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I first encountered the writing of Uwen Akpan when My Parents' Bedroom, one of the stories in this collection, was published in The New Yorker in 2006. My Parents' Bedroom is an utterly compelling short story, set in Rwanda during the civil unrest. The story is based on conflict and deception. As told by Uwem Akpan ethnic conflict is mirrored in the internal conflicts of the characters. Loyalties are divided, decisions are made, lives are irredeemably damaged. On re-reading this story lost none of its narrative force. My Parents' Bedroom is strongly character-driven, against a backdrop of the extreme events of ethnic violence. One of the features of Akpan's writing is that even when the circumstances of his stories are dramatic the reader is still drawn in by use of language, by images, and by characters that are so well developed that they reach across the divides of age and place. My Parents' Bedroom is the last story in this collection of five, and that placement seems deliberate. Of all the stories in this book this one has the greatest impact, and is likely to stay with readers well after they put the book down.
Say You're One of Them consists of three short stories and two of novella length. All are set in Africa, the locations varying from Rwanda, Niger, Ethiopia, Gabon and Liberia. Some of these locations exist only in the dreams of Akpan's characters, but the range enables the author to explore different aspects of African culture, history and politics. Children feature strongly, from saleable commodities in the sinister Fattening for Gabon to What Language is That? in which the story's unnamed second person protagonist shares an innocent friendship with "Best Friend" Selam. Children are often victims, but so are their parents, and much of the tension in Akpan's writing derives from the way he uses children as the observers of adults.
The opening story The Ex-mas Feast is set in Nairobi where twelve year of Maisha and her family live in a squalid shack and survive on whatever trade they can manage with tourists. Told from the perspective of her younger brother Jigana, Maisha is "behaving like a cat that was going feral: she came home less and less frequently, staying only to change her clothes and give me some money to pass on to our parents." The family is corroded by poverty. A jar of glue acts as an anesthetic for the frequent occasions when there is nothing to eat. A pregnant dog is kept as a house pet for the money to be made from its puppies. When Maisha manages to secure a bounty of food the family have forgotten the social rituals that make a feast. What Language is That? is a touching story set in Ethiopia, about how religious intolerance impacts on the friendship between two young girls. Of all the stories in this collection it's the least disturbing, although lives are affected by mob violence. The friendship of the girls wins out in the end, as they learn a form of communication that transcends parental injunctions and religious prejudice.
Of the two novella length stories, I found Fattening for Gabon the strongest. Two children, Yewa and her older brother Kotchikpa, live with their uncle Fofo Kpee. Their parents have AIDS and are being cared for by relatives. Kpee makes money by transporting people across the borders of Benin. He's in the pay of the ominous figure, Big Guy. The family seem to have experienced a change in fortune when Fofo Kpee arrives home with a shiny new Fanfang, a motorbike which will enable Fofo Kpee to earn more money. Readers, however, are aware that all is not as it seems to Kotchikpa, through whose eyes the story is told. We've been told in the first line that: "Selling your child or nephew could be more difficult than selling other kids." As Fattening for Gabon unfolds, the layers of deceit grow more complex and moral principles confront the pragmatics of survival. The innocence of Yewa and Kotchikpa is corrupted by the adults they trust, until they must engage in deceits of their own to protect themselves.
In the other longer story Luxurious Hearses Akpan draws on the multiple themes of religion, history, politics, colonialism, and the place of multinationals in Africa. It seems every facet of Nigerian life is pervaded by deep undercurrents of distrust. Sixteen year old Jubril is aboard a bus in northern Nigeria, bound for the delta region where he will reconnect with his father's Muslim family and build a life. That is only if he can survive a long ride in the company of Christians also fleeing south after their families have been murdered and their homes destroyed by Muslim mobs. This is not a simple religious divide however; Jubril owes his life to Christians who protected him. His own family have mixed religious backgrounds, something that proves fatal to his brother Yusuf. The bus is delayed because the driver needs to find fuel on the black market. As tension builds as various characters step forward and declare themselves, in the process showing the loosening threads of Nigerian society. The bus is a dangerous place, where a single slip could give you away, or an accusation could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Finally the bus leaves, but the drama is by no means over. There are two voices in this story, one of Jubril from whose point of view the story is told, and another voice with lessons to teach about Nigeria. For me there was a little too much going on, and I felt Jubril's personal drama was rather overshadowed by the larger tragedy of Nigeria. The sheer number of characters, and the sharply divergent positions they represent, make it hard for them to rise above their roles as mouthpieces for one more view on the politics of Nigeria. Akpan is an optimist though, and in Jubril he creates a character who can see the destructiveness of hate, through his own complicity and his immediate experiences. In Jubril's final resignation though, there is a sense that the salvation of an individual is not enough to resist the greater forces of sectarian hatred.
Akpan writes in clear descriptive prose that brings the diverse lives of his characters and their multiple settings into vivid life that is at times more real than you want it to be. It would not be possible to read stories of such wretched lives were it not for Akpan's wonderfully clear and unadorned language. He can show us events and people that are beyond the pale, but he infuses his writing with a warmth and humanity that enables us to read on. It is something of an uncomfortable realization when, at the end of the book, you put it down and reflect on the strength of Akpan's writing, then recall that these are real people and real events. Akpan has shown you a world where lives can be traded away for a handful of naira, or sacrificed to satisfy a primitive urge for vengeance. Any one of these characters might need to obey the injunction of nine year old Monique from My Parents' Bedroom: "if they ask you, . . . say you're one of them." In Uwen Akpan's Africa survival is not about who you are, but who you can pretend to be.
© 2008 Tony O'Brien
Tony O'Brien is a short story writer, and lecturer in mental health nursing at the University of Auckland, New Zealand: email@example.com