SAY YOU’RE ONE OF THEM
When his mother asked her young son, Uwem Akpan, to write a play for her to be performed at the Parish Mothers’ Day event, he wrote a script and got a cast together. But after practising for a week, he got cold feet.
“I lost my liver, as they say, and disappeared. The play didn’t happen.”
Since then, the 37-year-old Nigerian writer and Jesuit priest has come a long way.
In the summer of 2005, the prestigious American magazine, the New Yorker, published his short story, “An Ex-mas Feast”, in its debut fiction issue. This was the first story he had ever submitted for publication in the United States. A year later, a second story, “My Parent’s Bedroom”, appeared in the New Yorker and was shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing.
Realist, tense, without apology, Uwem Akpan’s fiction is alarming. In his new book, Say You’re One of Them, he looks through children’s eyes at a modern Africa in crisis on many levels. The three short stories and two novellas that make up the collection are set in six countries—Kenya, Benin, Gabon, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Rwanda—and cover issues as dark and diverse as child trafficking, religious violence and genocide.
In the tightly strung novella, “Luxurious Hearses,” a Nigerian teenager tries to hide his mixed Christian/Muslim identity as he waits to travel south with a busload of Christians fleeing religious persecution in the North.
Before reading this story I, like many outside of Nigeria, had a fairly fuzzy notion about the conflict between Northern and Southern Nigeria. I knew it had to do with religion. I’d heard the news reports about Sharia law and the woman who was sentenced to be stoned to death. I suppose I cared in the way that you feel you should care about other people’s suffering. But all the same, I was only distantly aware, theoretically sympathetic. It was not difficult to shrug off, like flicking a fly off my forearm.
And then I met Jubril. Or Gabriel, depending on whether you are a Muslim extremist or a fanatical Christian. A young protagonist caught in the inter-religious conflict of the early Nigerian democracy, baptised a Christian by his father in the south but brought up as a Muslim in the northern town of Khamfi, he is a complex and flawed character.
And now that I’ve sat with Jubril for a few hours (I read slowly), I have a far greater understanding of the many-layered potent mix of history, religion, poverty, corruption, greed, fear and power, that can boil up into violence. I don’t feel like I’ve learnt such a thing from reading a book in a long time. This is the power of Akpan’s writing—to slide you so snugly into someone’s shoes that you can get as close to sharing their experience as possible. You may just recognise the human side of such inhuman circumstances.
It was well after I’d read through the collection that I realised these are stories about child prostitutes, glue sniffing babies, religious zealots, abusive mothers, murderer husbands, child-trafficking uncles, prejudiced parents and child soldiers. Akpan’s characters are some of the least socially acceptable people in the world.