Tope Folarin and the Miracle of Transubstantiation

by zunguzungu

(A guest post by my friend, Leila Mansouri)

I was hesitant to join the Caine Prize Blogathon. This was partly because I have no blog of my own –thank you, Aaron, for finding a space for my ramblings! Primarily, though, my reluctance stemmed from the fact that I know embarrassingly little about African writing.

That’s a problem, of course. I’m a writer. I study literature. My experience with African writing shouldn’t begin and more or less end with Things Fall Apart. But it does – and not just for me but for most people interested in contemporary fiction. To be clear, this neglect isn’t intentional. Rather, there is simply a huge amount of great fiction being written right now all over the world. My queue of books waiting to be read includes work by writers from Chechnya, Ireland, Bosnia, Iran, Germany, and Mexico in addition to novels – many of which are by and about immigrants – from writers in Britain and the United States, and even as I look forward to reading them they fill me with anxiety because the pile on my nightstand always seems to grow faster than I can read it. There never seems to be enough time for all the world’s stories.

Others have written far better than I can about how problematic it is for a British foundation named for Sir Michael Caine to award a prize for African writing in the Bodleian Library, but I think it’s worth pointing out that people like me are the problem the Caine Prize was created to help solve. “Pay attention,” an award like this says. “Here are five writers whose work you need to know.” Not only that, the Caine Prize makes paying attention easy. It gives us African writing in brief, digestible nuggets. You may not have time to read five novels by Africans, the prize implicitly scolds, but surely you can manage five short stories. So it was with the conviction that I should finally learn something about contemporary African writing that I picked up Tope Folarin’s short story “Miracle.”

But “Miracle” is not a story that lets anyone rest in comfortable convictions. Its central event is in fact a miracle that both is and is not and that is what makes it so unsettling. And while this miracle has all sorts of resonances that are specific to the Nigerian diaspora Folarin writes as part of, it is also a miracle of fictional transubstantiation – of the faith or illusion that allows you to believe that, when you’re reading about a character, you are encountering at least in some mediated sense actual people and a particular world. It’s this peculiar ability of fiction to make word into flesh, or to seem to, that allows you to believe a short story might tell you something meaningful about what it is to be Nigerian or African or human.

The first thing you learn reading Folarin’s short story is that it is not a short story at all but rather an excerpt of his forthcoming novel, The Proximity of Distance. So, we are getting not a “loose baggy monster” but rather something that has been paired down and streamlined, perhaps representatively perhaps not. The story’s narration performs a similar sort of synecdochal substitution when the “we” that opens the story becomes the “I” who will be summoned on stage to experience a miracle. The story begins with a vast and diverse collective who “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.” Halfway through, though, all these hoped for miracles are hung on the shoulders of a single boy, who will either experience a miracle cure of his near-sightedness – a miracle that will, through an alchemy of transubstantiation made possible by the raucous, hopeful, one-time-only Pentecostal revival service, stand in for all these other hoped for miracles – or he won’t. In each case, the conviction that part can meaningfully stand in for whole relies on a leap of faith. Perhaps “Miracle” can stand in for Folarin’s novel, perhaps even for Nigerian fiction, and maybe, if we squint our eyes, African writing more generally. Perhaps the boy will experience the miracle the congregation needs him to. But perhaps not.

I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to suggest that this miracle of being able to stand in for others’ hopes, beliefs, and ideas is the miracle that diasporic writing is always asked to perform when read by outsiders. Early on in this story, the pastor prays “We ask for your blessings because we are not here alone. Each of us represents dozens, sometimes hundreds of people back home. So many lives depend on us Lord, and the burden on our shoulders is great.” Certainly there is a literal reality in play here, in which immigrants traveling abroad represent their families’ interests by sending money and hope back home. But the preacher’s words also suggest the workings of diasporic fiction. After all, in a world where no one has enough time to read everything from everywhere, Folarin’s characters each end up representing thousands or tens of thousands or maybe even millions of people both in Africa and America. The burden on the shoulders of each character is great.

And it’s a burden that the story, through the boy’s miraculously lucky effort to perform a miracle that he does not actually experience, both lovingly accepts and tells us is impossible. The boy is plucked out of the crowd by a charismatic and supposedly blind preacher who claims to “have a fix” on the boy’s soul and to have learned from the Holy Spirit what “healings” the boy needs but who instead may have, as Aaron points out, merely felt the boy’s thick glasses or not in fact be blind at all. When the preacher declarers the boy healed and commands him open his eyes, he cries out “I can see!” even though what he sees is merely “the same fog as before.” And then the core of the miracle: the preacher tests his sight. An attendant holds up fingers and the boy “squint[s] and lean[s] forward” praying he “get[s] it right”:

“Three!” I yell, and the crowd cheers more loudly than before.

“Four!” I scream, and the cheers themselves gain sentience. They last long after mouths have closed.

“One!” I cry, and the mouths open again, to give birth to a new species of joy.

Does the boy just get lucky? Do his prayers work? Do the attendants perform some sleight of hand? Does no one notice he’s gotten the numbers wrong? “Miracle” leaves us unable to decide. All of these explanations are possible. In one unequivocal sense the miracle has failed – the boy is as nearsighted as ever – but everyone, including the boy, seems to have left the service believing a miracle of some sort actually happened, and this miraculous failed miracle may be just a trick or a mistake but it could also be the work of faith, albeit a more ambiguous work of faith than the one for which the preacher ostensibly prayed.

In leaving us with this ambiguous miracle, the story destabilizes without outright undermining the imaginative transubstantiation that allows us to take people, characters, and stories as representative. The boy’s simulation of a miracle in some fundamental sense allows him to represent the people in the audience. They believe, and he gives them a performance that represents their faith. But, however miraculous his performance turns out to be, the miracle he experiences is not the miracle the audience believes to have taken place. In another sense, then, he also fundamentally misrepresents them. His miracle carries their burden on his shoulders and refuses it at once.

Likewise, I think, with the story itself. Certainly, it does represent Nigerians, even Africans. And yet it also doesn’t in that it refuses the comfortable conviction that reading “Miracle,” or any other Caine Prize story for that matter, will enable people like me to actually know something about African writing, much less about the actual Nigerian people or their diasporic culture. A story like “Miracle” might represent dozens, hundreds, maybe even thousands, but that miracle will never quite work like readers and prize committees think it does or wish it to even if there’s something miraculous in the fact that it happens at all.

It is this faith in miracles that are also not miracles that I think makes Folarin’s story so miraculous. “Miracle” leaves us with the conviction that we know something even as we know that we do not – that we have experienced something of African writing and Nigerian diasporic life even though, as the story reminds us, in all but the most superficial sense we have not. And in this I think it a story that asks to be read not just as African writing but as part of contemporary American and British traditions (Folarin has biographical claim to both countries) crowded with so many wonderful stories and writers from so many places that attempting to represent any one of those places or peoples in fiction requires a leap of faith. Folarin’s short story makes this leap, but even as it does so its miracle that’s not quite a miracle calls our attention to what its “miracle” of representation necessarily misrepresents – what we won’t see unless we read the novel it’s a part of. And not just the novel but all the other novels, too. The ones from Nigeria and Africa and also Taiwan and Poland and Saudi Arabia. The ones that, no matter how much I might wish them to, couldn’t possibly fit in the queue that’s already spilling off my nightstand.