I don’t pretend to be schooled in African literature, but “Say You’re One of Them,” by Uwem Akpan, a Nigerian-born Jesuit priest who now teaches in Harare, reminds me of the stories I’ve read by other authors from impossibly poor and torn apart places. Like Jhumpa Lahiri or Edwidge Danticant, Akpan doesn’t try to dazzle you with descriptions or exoticize the places about which he writes. Instead, he relies on a solid form, using the sparest of prose and only enough detail to bare dreadful emotion.
The title is not what I first thought it was, coming from my comfy Western background; a sort of plea to a future lover or compatriot, “Say You’re One of Them, one of those people I really like.” It’s not even delivered as plaintively as you might guess. It’s the direct, stern advice of a Tutsi mother who knows she is going to die to her 9-year-old half Tutsi/half Hutu daughter during the Rwandan genocide.
Maman never shouts at me. She’s strange today. Tears shine in her eyes. I pick up a bottle of Amour Bruxelles, the perfume Papa gives her because he loves her. . . . I beg Maman to put some on me, but she refuses.
“When they ask you,” she says sternly, without looking at me, “say you’re one of them, OK?”
“Anybody. You have to learn to take care of Jean, Monique. You just have to, huh?”
It’s not a surprise that there is at least one major death in every story in this collection, it’s telegraphed from the start. That might be its only fault. Nearly every story ends the same, with the same image. But the other images with which Akpan provides us are more familiar, and used to varying degrees of effectiveness. Like the 12-year-old girl forced into prostitution to support her family, counting out bills in the headlights of a taxi with her long, fake nails. At least two children in two stories play with lights in the dark in some proximity to their stomachs, one of the lights is a glowing crucifix Monique and Jean lay on top of as they’re hiding so that the glow doesn’t give them away to the passing mobs. The other one is another cheery story, about two children about to be sold into slavery.
I looked away, to hide my excitement. Even Yewa seemed to feel the extra friendliness that morning. She picked up the flashlight and aimed it around the room, playfully, drawing and painting intricate designs with the beam, shining it into all the crannies. It was her toy, and she behaved in that brief time like one who had the power to bathe the world in light or darkness. Sometimes she tried to use her hands to cover the face of the flashlight. Her fingers got red, but light still poured into the room. She aimed the flashlight at her belly and pushed it into her skin until there was very little light, just an eclipse on her stomach.
In one of the longest stories, people of mixed backgrounds are stuck on a bus together, trying to travel across Nigeria while their country unravels. Between Steinbeck and now Akpan, poor people always seem to be stuck together on buses or some other mode of economic transport, on some sort of thwarted pilgramage.
The refugees rose to their feet at the sight of the hungry-looking almajeris running around with fuel and matches, setting things and people afire. They were much younger than Jubril’s friends Musa and Lukman. In the bus, anger replaced shock and passive complaints. It was not really the sight of corpses burning — or the businesses of their southern compatriots being leveled by firebombs, or the gore when some of the kids were fried in gas before they had a chance to use it — that roused the refugees. All over the country, people had developed a tolerance of such common sights; decades of military rule, and its many terrorist plots directed at the populace, had hardened them. What riled them was the sight of free fuel in the hands of almajeris.
Akpan’s harder task, which he manages to do without being annoying to the reader, is to use dialect that is both critical to and beside the point of his stories. Characters use l’s instead of r’s and f’s instead of p’s, and their quirks are often individual. I have no idea what the words dey or wetin mean, but in Akpan’s countries, people use them almost every other sentence.
I suspect that Akpan’s effort is both art and mission, to find new ways to reach out to the world before the people find more horrific ways to hurt African children. Either way, Akpan sometimes, though not always, spares you the most gruesome images, and never spares you from the gruesome human.
After this, I’m on to more depressing books, like “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” which after two pages is already terrific and terrifically sad. Notice that the first adjective, brief, modifies the word life.