"An Ex-Mas Feast" by Uwem Akpan

New Yorker fiction -- June 13 & 20, 2005 issue

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Nothing kills a piece of fiction faster than asking the reader to feel bad for your poor, poor characters. Ethan said something like that once in workshop. I'm always impressed by writing that manages to deal with abject poverty, for instance, without once getting sentimental or hand-wringing about it and without ever asking for sympathy from the reader. Angela's Ashes is a good fairly recent example. This story is another. Both feature impoverished, retrospective, first-person narrators in which the action happens to the narrator-as-child -- in this case, Jigana, an 8 year-old Nairobi beggar -- but the narrator telling the story is the adult writing with the perspective of years. Letting the narrator grow old before the telling adds necessary heft and interest for the reader, whose understanding of the world is (hopefully) much advanced beyond that of a child's.

So Jigana describes his street family living in a shack in the bad part of a dangerous town with neutral matter-of-factness. Jigana as the eldest male is "the hope" of the family -- they just need to figure out how to pay for him to go to school. Want to write a story? Have a character want something. Jigana wants to go to school. How will he get the money for it? Well, his mother says he needs to get it from his sister Maisha, a 12-year-old whore and the family breadwinner. But of course this causes complications. Bang: a story.

His father is a lazy thief, who sleeps through much of the story. His mother is your basic stay-at-home glue-sniffing drunk who has caught a pregnant dog and is hoping to sell the puppies to pay for Jigana's schoolbooks. His other sister, Naema, at ten years old, is an apprentice street whore being trained by Maisha in using makeup and condoms. There are two young twins who flop around the shack and scream in their sleep. And there is Baby, an object, whom they shove in people's faces in round-the-clock shifts to help extract coins from tourists.

It's Christmas day in this happy household. Instead of figgy pudding, though, they have shoe glue, kabire -- highly prized stuff because sniffing it kills hunger. (To be fair, on Ex-Mas Eve there was a bonanza of three cups of rice and zebra intestines, scrounged from an N.G.O. party). In the story, the family is sitting around the shack waiting for Maisha to return with the "Ex-Mas" feast after a hard night of shagging white men and their monkey. Maisha, though, is getting restless and has hinted that she is leaving home to hook full-time, complicating Jigana's quest to go to school.

Notice that, for the moment at least, we do have an intact family here! And it really is a Christmas story. Are there gifts? Sure! The glue was a gift (it's for youngsters only, though Mama indulges). And some neighbors bring over a new pen and pencil for Jigana -- and forgive his father's four-year-old debts, thanks to Maisha, who persuaded them. When Jigana asks Mama what they are getting for the neighbors, she says (high on shoe glue), "half a litre of petrol." Jigana informs us that this is shameful, that petrol is culturally beneath glue as a gift. Merry Ex-Mas.

Let's get all Chad and talk structure: We have ten sections, separated by DSBs (double-space breaks). DSBs are to stories what stanzas are to poems. They are supposed to show passage of time or changing of POV character, though the New Yorker especially loves them (I suspect) because they chop the story nicely into bite-size chunks and allow for eye-catching 36-point initial caps. Here are the sections:

1. Introducing the family, setting up Maisha as the "magnetic" or "mysterious" character. "...none of us knew how to relate to her anymore." Baseline established.

2. Scene with Jigana and Mama sniffing glue, fighting (he bites her), then making up. Here is where Jigana's goal of convincing his sister to provide him enough money for school is declared by Mama. And here is where the neighbors forgive the family's debt. Tension: way up, then down a bit.

3. The only flashback section: Jigana hangs with Maisha on the street. We see their relationship, which is chummy and childlike ("We were not afraid of the city at night. It was our playground.") until he makes the sudden mistakes of using her real name and mentioning their parents, thus revealing on the street that they are related. "She ignored me for weeks." Tension slackened, then cranked back up.

4. It's raining outside the shack. Dad (Baba) wakes up. Jigana describes Maisha's disappearing with white men in a Jaguar. Mama starts the Ex-Mas ritual -- reading names of people she thanks God for, including Maisha's white clients. Tension stable.

5. Naema returns with Baby from begging, says Maisha is moving out, that it's time for her to start whoring full-time. Jigana blames himself because he needs the money and has been the reason for the pressure on Maisha. If he had only joined a street gang, he wouldn't need the money, and there'd be peace in the family. He becomes angry at her white clients. Tension up.

6. Jigana has a talk with Baba about quitting the school plan, which is rejected. Jigana sniffs more glue and has a psychedelic vision of going to school ("I was floating. My bones were inflammable. My thoughts went out like electric currents into the night ... I saw the teacher writing around the cracks and patches of the blackboard like a skillful matatu threading his way through our pothole-ridden roads."). Tension up and story expanded via vision.

7. Maisha returns in a taxi. Baba picks the driver's wallet, but Maisha makes him return it. Tension up. (This scene could have been cut, I think.)

