Individual Work
The Last Day of Betty Nkomo

"The Last Day of Betty Nkomo" is a Web-based digital fiction that uses Flash animation software to rapidly project single words or short phrases that form a short narrative about the titular character. The text is projected in sync with a soundtrack, and although it is relatively austere visually, with an unvarying Monaco font and a black and white design, the pacing of the display and alterations in the color scheme play a significant role in its reception. "The Last Day of Betty Nkomo" is created by Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries (YHCHI), an artist collective comprised of Marc Voge and Young-hae Chang who are based in Seoul, South Korea.

The affective weight of the text stems in part from the ability of readers to identify with a discernible narrative subject in Betty Nkomo, who is likely ill or elderly, impoverished, alone, and dying. She is nonetheless hopeful about the prospect of lifting her hand up from the shade and placing it in the sun and especially of receiving a visit from her son. While "Nkomo" is an African name, the soundtrack that plays is Okinawan folk music - it is 祝い節 (本島), a popular song that translates from the Japanese as "celebration song (main island)," with the latter referring to the largest island of Okinawa. But the disjunction is not simply an attempt to subvert cultural context. The song celebrates longevity, which points to a deeply ironic juxtaposition: after all, Okinawans are a people renowned for their longevity, whereas many African nations are known to have some of the shortest life expectancies in the world.

"The Last Day of Betty Nkomo" is narratologically complex in its play of voice and perspective. The text may initially appear to convey Betty's own thoughts in a form of interior monologue, and thus also present a case of internal focalization. But a closer consideration of the multimodal interplay of the text yields a richer and more plausible reading. Vocal syncopations in the soundtrack explicitly accent the same textual moments that mark a potential divergence from Betty's subjectivity - those that read more like comments on her own thoughts (and increasingly derisive ones). The alignment of accented vocals with particular textual moments encourages a reading of narration in counterpoint, whereby the singing voices evoke an external viewpoint. The counterpointed nature of narrative is further evident in the visual design of the text: the objective, external viewpoint is also signaled by the alternating shifts of black to white font and a white to black background.

Just as the musicality of "The Last Day of Betty Nkomo" informs our understanding of the perspectives put forth in the discourse, so too does its speed. Its transient text places overt constraints on our view of the storyworld by regulating our access to it in time. In doing so, the text prompts us to rethink the commonplace notion that digital environments necessarily degrade attention; after all, if readers are not extremely focused, they run the risk of missing words or perspectival shifts. While it is possible to assert that the same kind of shifts in this text can be achieved in a print text at the level of the sentence, such an assertion would neglect the essential rhythm of the work, so to speak, and the fact that it is programmed to display text at a certain pace and in certain units.

For example, if we read the text's transience in the broader context of a reflection of consciousness, Betty's final moments certainly "flash" before our eyes as well as hers. Furthermore, against the pop psychological notion of "time dilation" associated with near death situations, her last moments are curiously fast-forwarded, perhaps suggesting an indictment of our own impatience in an information culture that demands immediacy and instantaneity. Either way, any reading should accommodate a thematic alignment between the text's performativity and that of Betty's own experience. In fact, if we pursue an even more reflexive reading, the Internet becomes a highly unlikely venue for the "last words" of a diseased African woman. It is, at the same time and in another sense, also the only possible one.

This entry is adapted from "Focalization and Digital Fiction" (Narrative 20.3, October 2012) by David Ciccoricco.>