This week, I discuss my thoughts on Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s Whispering Trees, the fourth story on the shortlist of the 2013 Caine Prize for African Writing. Many other bloggers are participating in what Aaron Bady spearheaded as a “Blog Carnival”: thoughts and opinions on each of the shortlisted stories. Find the rest of the reviews on twitter via the hashtag #CainePrize.
Of all the stories I have read since this Caine Prize carnival began, Whispering Trees is one I have read twice fully, from beginning to end. It is a story about Salim, a young man who became disabled, and lost his eyesight, in a car accident and along with it his dignity and prospects, and who eventually finds a different kind of vision staring at “souls” of people, and seeing visions.
I read the story twice not because I particularly enjoyed and understood it all the first time, but because I didn’t fully grasp it and wanted to be sure about the intentions of the author and the character. Many of my thoughts from the first reading were confirmed by a second reading: it is a story about coping with disability, but a little also about faith, and psychic and supernatural outer body experiences, and love. The author doesn’t succeed in developing each of these areas, but we see that it was his intention that we see them. Away from the second reading, I realized that there were no hidden meanings other than the fact of the hero’s disabilities and eventual psychic evolution. It tried very hard to be didactic, but failed at that too. The last line, italicized for effect, read “I realize that happiness lies, not in getting what you want, but in wanting what you have.” I certainly had not come to that conclusion merely by reading the story, and including it as the last line did not drive it in either.
I could be uncharitable and say that Whispering Trees could have borrowed a leaf from the handling of the crises of faith and disability from reading Tope Folarin’s Miracle, or that it could have portrayed the homeliness of young hapless men under a tree deliberately named by reading Elnathan John’s Bayan Layi. Heck, it could have done better with romance under pressure by reading Pede Hollist’s Foreign Aid, but that would be assuming that the author wrote the story with the Caine Prize in mind, only after reading these other stories. It is most certainly not the case, so I will only say that whatever moved the author to write this story could most certainly have been better served by a shorter and smarter handling of the plot. There are many issues that can be raised from this story about of the helplessness of disabled people in Nigeria, particularly those wounded as a result of man-made disasters like car accidents. There are also angles of societal neglect and the non-existence of public facilities to make the life of disabled folks much easier. These however are from my own mining of the story’s schizzy fields. The author doesn’t consciously lead me to them.
The part of the story detailing the problems of disability were affecting, but seemed artificial and forced, helped by the tortured use of some figures of speech. The most uncharitable word for these instances of use is “amateurish”, providing a major obstacle to enjoying the story. Here are a few:
Sometimes it worked beautifully: “I remained there until my anger forced tears out of my damaged eyes”, but most times it didn’t: “Silence answered me.”, “Insomnia would claim me every night”, “My mind climbed up to the gates of heaven once more, seeking admittance”, “She would talk and weep until blessed sleep stole her away”, “I heard the trees screaming in agony as they were cut down”, and “But my mind was not very happy about this.” Nobody should ever write like that.
There were some passable lines: “Her tears, like rain, fell on the wild fire of anger raging in my heart and extinguished it.” Others were not: “I discovered a whole new world of numbers and was as excited as Columbus must have been when he stumbled upon America” and “She pranced in front of the house calling for Saratu just like Achilles before the walls of Troy.”
In describing a rash and angry response of an otherwise reasonable citizen, the following was written: “Faulata fetched some petrol and poured it on the house. She was about to set it ablaze when they seized her. She struggled fiercely and wept because they would not let her burn down the house. Later, Saratu’s parents came to apologise. Neither Faulata nor I said a word to them. Then the elders came and delivered a long, boring lecture about forgiveness and reconciliation and, to get rid of them, I said it was over. So Saratu kept her distance.” The attempted arson described here could as well be the most hurried description I’ve ever read. I am trying to see how Faulata could have poured petrol on the house. The event to which Faulata was responding by trying to set a fire ablaze didn’t also seem to warrant this kind of response either, so I chalked it down as a failed hyperbole regarding plot.
In another part of the story, a character makes an attempt at quoting Oscar Wilde. The original poem, from The Ballad of Reading Gaol, reads:
Yet each man kills the thing he loves
By each let this be heard.
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word.
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!
In Ibrahim’s story, there was the following:
Hamza and I talked some more until he rose and said, “I must leave now. Now that you are here, I can leave. But see how beautiful this place is, see how pure and full of life it is. Yet, someday, the living will come and destroy everything.” He started off, “Man destroys that which he claims to love.”
In another instance, the author tries to write in Nigerian Pidgin English, yet gave us the following:
The oga’s voice was raucous. “How much you find for ’im body?”
The first man said, “Four thousand naira, sir.”
The oga grumbled, “These ones se’f, them no carry plenty money. Oya, put ‘im body with the others but hide the money before people come.”
Yes, that was ‘im body, se’f, and other unconvincing attempts at Nigerian Pidgin. In pidgin, there would be no apostrophe in any of those words, and “body” would surely have been written as bodi.
I realize then why I found the story hard to enjoy as fiction, or anything other than the writer’s attempt to be profound and didactic with magical realism: it tried too hard, with little skill, and failed (at least as a worthy representative of this year’s shortlist of the best of African fiction. As some have wondered aloud: “thank goodness we won’t have to read the other ninety non-shortlisted pieces!”).
Now, so that this does not end up as a completely disappointed rant against something that Mr. Ibrahim surely put a lot of effort into writing, let me admit that I found the first sentence quite charming and inviting: “It’s strange how things are on the other side of death.” Had the promise of that initial sentence been followed by equally strong and well sustained passages, and had the story been a lot shorter, or at least the characters better developed, we might have had a different offering.
The other paragraph that I found absolutely delightful is as follows:
“The rains came and went. The grasses grew lush green and faded into a pale, hungry brown. I could hear the dry, cold harmattan winds blowing through the starved savannah; I could feel it on my desiccated skin. The weather grew unpleasantly chilly. Everything was cold, including my heart. Faulata was gone”
Unfortunately, gems like this were far in-between, and did not tie the story together as a tale of resurrection, redemption, and a soulful realization of an inner strength and power as the author clearly intended the story to be.
Also published on the NT LitMag