Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, “The Whispering Trees”

(Terribly late with this one, sorry!)

The third of this year’s Caine Prize shortlistees. “The Whispering Trees” can be found here.

Context means a lot when you’re reading an author you don’t know. If you’re reading a slush pile you expect most submissions to be mediocre and you tend to only really notice the ones that stand out. If you’re reading an awards shortlist you expect most stories to be brilliant and if they’re not obviously so are willing to make the extra effort to hunt through them for what makes them good.”The Whispering Trees” has the most promising (lucid, deceptively simple) beginning and the most disappointing closing lines of any of the Caine prize finalists I’ve read so far, and I’m not sure what to think.

The story is about Salim, a young man who loses his eyesight in an accident, a month before he was to graduate from medical school and marry Faulata, the woman he loves. Having lost his mother, his career, and (he assumes) his fiancee all at once, he deals with his new situation first badly then well. Faulata stays and helps in a saintly fashion until she is no longer needed, then marries someone else. In recovering from this second great loss Salim discovers in himself the ability to see people’s souls though he can no longer see their faces; losing sight, he has gained insight.

A few here. Firstly, I suspect that if I was blind I’d be pissed off to learn that the magical power to see souls was an improvement I should be grateful for–but I guess that’s implicit in that whole blind prophet tradition, so perhaps it’s unfair to feel it more here than elsewhere.

Secondly, I’m not sure what the prose here is doing. Keguro Macharia’s post on the story isĀ  very well worth reading, in this regard in particular.

Thirdly, those opening lines made me think for a moment that this story was in part fantasy or horror. I have a horrible habit of trying to read things that aren’t ‘really’ (whatever that means) SFF as belonging to the genre and I’m trying to resist the temptation to do so here. Because if it’s not a post-death story, it does have ghosts and supernatural powers. But the whispering trees that give the story its name and the possibly interesting dead childhood friend don’t feel to me like the focus here. What is the centre of the story then? Salim’s reconciling himself to his loss of eyesight, I suppose, and his difficulty with his faith in the wake of the tragedy.

On twitter a few days ago, Ben asked (half-jokingly? I guess? I don’t see why not?) if anyone was going to do a reading of “The Whispering Trees” as a sort of prequel to Tope Folarin’s “Miracles”. I’m not, but I think the juxtaposition of those two stories can be interesting. Because “Miracles” also touches on questions of faith, of personal (mis)fortune in the context of religion. Except that the religion of “Miracles” is something social; it’s something that acts within communities and it’s this quality that has our protagonist come out of the story uneasy. “The Whispering Trees” focuses almost entirely on the personal, and has its main character coming out of it obedient, contented, and with faith intact.

Saints are rarely fun to read about and I don’t like being preached to. I’ve been trying since I read it to come up with alternative narratives (none of them, I think, the story “The Whispering Trees” thinks it’s telling) that are more satisfactory to me. So the ghost story. The story where this story simultaneously debunks (he’s not possessed, he’s depressed; there isn’t a malevolent spirit haunting the trees) and affirms (the attempted exorcism does seem to help; there is a ghost haunting the trees) spiritual belief. The story where those opening lines are the truth; Salim is dead and the rest is all some sort of afterlife analogy.

None of them quite seems to stick. I keep thinking that all this story really comes down to is that weak last line: “I realise that happiness lies, not in getting what you want, but in wanting what you have.” I really don’t want that to be the case.

 

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As ever, other people’s thoughts on the story are here:

Beverley Nambozo Nsengiyunva
Jeffrey Zuckerman
Veronica Nkwocha
Kate Maxwell
Scott Ross
Kola Tubosun
Keguro
Aaron
Ben Laden

 

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