Tope Folarin: “Miracle”

"Abandoned Church of God: Akron, Alabama." Digital photograph. ©2010 April Dobbins, one of her a series illustrating  “Miracle” by Tope Folarin (from his forthcoming novel The Proximity of Distance) in Issue 109 of Harvard's Transition Magazine (website, twitter).

Aaron Bady (blog, email, twitter)-- whom I know from fighting Mountaintop Removal--posted instructions  for blogging the short list for the Caine Festival for African Writing  on May 22,  I just found out today, the deadline for the first finalist.  Interestingly, four of the five finalists are Nigerians, as is Tope Folarin (interview).

Aaron, by the way, is a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley in African literature. He says he's planning on posting his own essay on Monday of each week, and doing a week-in-review post on Saturday, both at the New Inquiry. If you’d like to participate in the blogging, you can email him at aaron@thenewinquiry.com or tweet with him—and @elnathan, @Abubakr_khalifa, and @topefolarinon—on twitter using the hashtag #caineprize.

Here are the deadlines for the rest of the short list,  in case you want to blog or just read along with us.

June 3rd — June 8th
Pede Hollist (Sierra Leone) “Foreign Aid”
June 10th — June 15th
Abubakar Adam Ibrahim (Nigeria) “The Whispering Trees”
June 17th –June 22nd
Elnathan John (Nigeria) “Bayan Layi”
June 24th — June 29th
Chinelo Okparanta (Nigeria) “America”


I love that Tope Folarin's   "Miracle is a story of faith deeper than literal faith--of believing in the need to hold up the spirit of one's community. Folarin hints at the story's ending,  soon after he begins, describing the prayers of
we who have made it to America, because we know we are here for a reason. 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...

The pilgrims who have come to seek the ministrations of the short, blind old prophet who they've seen
perform miracles that were previously only possible in the pages of our Bibles...

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.
The story, although about Nigerian immigrants had a resonance for me because of the old man's message, which could apply just as well to Appalachians:
“The purpose of my presence in your midst is to let you know that you should no longer accept the bad things that have become normal in your lives. America is trying to teach you to accept your failures, your setbacks. Now is the time to reject them! To claim the success that is rightfully yours!”

And maybe, too, because like the narrator, I have been severely myopic and his description rings so true. Folarin's description of the prophet is especially vivid:
 in this charged atmosphere everything about him makes sense, even the irony of his blindness, his inability to see the wonders that God performs through his hand. His blindness is a confirmation of his power. It’s the burden he bears on our behalf; his residence in a space of perpetual darkness has only sharpened his spiritual vision over the years. He can see more than we will ever see....

 His sunglasses fall from his face, and we see the brilliant white orbs quivering frantically in their sockets, two full moons that have forgotten their roles in the drama of the universe. His attendants lunge to the floor to recover them, and together they place the glasses back on his ancient face. The prophet continues as if nothing happened....

I don’t have enough time to wrap up my unbelief and tuck it away....

The prophet suddenly pulls off his sunglasses. He stares at me with his sightless eyes. I become uncomfortable, so I lean slightly to the right and his face follows. I lean slightly to the left and his face does the same. A sly smile begins to unfurl itself across his face. My heart begins to beat itself to death.
I love that "Miracle" at first seems so serious and ends with a wink.  I love that it has none of the heaviness of Flannery O'Connor (whom I love, but whose humor is caustic with constant theme of pride going before a fall.)  Maybe that's because Folarin writes from the midst of the disenfranchised rather than casting down the self-satisfied "good" Christians.

Having been exposed now to Folarin, I want to read more.  And I've looking forward to reading the others nominees.