If This Thing Came to You, What Would You Choose?

As I mentioned in my previous post, there are many ways to reinvent the endgame of a story, and one of my favorite examples is a form of African oral literature called Dilemma Tales.

Screen Shot 2015-05-22 at 5-22-15    4.58.10 PM

These sorts of tales are truly “oral” literature, and don’t necessarily travel well to the page, outside the event of their telling. That’s because the greatest energy of dilemma tales comes from an audience’s response to the story, which poses some moral or narrative conundrum, one that can be answered by anyone listening. In small villages, African folk tales are often told in a group setting, at night, with people of all ages sitting and listening by fire or lamplight. With a dilemma tale, they get to participate. As the folklorist William Bascom writes, because such narratives “leave the listeners with a choice between alternatives,” they “evoke spirited discussions, and they train those who participate in the skills of debate and argumentation.”

Here’s an eerie dilemma tale from the Bura people of Nigeria, “The Leftover Eye”:

“Pay heed to this tale. It is a tale of things that have never happened. But we will suppose these things did happen for certainly such things are possible.

“This is a tale of a man who was blind. His mother, too, was blind. His wife and his wife’s mother were also blind. They dwelt together in a wretched condition; their farm was poor and their home was badly built. They consulted together and decided to go away. They would journey until they came to some place where their lot would be better.

“They set out and traveled along the road. As they walked, the man stumbled over something. He picked it up and felt it, and then knew that he had come upon seven eyes. He immediately gave two eyes to his wife, and then took two for himself. Of the three eyes remaining to him, he gave one to his mother and another to his wife’s mother. He was left with one eye in his hand. Kai, this was a startling thing. Here was his mother with her one eye looking at him hopefully. There was his wife’s mother with her one eye looking at him hopefully. To whom should he give the leftover eye?

Screen Shot 2015-05-22 at 5-22-15    5.13.37 PM

“If he gives the eye to his mother he will forever be ashamed before his wife and her mother. If he gives it to his wife’s mother, he will fear the angry and disappointed heart of his own mother. A mother, know you, is not something to be played with.

“This is difficult indeed. There is the sweetness of his wife. She is good and loving. How can he hurt her? Yet his mother, too, is a good mother and loving. Can he thus injure her? Which would be easier, and which would be the right way to do this thing?

“If this thing would come to you, which would you choose?”

Some tough choices here. I often teach this story to my undergraduate fiction students, when we’re discussing story structure and story endings. I throw that last line at them and ask them to respond. There are always inventive suggestions, but what quickly becomes clear is how hard it is to resolve the story in any neat way. The two mothers, for example could simply share the extra eye, each week one of them fully sighted, the other not. But is this really a solution, especially when the older women fall into vicious fights when the time for the switch arrives?

Or what if the husband takes out one of his eyes, so each mother could then have two eyes? How respectful and self-sacrificing of him! Problem solved, right? But then, with his one eye he notices the looks of pity his mother and mother-in-law begin to direct his way, and worse, he sees the lingering glances his wife bestows on passing two-eyed men . . .

This is what I love about dilemma tales, aside from the raucous fun of listeners challenging each other’s choices: they make it clear that narratives don’t like to be so easily tucked into bed and instead much prefer kicking off the sheets and throwing some pillows. Every ending has lurking within it a “but then,” or “what if” or “even though.”

Good to remember, that any fictional ending really is a stage set for further, though unwritten, possibilities. Just like our messy, unpredictable lives.


“The Leftover Eye,” can be found in African Myths & Tales, edited by Susan Feldmann.

The quotes from William Bascom are from his article “African Dilemma Tales: an Introduction,” in African Folklore, edited by Richard M. Dorson.

 Go to post page

May 24th, 2015 by admin

Choose Your Own Ending

I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction books about China these days, and Chinese fiction, because I was invited recently to Sun Yat-sen University’s inaugural International Writer’s Residency, which will convene this fall with a 28-day program that will include readings and workshops, but mostly three weeks of extended time for “reflection and writing.” This last part will take place in Yangshuo, as idyllic a spot on the planet as I’ve ever seen.

