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Butterfly on a thistle

Whether in art, religion or science, a butterfly's metamorphosis can represent transformation or even death, depending on the culture. Inspired by authors from different cultures, I use butterfly symbolism to map the different life paths of men and women in a small Malay community in South Africa. While the cultural backdrop may be different, their human experiences are universal and will hopefully resonate with readers.

The butterfly’s metamorphosis has been a rich source of imagery since antiquity. German-born naturalist, Maria Sibylla Merian, was one of the first illustrators to capture the gossamer beauty of this colorful insect. Russian-American novelist, Vladimir Nabokov – perhaps best known for his provocative novel, Lolita, was also an avid lepidopterist. A neotropical genus of butterflies bears his name.

Whether in art, religion or science, the life cycle of the butterfly – from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to adult – can represent transformation, resurrection, or even death. Butterflies were associated with fire and warfare by the Aztec, Zapotec, and Mayan civilizations. In contrast, other cultures associate butterflies with the soul, resurrection, reincarnation, and femininity.

Thus, one can think of the heroines occupying the pages of my short story, Butterflies, as “iron butterflies.” Together with the male characters, they struggle to balance difference identities while carving their own life paths. This literary device has been employed by many writers. Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake comes to mind, where the main character, Gogol, struggles between American versus Indian cultures. In the 1960s, Irwin Shaw’s book series, Rich Man, Poor Man, followed the divergent paths of two brothers, one who became a rich man and the other who became a rebel and a poor man.

Inspired by Shaw’s vision, I have engaged in “cultural cross-fertilization” by placing two characters with similar life paths, Ahmed and Pang, within the setting of a small Malay community in Paarl, South Africa. This juxtaposition serves two purposes – use of a familiar plot that would resonate with the human experiences of many readers and introduction of a cultural milieu that is often not understood at all, or simply reduced to a stereotype. Set against the backdrop of post-apartheid South Africa and infused with references to religion and local cultural icons, the book nevertheless focuses on the women – the “iron butterflies” and how they rule or are controlled by the men in their lives.

Sarah is smart and capable but has no role models in the impoverished community to guide her interest in the outside world and her fascination with the biology of butterflies. The two men, Ahmed and Pang, are both interested in her. Mrs. Patel is the local busybody who, at first seems nasty, but whose knack for manipulating others help guide relationships. Mrs. Bhopal, at first seems like a trophy wife – merely a decoration on the arm of her rich husband, but appearances can often be deceiving. Ultimately they re-enact relationships that should be familiar to readers – albeit, against a backdrop of a multicultural society recovering from years of artificial segregation and isolation from the developed world.

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