“The Cement Horse,” by Keren-happuch Garba (Nigeria)
Issue 5.1 May 2023
Read the piece here.
1. Read and notice
Read the story “The Cement Horse” as a class. Have students:
Mark places where the mother in the story creates (or attempts to create) a certain picture for her children—a picture of what the city offers, or what their future there might hold.
Mark the place where the reality of their situation becomes clear.
2. Symbolism: horse, silence, weather
Have students “think, pair, and share” in response to these questions:
What does the cement horse represent to the mother? To the narrator?
What effect does the description of silence and weather have in the last paragraph? What is the writer able to communicate with this description? What are they showing rather than telling?
3. Five-Minute Writing Warm-up: “It was all because of…”
How do we end up where we end up? Why is this family pulling up their roots and relocating? The writer hints at many reasons, but the narrator sums it all up—the shock of it, the difficulty, how preposterous it seems to them—with one line: “All because of a cement horse.”
Think back to a time when you or your family went through a “relocation”. This relocation could take many shapes: it could be a geographic move, or a move from one home to another, one school to another, one church to another…
Think back to this experience, and then sum it all up, by finishing this sentence:
“It was all because of…”
4. Expand into story
Write your own narrative (fictive or real) about relocating. Perhaps you will draw on an idea that came to mind during the warm-up, perhaps another source of inspiration surfaced through the reading of “The Cement Horse”, or perhaps you'd like to write about an experience from your own life but through a fictional character. Regardless of whether your story is fiction or nonfiction, use the following techniques:
In Medias Res
Throw your reader into the action by starting “in medias res” (aka “in the middle”), as Keren-hapuch does in “The Cement Horse”. The story doesn’t begin when the mother first decided to move, but much later along, when the family is packed into the truck, bumping along the potholed road. Start in a place that makes the reader wonder, “Wow, how did we get here?!”
Now weave in the backstory—the context the reader needs in order to understand the present predicament, and how the characters feel about it. In “The Cement Horse”, we find out later in the story about the narrator’s beloved books, the loss of their father, and their mother’s previous trip to the city. All of this took place before the truck ride, but comes later in the story rather than following a chronological order of events.
Keren-happuch is a master of metaphor. Here is a sampling of the metaphors and similes that appear in this short story:
The earth, touched by a month of rains and summer-fed winds, swelled to a green blanket.
It was in this truck our only dog was sold for pennies, like fragments of his life fit in Ma’s purse, like it belonged there.
Noon came like threads of fire knitted to our bodies.
In these examples, notice how one thing is compared to something else to which it is not literally applicable. (For example, the earth is compared to a green blanket.) A metaphor is a tool for you to use, too! It is a way to give your readers a richer understanding of what you are describing. Part of your task is to find a fresh way to conjure something that's been written about a million times before—the earth after the long-awaited rains arrive. “Swelled to a green blanket” plants an image in our mind, a sensory experience rather than a flat description.
Read through your draft. Are there places you can replace a humdrum description with a metaphor?
6. Author Q&A
Note to Teacher: The onset of ChatGPT has made the job of discerning plagiarism all the more difficult. One way to steer students toward writing their own original work is to ask them to regularly reflect on their writing process. Engaging students directly with the development of their work rather than just the end product makes them more aware of the tools, techniques, and approaches they are employing. It is also a form of accountability that discourages plagiarism. For any writing assignment—especially those completed at home, consider having students turn in an accompanying “Author Q&A”.
Read Keren-Hapuch’s answers, and then respond to your own Author Q&A.
Question: Where did the inspiration for this piece come from? The seed of the idea for it?
Answer: I'd first read The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck a few years ago and thought about how interesting it was to observe a family's journey through a book. “The Cement Horse”, far from Steinbeck's genius creation, was a product of how I felt years after reading the book and a personal experience of relocating with my family. I wanted to write a story where each character could be what they were meant to be in the story.
Question: What did you find challenging about writing it?
Answer: I remember trying to balance writing a story that was typical of a rural area in Nigeria and wondering how its readers would perceive the story. I kept asking myself if readers would understand the concept and the storyline, if the characters felt “real” and if certain areas in the story “belonged”. These were some challenges I faced when writing “The Cement Horse”.
Question: How did your perspective on the subject matter change through the writing process? From first word to last?
Answer: I would say that I always expected the story to take me where I never imagined but never did I expect it would come with such an ending. I also didn't know why I wanted Ma to have such a goofy reason in the story with regards to their relocation but that point was the juiciest part for me—I just had to write it down.
Question: What do you hope readers take away from this piece?
Answer: I do hope that its readers see a story that depicts a family's survival through a wave of loss, poverty, struggles and the hope involved.
Where did the inspiration for this piece come from? The seed of the idea for it?
What did you find challenging about writing it?
How did your perspective on the subject matter change through the writing process? From first word to last?
What do you hope readers take away from this piece?
Common Core Standards Alignment for this Lesson
Reading Standards for Literature, Key Ideas and Details, Grades 9-10
Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text.
Reading Standards for Literature, Key Ideas and Details, Grades 11-12
Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.
Reading Standards for Literature, Craft and Structure, Grades 9-10
Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the cumulative impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone (e.g., how the language evokes a sense of time and place; how it sets a formal or informal tone).
Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure a text, order events within it (e.g., parallel plots), and manipulate time (e.g., pacing, flashbacks) create such effects as mystery, tension, or surprise.
Analyze a particular point of view or cultural experience reflected in a work of literature from outside the United States, drawing on a wide reading of world literature.
Reading Standards for Literature, Craft and Structure, Grades 11-12
Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including words with multiple meanings or language that is particularly fresh, engaging, or beautiful. (Include Shakespeare as well as other authors.)
Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text (e.g., the choice of where to begin or end a story, the choice to provide a comedic or tragic resolution) contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact.
Writing Standards, Text Types and Purposes, Grades 8, 9-10, 11-12
Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, relevant descriptive details, and well-structured event sequences.
Production and Distribution of Writing, Text Types and Purposes, Grades 8, 9-10, 11-12
Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience. (Grade-specific expectations for writing types are defined in standards 1–3 above.)
Production and Distribution of Writing, Range of Writing, Grades 8, 9-10, 11-12
Write routinely over extended time frames (time for research, reflection, and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of discipline-specific tasks, purposes, and audiences.