8. In the shack, Jigana tells Maisha that if she leaves, so will he. Everyone tells him to shut up, that the matter is off the table, that the school fee is already arranged. Maisha and Mama have a reconciliation, but it seems Maisha's still leaving. Tension up.

9. A kind of vigil, Maisha's last night. Mosquitoes attack. Misery deepens. Tension up.

10. Naema emerges as the new Maisha, says will take care of Jigana, pay for his school. Then she remembers that Maisha brought the feast after all, bags of random foods all but forgotten in the sadness of her impending departure. They all gorge, including beer. A great line: "The twins fell on their backs, laughing and vomiting." Taxi arrives, Maisha leaves. Jigana sniffs more glue, destroys his pen and pencil, gets dressed, weeps. Street kids circle their bounty, making off with the balloons and cards Maisha had also brought. Jigana uses the occasion to slip away. His last memory: "...the twins burping and giggling," the Ex-Mas feast at last. Tension released.

This is not just a Christmas tale, then, but a coming-of-age story. Jigana tells us which development he wants (school) in the story, and the action shows whether he's going to get it -- he's not. He's going to have to get things for himself. He bails on the situation, following the example of his sister. It's hard to gauge whether he does the right thing. A family splitting apart is not good, though it could be argued he's already at rock bottom here. Still, it's a bit abrupt, as we've spent a lot of time getting to know the family with all its weaknesses and difficulties, and he plainly loves them, but in the end he simply ditches them.

Ambiguity like this is good in a story, done right, and in this case I like it. Eight is a bit young to strike out on one's own -- and of course a perfectly natural reaction would be horror at the tragedy that has led to this small child running off into urban who-knows-what -- but within the context of what has happened, it's understandable. (And as he says, the city is his playground.) As a reader, I am rooting for Jigana as he vanishes into Nairobi. Is there much hope for him? Well, he is telling this as an adult, and with good English, and so we know implicitly that he in fact does make it out there.

One fascinating thing about this story is it was written by an ordained Jesuit priest, a Nigerian currently studying at the U. of Michigan MFA program (the New Yorker Web site has a short interview with Akpan). Uh, did he not get the memo from the Vatican that preaching abstinence and the value of not using condoms will solve all these troubles? Akpan has strayed from the script to say the least. More power to him. I hope there are ten thousand Akpans out there.

The story doesn't just confirm the worst of the (American) reader's fears about the chilling situation of African children, it depicts a world much further degraded than the one we imagine: the sheerest squalor, the adolescent as sexual cash cow, the collapse of everything decent and civilized that typically sustains a family, the crooked depths of cynicism and survival -- yet not despair. The reader is denied the mind-closing luxury of despair. As a fictionist, then, Akpan holds up his end of the bargain admirably. By facing the bleak truth and giving us a POV character who, in the moment, doesn't know any better (as McCourt did in Angela's Ashes), by never caving to a desire to wring tears from the reader, he creates a world where the situation on the ground can be glimpsed, however briefly, on its own terms, without the usual distancing filter of pity; its failures and successes can be judged within their own contexts, its characters appreciated directly for their struggles. And this is what fiction is for -- it may be the one way to sneak such information intact past our pre-framed conceptions. It makes us see people, no matter their circumstances, as people. In this way, characters such as the ones presented here magnificently transcend our carefully constructed stock images of Africans as hungry, blank-eyed accusers and fly-covered appealers for relief -- and thus people we will likely never meet can at least be gathered into the common humanity of our imaginations, where they belong.


Patry Francis said...

You are so right. Uwem Akpan neither asks for pity, nor allows judgment on his characters. An amazing feat in a story that features child prostitution and a mother sniffing glue with her children.

bihari said...

What a beautiful review of such a powerful story. I remember when I lived in Nairobi I would look at the shantytowns--even visit one or two people I knew in Kibera--and wonder how I ever could get any understanding of what life was like in them. Interesting that my clearest picture came not from living alongside them but from reading fiction in Iowa.

Grendel said...

Thanks, Bihari! I did notice your mentioning that you lived in Nairobi on your blog -- Iowa Drift is now linked from here in the right-hand column, btw, under "Read stuff." If we ever have bambinos, we'll be addicted to the archives of your blog for commiseration/helpful info.

I wonder if we could get Akpan to come here for a weekend or something -- maybe on his story collection tour.

bihari said...

Wow--I am flattered silly that you have Iowadrift linked on your blog. Thank you! I have such a crush on EarthGoat--it's chewy, substantial, funny, eclectic, and rigorous, in just the right proportions. It makes me remember I have a cerebral cortex and not just a reptilian mama-brain and some boobs.

Grendel said...

Thanks Bihari-mama! It certainly is one of the top five ways to waste time I've ever encountered. And didn't realize Iowadrift is one word. Fixed.

I like Iowadrift because the posts usually come out in one long spill that's almost breathless, like a purging, and the endings are like catharsis. Love the Patients Lie series. I know how fast your mind works because of how fast you can talk, and it's amazing how much you can pack into a written sentence. I'm like a drunk bumblebee in October by comparison.