Reviewed by Susan Straight
Sunday, June 29, 2008
SAY YOU'RE ONE OF THEM
By Uwem Akpan
Little, Brown. 358 pp. $23.99
The parents in Uwem Akpan's first collection of stories, set in present-day Africa, make sacrifices and deals that might seem unimaginable to readers in other parts of the world. After finishing this book, I wandered for days staring at my three daughters and countless nephews and nieces, seeing how fragile and dangerous their lives could easily become in a time of war, starvation, and betrayal.
What if even sacrificing our own lives wasn't enough to ensure the survival of our progeny? That is often the case in Akpan's Africa. These five stories -- set in Nigeria, Kenya, Rwanda, Ethiopia and Benin -- are all about children and their perilous, confusing lives, their searches for bits of grace and transcendence along with food, family and survival. This link allows a huge, perplexing continent to be known in intimate ways.
The first story, "An Ex-mas Feast," is told by Jigana, an 8-year-old boy living with his parents and siblings in an improvised shack in the slums outside Nairobi. His 12-year-old sister, Maisha, is a veteran prostitute who has amassed a collection of secret treasures inside a locked trunk, which their mother maneuvers around the shack while she tries to take care of her other five children. She sends out the older two with Baby, who is a begging tool, and gives Jigana "New Suntan shoe glue" to kill his hunger. "I watched her decant the kabire into my plastic 'feeding bottle.' . . . The last stream of the gum entering the bottle weakened and braided itself before tapering in midair like an icicle."
Akpan, a Jesuit priest born in Nigeria, teaching now in Zimbabwe after earning his MFA from the University of Michigan, researched the lives of the children he writes about, but no amount of research produces the perfect details and images that he has set down here; only imagination, empathy and a careful ear can accomplish this. The details of street life in Nairobi -- girls who bleach their faces at age 10 to stand on street corners and be picked up by white men and tourists -- and of the way Western ideas have insinuated themselves into every aspect of African life are on convincing display here. These characters speak a lingua franca that changes with each nation, but English words and American capitalism are everywhere.
"No food, tarling," Mama tells Jigana. "We must to finish to call the names of our people." Jigana's mother commands her husband to help consecrate a ceremony that involves holding the coverless Bible inscribed with the names of their relatives, people dead and disappeared due to razed villages, tribal conflicts, mistaken identity and sexual slavery. Her prayer ends with, "Christ, you Ex-mas son, give Jigana a big, intelligent head in school."
In "Fattening for Gabon," an uncle is charged with the care of his niece and nephew when their parents are sickened by AIDS. He plans to sell them into slavery, but, in an agonizing meltdown, he cannot go through with the deal. The language in this story is a mélange as well, in which yearning and tradition seem painfully melded. The nephew, Kotchikpa, who is 10, meets the Gabon trader for the first time in his uncle Fofo Kpee's yard: " 'Smiley Kpee, only two?' the man who brought Fofo exclaimed, disappointed. 'No way, iro o! Where oders?'
" 'Ah non, Big Guy, you go see oders . . . beaucoup,' said Fofo, a chuckle escaping his pinched mouth. He turned to us: " Mes enfants, hey, una no go greet Big Guy?' "
This story is long, but like the other four it manages to capture a whole nation and how that nation has been affected by border strife, AIDS, international peacekeepers, internal tribal conflicts and even family fights.
"Luxurious Hearses" is a journey into a nightmare world in Nigeria, where Muslims in the north are rampaging against Christians who are fleeing to the south where their religion is more dominant and where the inhabitants are killing Muslims. The buses that ply the highways are now thronging with refugees from both sides, including Jubril, a teenage Muslim boy whose hand was recently amputated when he stole food. He's another child caught between worlds, and the world of this bus is huge, with tribal elders, former soldiers, university students and desperate mothers pressing against every window.
We are soon thrust into another desperate journey, another fateful decision and another world expertly limned by Akpan. On the stalled bus, waiting for fuel, the crowded passengers fight over the televisions showing corpses and fighting from Khamfi, in the south:
"I say everybody shut up," a passenger named Emeka yells. "I dey watch my people do combat! You get relative who dey do Schwarzenegger for cable TV before?"
But then Nigerian police show up and turn off the television. " 'Please, show me my cousin!' Emeka said, tears running down his face. 'Please, return to that channel. . . . I want to see my cousin again! Is he alive?' The police did not even look at him. 'Officer, I'll give you whatever you want later . . .'
" ' Later? We no dey do later for cable TV,' the police said, watching Emeka's hands like a dog expecting its owner to offer something. 'Give us de money now now. . . . Cable TV, life action . . . e-commerce!' "
The final story may be the most devastating of all, in its depiction of a Rwandan family -- Hutu father, Tutsi mother and their two children for whom they make the ultimate sacrifice. It is not merely the subject that makes Akpan's story or his writing so astonishing, translucent and horrifying all at once; it is his talent with metaphor and imagery, his immersion into character and place. The view from a child's eyes carries the reader directly into Africa and the lives of the child narrators. One of these is Monique, daughter of two tribes, in "My Parents' Bedroom." She says of her friend, who is Twa, the smallest, most ignored tribe: "Hélène is an orphan, because the Wizard fixed her parents last year. Mademoiselle Angeline said that he cursed them with AIDS by throwing his gris-gris over their roof. Now Papa is paying Hélène's school fees." After the massacre begins, Monique watches her parents rescue the girl: "Hélène is soaked in blood and has been crawling through the dust. Her right foot is dangling on strings, like a shoe tied to the clothesline by its lace."
Hélène is put into the attic, with the Tutsi relatives of Monique's mother, and when her father's Hutu family arrives, he is forced to make a terrible choice. This choice, as happens so often in this collection, is death for life. Akpan's incredible talent as a writer prevents the story from becoming a polemic, diatribe or object lesson. He is too good for that. The story stays firmly focused on Monique and that house with the desperately crowded attic: "I cry with the ceiling people until my voice cracks and my tongue dries up."
Uwem Akpan has given these children their voices, and for the compassion and art in his stories I am grateful, and changed. ·
Susan Straight's most recent novel, "A Million Nightingales," is the first of a trilogy on slavery and motherhood.