(University of Cologne)

‘Places We Don’t Want to Go’: Complicity in Child Soldier Narratives”

From autobiografiction to more traditional novels and films, narratives dedicated to the experiences of child soldiers carry within them a great moral dilemma: how can one describe the atrocities committed by a minor and yet retain the audience’s moral support? In many cases, the authors, editors and publishers follow a particular agenda, whereby showing the plight of children active in acts of war is intended to secure support for NGOs and human rights organisations such as UNICEF. The readership, by turning to this particular genre, is implicitly aware of the moral dilemma and the overall socio-political aim. Readers want to be informed, yet they prefer to skip over the gory details and fast forward to the passages where the child is finally rescued and restored to its family or finds shelter in a special camp. Most narratives cater to these expectations by radically shortening the passages dedicated to armed combat and instead highlighting the “childness” of the protagonists through various narrative techniques and content-related tropes.

Reality, however, is often different. Young men and women volunteer because they need the money offered by militias to support their families, they seek glory or enjoy the comradeship, and in spite of all the traumatic experiences they even return to their platoons after having been “rescued”. Yet, none of the accounts dedicated to a child soldier’s experiences cover this issue. What’s more, the great majority of narratives focuses on boy soldiers, as if the thought of girl soldiers might overextend the audience’s willing suspension of disbelief.

My work starts with the premise that emotional involvement is needed to achieve a sense of complicity in the reader. I will try to provide an overview of how, in the sub-genre of child soldier narratives, certain tropes and narrative patterns establish a form of narrative complicity that is hard for readers (or the audience, in film versions) to avoid, simply by way of their emotional involvement during reader. However, there is another level of readerly complicity that is situated on a more abstract level of aesthetic enjoyment, which I will try to carve out on the example of Chris Abani’s outstanding novella Song for Night (2007), which refuses to embrace the usual stereotypical components and instead highlights the reader’s complicity by breaking down these unspoken narrative rules and boundaries. Complicity, in this context, is manifold: intradiegetically, it is to be understood as the creator agreeing not to display the cruel truth that lies at the heart of all of these stories, in order to ascertain an untainted relationship between recipient and main protagonist, who reads the stories as a fictionalised version of the truth. Extradiegetically, creator and audience agree that the protagonists and who they symbolically stand for may be guilty of atrocious crimes but are redeemed simply by offering their stories and because they eventually submit to the care of UNICEF and thus return to “civilisation”. Both, the authors and the audiences, prefer to ignore the ugly fact that child soldiers are very often accepted by their communities as valuable contributors to everyday survival. When Abani highlights that reading such stories also allows an experience of beauty and enjoyment, the simple equation proposed in Human Rights Narratives becomes much more complicated.