This week, as part of my five-week blogathon on the five shortlisted stories in the 2013 Caine Prize, I present some thoughts on the second story: Tope Folarin’s Miracle, first published in the Transition Magazine Issue 109, an excerpt from the forthcoming novel The Proximity of Distance. Read it at http://www.caineprize.com/pdf/2013_Folarin.pdf
The plot of Miracle is a very simple one, a familiar story told however in a deliberately slow fashion that builds expectation from the beginning to a deft crescendo finish at the end: an infidel (also, a realist) gives faith a chance in public at one vulnerable moment, and is disappointed. I have experienced it, however in a different fashion. Most people who grew up in the pentecostal socialization process of southern Nigeria have experienced it in one form or the other. In the beginning, there is doubt, then there is a little benefit of the doubt, which leads to a “leap of faith”, and then a final denouement that sends the accidental believer headfirst into the bosom of disbelief, and reality.
My first thought on Miracle is that is is well written, well-edited, and well presented on the page – credit to the author, and to the Transition Magazine editors. And although I spent much of initial time reading the story wondering where it is headed, it is one of those stories where patience is rewarded at the end. The initial aimless wandering gradually morphs into a recognizable direction, and the reader is satisfied. Or is he/she? If you are a devout pentecostal church-goer, you would probably force your laptop close as soon as it is all over, and head to church for a confession of sins, or a needed exorcism for the sin of indulgence. Tope Folarin has just eased you into empathizing with a churchgoer whose faith wasn’t strong enough to set him free, who laughed at the pastor’s theatrics even as he wished that they would yield fruitful results, and who in the end relapses into the ways of the flesh to deal with carnal troubles. If you are reading the story on a sheaf of papers, and as soon as you read the last sentence you crumple the sheets and throw them as hard as you can against the nearest object, you might be a Nigerian Christian.
A “Nigerian Christian” is not the same as a Christian who happens to live in Nigeria. No. He/she is one to whom the word of the priest/pastor/prophet is law and holy; one whose first response to an irreverent joke is to either cross himself/herself, give you a dirty look while praying for the salvation of your soul, or to walk away with a loud hiss while reminding you of your place in the hottest part of hell. They are not peculiar to Nigeria either. In the US, they may also go by the name “Social/Religious Conservatives” or “Evangelicals”. I love Miracle because the universality of the short episode that makes up the story is one that many people would recognize, whether they be devoutly pious folks, or resigned agnostics to whom miracles are television advertisements to church services and bountiful offerings. Replace the old pastor in the story with a chief priest in an Ifa shrine, and the hero of the story with one visiting a shrine for the first time in pursuit of some advertised miracle, and you have the same story. A human story of effort, of a “leap of faith”, and disappointment.
It is a familiar story because many people we know, if not ourselves, have experienced it before. It is familiar in fiction too because it has also been told before, sometimes though through foreigners experiencing the evangelical brand of faith for the very first time. In this case, the hero is a Nigerian in a foreign country. The situating of the story far away in the United States when it could have worked just as well in Nigeria is a curious one. I find no justification for it other than the added dramatic effect of the diversity of backgrounds, which makes the agnostic reader’s bewilderment at their followership, and complete acceptance of faith and miracles even more enhanced. Written for “Nigerian Christians”, it is trash literature assaulting the belief of devout Christians. In the hands of more discerning faithfuls however – those not afraid of having their faith questioned and challenged – it is a fascinating parable illustrating the benefit of faith and work, as the bible itself recommends. Muslims, or people of any other faith (or disbelief) who read it should see beyond the caricature of pentecostal church service, to the simple problem of the conflict of expectations, peculiar to many more circumstances than the house of worship. Even the brightest teacher of economics might not always succeed in converting a student most conditioned to writing poetry.
Here is my favourite part of the story:
I begin to believe in miracles. I realize that many miracles have already happened; the old prophet can see me even though he’s blind, and my eyes feel different somehow, huddled beneath their thin lids. I think about the miracle of my family, the fact that we’ve remained together despite the terror of my mother’s abrupt departure, and I even think about the miracle of my presence in America. My father reminds my brother and me almost every day how lucky we are to be living in poverty in America, he claims that all of our cousins in Nigeria would die for the chance, but his words were meaningless before. Compared to what I have already experienced in life, compared to the tribulations that my family has already weathered, the matter of my eyesight seems almost insigniﬁcant.
Right there, in the acceptance and celebration of the little blessings in his life, with or without any further additions in form of a miracle wrought in the presence of an anticipating crowd, is contentment, is nirvana, is a kind of inner peace that the nominal public miracle the crowd so wished onto him may not even have provided. Hence unfortunate, any commentary that dismisses the story solely on the basis of the final, absolutely necessary, embrace and celebration of pragmatism.
There is only one question left to be asked: Is this an important story? My answer is “yes”, without a doubt. It might help explain (or at least describe) why many people throng to churches: chasing miracles. It beautifully illustrates the mindset of the agnostic/realist, and shows today’s churches as less than a homogeneous body of like-minded people. It gives an insight into the level of religious and spiritual development of today’s Nigerian (and Nigerian/African immigrants abroad), and can be pointed to one hundred years from now as a record of one part of that cultural, religious, movement. Every culture went through one. And as far as Nigerian/African religiosity is concerned, this is certainly not one of its most ferocious archetypes, but it’s it’s one of the most relatable. It will also rank as one of my favourites.
Having known how the story ends, I may not read it again, except as part of the longer novel from which the story was culled. However, that initial process, and the little perks of re-reading parts of it, carry a certain premium that I now wish on all my pious friends.
Also reproduced on the Nigerianstalk LitMag