Screen Shot 2015-03-28 at 3-28-15    1.50.09 PM

Whenever the anticipation of travel kicks in, I turn to books—history and journalism, of course, but especially fiction, all to allow my ignorant eyes the opportunity of opening just a little wider. So many more books to go! I’m especially looking forward to Decoded: A Novel, by Mai Jia; another novel, A Dictionary of Maqiao, by Han Shaogong; and a science-fiction novel by Cixin Lui, The Three-Body Problem.

One of the best books I’ve read so far is Yu Hua’s memoir, China in Ten Words. Yu is the author of the celebrated novel To Live, made into an equally celebrated film. Yu’s memoir is filled with insights into the recent history of China, but the best parts for me are those where he recounts his budding love of reading and writing when he was a child living in an isolated town during China’s Cultural Revolution of the ’60s and ’70s. Even at a young age, Yu had a love of stories, and he’d scour the footnotes of Selected Works of Mao Zedong because they contained “explanatory summaries of historical events and biographical details about historical figures . . . Although there was no emotion to be found in the footnotes, they did have stories, and they did have characters.”

Screen Shot 2015-03-28 at 3-28-15    3.33.08 PM

During the strict fervor of the Cultural Revolution, books of fiction (“poisonous weeds”) were more often burned than read, and yet some did survive. These forbidden books were passed secretly from reader to reader, thousands of readers, and by the time one of them reached Yu, “they were in a terrible state of disrepair, with easily a dozen or more pages missing from the beginning and the same number missing at the end. So I knew neither the books’ titles nor their authors, neither how the stories began nor how they ended.”

An incomplete book was no deterrent to a reader desperate for the internal paths nurtured by narrative, but there was also a cost. “To not know how a story began was not such a hardship,” Yu continues, “but to not know how it ended was a painful deprivation. Every time I read one of these headless, tailless novels I was like an ant on a hot wok, running around everywhere in search of someone who could tell me the ending. But everyone was in the same boat. Such was our experience of reading: our books were constantly losing pages as they passed through the hands of several—or several dozen—readers. It left me disconsolate, mentally cursing those earlier readers who had been able to finish the book but never bothered to stick the pages that had fallen out back in.”

Screen Shot 2015-03-28 at 3-28-15    4.09.28 PM

And then came a moment for Yu when those difficulties no longer mattered, and their frustrations disappeared: “Nobody could help me, so I began to think up endings for myself . . . Every night when I went to bed and turned off the light, my eyes would blink as I entered the world of imagination, creating endings to those stories that stirred me so deeply tears would run down my face. It was, I realize now, good training for things to come, and I owe a debt to those truncated novels for sparking creative tendencies in me.”

This is a wonderful story of deprivation overcome, chronicling as it does the birth of a major writer’s imagination, a young boy lying in the dark and granting himself—as he might never have otherwise—the permission to invent.

Those missing endings that Yu learned to supply for himself could easily be adapted into a writing exercise. This summer I’ll be teaching a short creative writing course, “The Art of Revision,” and I think I’ll pick a short story from the reading assignments and cut out its last page. Then I’ll ask each student to write his or her own version of the missing ending. Comparing notes should be instructive on the multiple ways a story might be ended, how one possibility might be more satisfying than another, or if a definitive resolution suffers in comparison with a more ambiguous ending. I’m thinking here of Kazuo Ishiguro’s short story “A Family Supper,” in which the reader is left uncertain whether or not the patriarch of a family has served his son and daughter a dish of fugu, a fatally poisonous pufferfish.

There are other ways of reinventing the endgame of a story, such as the African oral literature form called a dilemma tale, but I’ll save that for another post.

 Go to post page

March 28th, 2015 by admin