By David Lynn, Editor
“You sail at dusk, not knowing one from the other.” Thus begins “Ezekiel,” a story appearing in the Fall 2012 issue of The Kenyon Review. First, a confession: I generally don’t much like the second-person mode. Too often it strikes my ear as the aftereffect of a workshop exercise or as an effort do something new that isn’t after all very new. So Segun Afolabi, the author of “Ezekiel,” had one strike against him, in my editorial judgment, from the start.
But the rest of that first sentence, “not knowing one from the other,” is odd, stiff, confusing. One what from other whats, I couldn’t help but wonder? Such syntax could, of course, be a sign of mere clumsiness or lack of authorial skill. Or, as soon becomes evident in this story, it may be perfectly appropriate to the narrator and the situation. “Moonlight leaks across the water like an oil spill. You see their faces bathed in the greasy glow: children, infants, women, mostly men. You cannot count how many people are in the boat, but you estimate at least thirty, perhaps forty.” So the awkwardness and confusion of the language heighten the nightmarish qualities of the scene itself.
By the second page we discover that the desperate migrants on this small boat leaving Dakar variously speak French, English, and Wolof, and communication—often miscommunication—will be both a challenge and a source of conflict in the days ahead. In reading the story I soon realized that the author is indeed marvelously skilled at suggesting and representing the challenges of multiple languages and failures of understanding, without being heavy-handed.
For example, as the travelers are fantasizing about where they may eventually wind up: “A middle-aged man says, ’Barca ou Barzakh,’ in Wolof, and you wonder, is it really as stark as that—a choice between Barcelona and the afterlife?” The deftness here is that we learn the meaning of the Wolof phrase not in simple translation but through the main character’s response to hearing it and his weighing of its significance.
That character, who we later learn is named Mamadou, is not the story’s narrator, so much as the consciousness that the narration mirrors. He is all of seventeen and fleeing Africa most immediately because his girlfriend is pregnant, but also, naively, out of a vague dream born of television and American situation comedies. He seems only now to glimpse the harsh reality of the course he has chosen.
Which brings me back to the question of second-person narration. One crucial aspect of the story is to dramatize for the reader just how little control Mamadou has over his fate, beyond the initial flight to a small boat on a vast sea. The second-person narrative successfully emphasizes his lack of being a full, mature “subject” capable of first-person story making. The “you” sets him apart, an object, not in control of this his own narrative.
I am also impressed by the way Segun Afolabi employs the very ancient model of a “ship of fools,” in which travelers are bound together for the course of a dangerous journey. Yet the vivid specifics of “Ezekiel” are fresh and moving. And of course this is one of the secrets of fine storytelling: in one sense there are no “new” models. But excellent writers bring new life through the dramatic specifics of their tales.
Segun Afolabi also treats his characters, foolish though they may be in their very humanity, with full respect. And despite its African setting, there is nothing of the “exotic” here. “Ezekiel” isn’t about the cheap titillation of a kind of voyeurism. This passage, for example, is both lyrical and pure realism:
Lights skip across the water from the villages along the coast—tiny fires, lamps like beacons, a few homes blessed with electricity. You want to tell Gertrude how beautiful everything is when viewed from a distance: the dotted lights, the moon, the undulating trees. You no longer see the rubbish accumulating on roads; the blind, one-legged babas dragging infants from street to street, pleading for centimes; policemen ever ready to move you on when you present your face in the city.
“Ezekiel” offers a context—escape from poverty in Africa—a locale—a small boat at sea—and vivid characters at risk—considerable risk—that may be unprecedented for most readers and yet immediately recognizable. It’s a remarkable tale. Read it here.