The Caine Prize for African Writing is back and, as we did last year, we’ll be joining Aaron Bady’s community to discuss what makes the five finalists tick. This year, however, I’ll be taking a close look at each story’s prehistory, from its influences to its allusions. This week’s entry comes from Nigeria: Abubakar Adam Ibrahim's “The Whispering Trees.”
Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s story lies in the strange realm of magical realism: a man named Salim dies, but he has not really died; he goes blind, but he has not really gone blind. In gem-like sentences, Salim’s sphere slowly expands from his intense, solitary experiences of recovering from a car accident outward to the closest members of his family, then the people in his village permitted to visit him, and slowly, further outward to the natural world he has waited so long to reenter, and finally (though he does not die) to the realm of the dead he had only imagined at the story’s beginning.
As with Tope Folarin’s “Miracle,” “The Whispering Trees” is rooted in religious disbelief. Salim, the narrator, strains with all his soul twice to go to heaven and die properly; both times, he fails. A malam is called to exorcise the devil from his soul; the devil, we readers know, is simple depression. And yet, when Salim comes out of his depression, he has the religious experience of being able to see peoples’ souls:
“I saw images I could not discern. They were like blurred, glowing lights that moved about . . . I did not see things, but I saw their souls: human souls, goats’ souls, chickens’ souls. I was amazed to discover that even mosquitoes had souls. All these souls glowed like mild, white lights.”
The myth of being able to see people’s souls is an old one, and usually attributed to blind people—the Greek soothsayer Tiresias being the most famous example—and Salim’s newfound ability is turned to the same ends.
The eponymous “Whispering Trees” are a grove not far from Salim’s home where he finds souls less riddled with anger than those of his fellow humans:
“The souls of the trees were so pure and welcoming without a hint of evil about them. All these souls, so pure, so clean, so many, and not one stained by anger, malice or envy: no treachery, no guilt, just innocence. I began then to question man’s moral justifications for lording it over all these beautiful, innocent souls.”
Like Cole Sear in “The Sixth Sense”—another unusual seer—Salim uses his ability to change the lives of the living. The souls he can see are not limited to the living and once he speaks to a dead friend, he is able to bring peace and reconciliation to one of the most tortured souls he knows. His journey, and its consequences, draw on mythic traditions of the descent into the Underworld—a trip taken by Obàtálá in Yoruba mythology, Gilgamesh in The Epic of Gilgamesh, Odysseus in The Odyssey, Aeneas in The Aeneid, Dante in The Inferno, and many others in nearly every literary tradition of the world.
This year’s Caine Prize shortlist “interrogate[s] aspects of things that we might feel we know of Africa,” and Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s story is no exception. It might well be set in the Catskill mountains (where the above photograph was taken) or in the Middle East—but its Nigerian locale gives a tinge of familiarity to a location that media reports have made wholly foreign to Anglophone culturati. Consequently, it’s not strange at all to realize how the souls of people in Lagos or Kano or Port Harcourt could look, to Salim, just like those of anybody else in the world.
For other perspectives on "The Whispering Trees," follow these links to posts by fellow Caine Prize bloggers:
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