Archive for June 3rd, 2013

June 3, 2013

Tope Folarin, “Miracle”

I’m supposed to be blogging the Caine Prize along with a number of people, links to whose (considerably more worthwhile) thoughts can be found at the end of this post.We start this year with Tope Folarin’s “Miracle”, which can be read here. Unfortunately I’ve been rather out of it this week, so consider this post (which is late, anyway) a placeholder, with some unconnected thoughts that do not do anything like form a coherent thesis.

As pretty much everyone else has said, the pronouns are important here. “Miracle” is set among a congregation Nigerian Christians, gathered to see a “prophet”.  The first third (or so) of the story is full of “we”: “our heads move simultaneously”, “we echo his defiance”. These are not just shared actions, but there’s a sense of shared thought. That the narrator, whoever he is, is somehow tuned in to exactly what everyone else is thinking.

We have come from all over North Texas to see him. Some of us have come from Oklahoma, some of us from Arkansas, a few of us from Louisiana and a couple from New Mexico. We own his books, his tapes, his holy water, his anointing oil. We know that he is an instrument of God’s will, and we have come because we need miracles.
We need jobs. We need good grades. We need green cards. We need American passports. We need our parents to understand that we are Americans. We need our children to understand they are Nigerians. We need new kidneys, new lungs, new limbs, new hearts. We need to forget the harsh rigidity of our lives, to remember why we believe, to be beloved, and to hope.
We need miracles.

 

And then the “we” turns into “I” as the prophet singles out our narrator; young, bespectacled and asthmatic (he seems more concerned about the asthma). A miracle is promised, and it might be delivered.

 

He shoves my head back until I fall, and the attendant behind me eases me to the floor. I finally understand. I remain on the floor while his attendants cover me with a white sheet. Above, I hear the prophet clapping his hands, and I know that he’s praying. The fluorescent lights on the ceiling are shining so brightly that the light seems to be huddling in the sheet with me. I hug the embodied light close.

 

It is not, or at least in any direct way. Our hero chooses to pretend it is, though, and the story explains that “a community is made up of truths and lies. Both must be cultivated in order for the community to survive”. This seems rather ham-handed and obvious for a story that has, until this point, been composed of really lovely (if not very subtle) prose. But why is our narrator willing to go along with it?

 

I think part of this has, again, to do with pronouns. I think the narrative shows a visible, deliberate discomfort from the minute it goes from the “we” to the “I”. In addition, there’s the extent to which our narrator is doubled with the prophet. They both have sight-related problems (and there’s the whole tradition of the blind prophet who nonetheless has insight that is being drawn upon here), breathing problems. And since if anyone here can be sure of the extent to which the miracles work (or don’t) it’s the prophet, both prophet and narrator are tied together in their shared deception. Because apparently they know what communities need and communities sometimes need lies, and that’s just how things are.

 

But there was that moment of disorientation, when our narrator was singled out:

 

We remain standing because we don’t know to whom he is referring.
“YOU! You! You! YOU! Come up here!”
We begin to walk forward, shyly, slowly. I turn around suddenly, and I realize I’m no longer a part of the whole. I notice, then, that the lights are too bright, and the muggy air in the room settles, fog-like, on my face. Now I am in the aisle, and I see the blind old man pointing at me.

 

That first “we remain standing because”, like the “we”s that came before it, presumes shared thoughts and understanding. But with “we begin to walk forward, shyly, slowly”, we’re immediately proved wrong. Our narrator’s wrong about what’s going on in the heads of the people around him; this is what makes the glib “truth” about communities palatable.
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