me. Please protect our children so that scenarios like Le Guin’s will remain in harmless stories.

 

Bibliography

Courtney, Richard. ‘A Dramatic Theory of Imagination. New Literary History [Internet]. 2(3) Performances in Drama, the Arts, and Society’, (1971): pp. 445-460. Web. 6th May 2014.

Deep Forest. (1992). Deep Forest. [Compact disc] [s.I.], Sony Music.

Guin, U. L. The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, (1973): pp. 1–7. Web. 2nd February 2017.

Langbauer, Laurie. ‘Ethics and Theory: Suffering Children in Dickens, Dostoevsky, and Le Guin’. ELH 75 (1), (2008): pp. 89-108. Web. 6th May 2014.

Mills, Sherylle. ‘Indigenous Music and the Law: An Analysis of National and International’. Yearbook for Traditional Music 28, (1996): pp. 57-86. Web. 6th May 2014.

hughes, william. (2014): n. pag. Print.

 

PSX_20170312_095647 hauwa

Hauwa Aliyu Ahmadu recently graduated from York St John University with an English Literature degree. She was awarded the final project prize for a dissertation focusing on diaspora, genre, and identity in Afrofuturist texts. Her science fiction aspirations are Nalo Hopkinson, Stephen Baxter, Ursula Le Guin, and William Gibson. More than a little manic about anime and games, Hauwa enjoys fandom, writing and photography. She curates an Instagram page and publishes under the name Jidda Ahmadu.

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/maiabvore/

Twitter: @vanteya37

 

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