“Tales in the Sand” is the prologue to the second set of Sandman stories, The Doll’s House, and it’s utterly different from anything in Preludes & Nocturnes right from the first panels. The title page is almost abstract in its imagery: the pastel yellow and red of a desert fills a background of triangles and trapezoids; two small figures carrying spears and wearing traditional garb walk in the middle ground; the foreground is dominated and bisected by a black spear.
I’ll admit I was wary. I am sensitive (and sometimes oversensitive) to representations of Africa by non-Africans. This sensitivity comes from a synergy of experiences, some dating back to childhood, but mostly from a time during my college years when I realized my brain was full of stereotypes and myths about Africa — not good myths, like stories of gods and heroes, but myths like, “Africa is a place where all the black people live in mud huts, starve to death, and eat white people they boil in giant pots.” Of course, by late childhood I knew the myths were false, but I didn’t have much to replace them with, and my education provided no help: I learned nothing of African history or culture in any class I ever took from kindergarten through undergraduate years at two universities. Nothing. Eventually, I started to teach myself, and with every new book I read, I recognized yet another prejudice or myth I’d been unaware of until I was forced to examine it. Travel and new friendships challenged my ignorance, too, and soon I became fascinated by, even occasionally obsessed with, the history of European (especially British) and American representations of the thing they called “Africa”, and how those representations differed (or didn’t) from the stories and images created by Kenyans and Nigerians and South Africans, by people who identified as Kikuyu, Masai, Igbo, Yoruba, Zulu, Xhosa…
Tempted as I am to go on and on here about all that fascinating stuff — H. Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs, Elspeth Huxley and Isak Dinesen, Joseph Conrad and Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye, Nadine Gordimer, J.M. Coetzee, Zakes Mda, Yvonne Vera, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Helon Habila — I will restrain myself as best I can, because once I got past my initial “Ack! Non-African writing about Africa!” response, “Tales in the Sand” didn’t bother me, despite doing some things that usually set me a-ranting and a-raving: creating a generic “Africa” and filling it with generically “primitive” people.
What “Tales in the Sand” shows, though, is that even the techniques most likely to lead to pure awfulness can be used thoughtfully and purposefully to good effect. Sandman is especially well set up for this, because it is very much about representations and misrepresentations, stories and legends, myths of every sort.
Here, a story is placed at the center of an adulthood rite, and it is a specifically and determinedly gendered tale. An older man takes a younger man out into the desert soon after the young man has been circumcised. The young man must go out into the desert to find an unspecified something; he returns, as they apparently always do, with a heart-shaped piece of green glass. And then the older man tells the younger man a story that, he says, must only be told here and must only be told once to each man: “For this is the way it has always been. Each of us hears the tale once, in this place. And each of us tells the story once in this place … if Grandmother Death spares us long enough to tell it…”
The story is of a lost city (from which the shard of glass originates), the city of the first people, and of a particular person, a woman named Nada, who fell in love with the lord of dreams, Kai’ckul. She tracked him down, sought him out, but then grew scared and broke his heart.
We may remember seeing Nada before. Dream passed by her in Hell, where she cried out, “Kai’ckul! Dreamlord! I hoped one day you would come to me! Free me, my love! Please?” Dream replied, “I greet you, Nada. It … pains me to see you like this.” She said he ordered her confined there and his forgiveness could free her. “Don’t you love me?” she asked. “It has been ten thousand years, Nada,” Dream said. “Yes. I still love you. But I have not yet forgiven you.”
The story of Nada told in “Tales in the Sand” is not necessarily complete and accurate — Gaiman has foregrounded the telling of the tale as much as the tale itself, and the particular restrictions are ones that certainly caused me to think of the game called Telephone that my elementary school teachers loved to have us play when we were waiting in line somewhere. One person whispers a phrase into another person’s ear, and on it goes down the line, until the phrase is unrecognizable after passing through ten or twenty people’s imperfect lips and ears. The story of Nada is kind of like a game of Telephone spread over centuries. There is no reason to assume the story bears much relationship to whatever actually happened.
At the end, Gaiman highlights the storyness of the story. We are told by a narrator that the women of the tribe tell each other a different version of Nada’s story. “And in that version of the tale perhaps things happened differently.”
Assumptions and perceptions shape stories. We have previously mostly encountered Dream as a gaunt, pale figure, but within the story of Nada, he is a strong, dark man — but his helmet is the same as before. Were he to appear to Nada as he has appeared to people in contemporary England and America, he would seem perhaps unbearably strange. Nonetheless, Nada recognized him in Hell, and so it’s entirely possible that he appeared to her in that form at some point, and the imagery we see in “Tales in the Sand” is the imagery that the older man and the younger man build in their minds — the assumptions they hold about what the people in the story looked like.
Assumptions and perceptions shape how we tell and receive stories, too. Gender roles are so separated in this tribe that the women and men have different stories, and even different languages — the women tell the story of Nada “in their private language that the men-children are not taught, and that the old men are too wise to learn.” These men and women inhabit different worlds. The stories we tell and the languages we use for those stories are fundamental elements of how we understand the lives we live.
“Tales in the Sand” works well because its reasons for using a particular representation of Africa are not based in an idea of an alien Africa, a place separate from the assumed audience of the story and exotic to it, a place valued only for its exoticism. It instead shows that the implied globalism of the Sandman’s powers is not an empty gesture, nor is our perception of him as a gothy white guy necessarily anything other than a projection of (or adjustment to) assumptions — he is, in some way, what the people he encounters want him to be.
After telling us that the women may tell a different version of the story, the narrator says, “But then, that is a women’s tale, and it is never told to men.” That’s a sentence crammed full of implications. For one thing, it turns all of the readers of this issue of The Sandman into men. Reading the story, we are given access only to the information available for men in the tribe. We have been initiated as men. (Thus, the story is much like the generic singular pronoun problem in English when fuddy-duddy style prescriptivists insist “he” is universal. This is true only if this sentence makes sense: “If a person is pregnant, he should not smoke cigarettes.”) The absurdity may be most obvious to female readers, but it struck me hard, because for a nanosecond I thought, “Wait, how did you know I’m a…” Written now in a comic able to be read by any person literate in English who comes upon it, the effect of the narrator’s statement is to subvert its own assumptions.
The sentence also felt to me like it was suggesting we may be getting a woman’s story next. At the bottom of the last panel, instead of a block with the title or theme of the next issue in it, we get a block with a single French word, “Fin.” We have reached the end of only one thing: the men’s story. What, though, it means for a story to be “a woman’s story” remains for us to discover…
Matthew Cheney has published fiction and nonfiction in a variety of venues, including One Story, Weird Tales, Locus, Rain Taxi, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and elsewhere. A collection, Blood: Stories will be published by Black Lawrence Press in January 2016. He is the former series editor for the Best American Fantasy anthologies and currently a co-editor of the occasional online magazine The Revelator. His blog, The Mumpsimus, was nominated for a World Fantasy Award in 2005. He is working toward a Ph.D. in Literature at the University of New Hampshire, where his research focuses on the work of Virginia Woolf, J.M. Coetzee, and Samuel R. Delany.