A Week Late and A Story Short: “Whispering Trees”

Read Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s “The Whispering Trees” here.
This is not going to be a very good blog post. It is late, but that’s just a start. As with Scott and Ben, this is a story that left me with little to say; as with Keguro, it’s a story that left me expecting more, and feeling a little bad about it. Like Veronica, I never knew what to expect next in this story, as the text weaved together “one unexpected aspect of the ‘story’ to the next.” Like Beverly, it seemed to me that there was something distinctly timeless, placeless, and un-voiced about the narrative voice, and the story’s final line—a deadeningly duckbilled platitude of a freshly minted cliché—left me flat. I have lots of reactions, but nothing to say. And I did not have the charity to read it a second time; I will take Kola’s word for it that there is not much there to find.
Kola: “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.

What can you say about a story that didn’t seem like a good story? When I read something that I love, I know how well I love it, better than anyone else. It’s possible for a guilty pleasure to make you feel guilty about enjoying it, whatever it is, but no one will ever convince you that it doesn’t give you pleasure, if it does. But when you dislike something, you are speaking from a position of ignorance if you say so. I am saying so.

* * *

In his introduction to the recent Granta Book of the African Short Story, Helon Habila suggested that “despite its influential effect on recent African writing, the Caine Prize seems to have been founded on a common fallacy regarding the African short story”:

“On its website, [the Caine Prize] advertised its focus ‘on the short story, as reflecting the contemporary development of the African storytelling tradition’. This statement would seem to link the African short story to oral tradition in Africa and the folk tale in particular. Before you know it, the short story is declared a ‘more distinctly African form’. Similarly, critics seek to find oral narrative devices in every African work of fiction.

“I witnessed this rather reductionist view of African writers recently at a conference in Europe when I was invited to take part in a panel on oral literature. I had assumed that I and my fellow African writers would be asked about the influence, if any, of oral narrative devices in our writing, or to discuss the handling of it by earlier writers like Achebe and Ngugi. But no. We were simply put on stage in front of a few hundred Swedes and asked to discuss oral literature. We didn’t. After a few false starts, the discussion finally found itself contemplating the literary and aesthetic values of rap music and slam poetry.

“This leads to the question what exactly is the African short story? What makes a work particularly African? This is not a new query. Writers and critics have been asking exactly this since the emergence of African fiction, and I don’t intend to repeat all the same arguments here. The important thing is this: we must never confuse the African short story with the folk tale. A folk tale is episodic; it often uses dues ex machina to extricate characters from sticky situations; it is didactic; and it mostly uses faeries and animal characters. Mastery of the folk tale doesn’t necessarily make one a great short-story writer. And so most of the short stories in this collection are folkloric only in the sense that Kafka’s man turning into a bug is folkloric; they use folkloric elements as Ursula Le Guin uses the archetypal myth of the scapegoat in her story ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’.”

I don’t think this is an especially rigorous definition of either the short story or the folk-tale, but it will do, and it’s a good place to start in thinking about why I, at least, found little to praise in last week’s story (and why it took me until today to write about it). This short story was not a good short story, because it didn’t do the things a good short story does. But I don’t put it this way because I think it’s a bad story, exactly; it takes two to tango, and it’s a poor craftsman who blames his tools for a shoddy product, as I feel like I must have read somewhere. Because  reading is also a kind of craft, or a dance with an author, and there can be plenty of blame to go around. If the story steps on your feet, you need to also consider the possibility that you, yourself, bear some of the responsibility for that dread outcome. And what if someone else likes it? What if Leila Aboulela has decided it’s one of the five best stories submitted this year, and what if you happen to feel like Leila Aboulela is someone who’s likely to at least have a good reason for thinking it’s a good story?

These are the first lines of the story: “It’s strange how things are on the other side of death. I fear I am incapable of describing the experience to you because I do not know what words to use. One simply has to die to understand the enigma of death.”
I didn’t like this story. But I also don’t believe in God, or spirits, or magic, and I dislike being preached to. I don’t like stories with morals for that reason; I feel like they’re cheap, and trite. When I read a story that begins by directly stating that its protagonist has just died—that he’s speaking to us, his readers, from “the other side of death”—and then it turns out that he has not, in fact, died—but only been blinded—I feel irritated. I feel as if some kind of contract has been dishonored. And I’m also a lot like Habila, in that what I want from a short story is that it be something other than episodic, that it avoid using deus ex machina to extricate characters from sticky situations, that it eschew didacticism, and that its characters be drawn from what I consider to be real life.

Why is that? I’m not interested in trying to tell you that I’m right to feel this way; I’m just telling you what my reactions to reading this story were, why they were negative. The one part of the story I truly did like was the moment when the narrator’s wife-to-be—the saintly Faulata—informs the protagonist that she’s getting married to someone else. Until that moment in the story, she’s been a kind of saint figure— no, scratch that, she is literally called “Saint Faulata” four or five times in the story, as she cares for her blind husband-to-be, dutifully, selflessly, and with a kind of depth of tenderness that is hard to imagine a real person having. Saintliness irritates me, because it doesn’t seem real.

“Visiting the toilet was something else. I needed a guide, even to shit! Often, I would miss the pit and deposit the whole thing by the side and Saint Faulata would have to clean up. She did everything diligently. She would come in the mornings before leaving for school and my house would be her first stop upon her return. I wondered how she was coping with her project and her impending final exams, which were barely a month away. With time, I began to forget to love Faulata. Instead, I relied entirely on her.”
“I would sit with my loyal cat, Sinnoor, while Faulata did my laundry. She would iron my clothes, do the dishes and sweep the house. Faulata cooked my meals. Saint Faulata fed me. Saint Faulata sang my lullabies. Saint Faulata did everything. It was difficult to imagine what life would have been like without her. I do not know how she coped with her studies, for during that period she was writing her final exams.”
So I was irritated with her, and felt a certain relief when, out of nowhere, she suddenly turned out to be not a saint at all, but a human being who didn’t really want to live her life as a nurse for a man who could neither love her nor be much of a husband for her. That’s real, I say to myself; that’s something that happens, and something interesting, at that.

I’m trying to emphasize, I guess, how essentially parochial my desires must be, exactly as yours must be as well. After all, who died and made me king of what a good short story is? Why would what I like in a short story—what I’ve spent years learning to like, in a sense—be any kind of reliable measure for what a story should be or shouldn’t be? I’ve read enough Bourdieu to be convinced that literary taste isn’t an objective thing, that when we read a book and decide we like it, we’re playing a complicated game with our peers, our teachers, our friends, those to whom we condescend, and those who we fear; we’re building on what we’ve read before, weighing and comparing, and discovering what we’ve never come across, but want to. But what we want in a story—and what we resentfully demand when we don’t get it—is nothing so simple as the treasure locked in the basement of the short story itself, if only we were smart enough to find the key. What we want in a story has a hell of a lot to do with who we are, who we think we are, and who we want to be. And all I can say, I suspect, is that this one wasn’t much for me.