Say You’re One of ThemUwem AkpanLittle, Brown and Company, $23.99, 368 pp.
From Enoch Emery in Wise Blood to Miles and Flora in Henry James’s Turn of the Screw, young people in fiction are often privileged interpreters of reality. Maybe it’s the absence of an ideology—their decidedly direct, if not always innocent, take on things. Kids might not always see things clearly, but they do say clearly what it is they think they see. The childlike Enoch sees a mummy and declares it “the new Jesus.” Oskar in Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum provides us with an unforgettable view of Nazism through the eyes of an eternal three-year-old. Henry James’s Miles and Flora either see evil or are evil, and Lewis Carroll’s Alice guides us through the art of seeing in a looking glass, revealing that happiness may just mean accepting the odd as if it were the everyday.
Nigerian Jesuit Uwem Akpan’s first collection of stories, Say You’re One of Them, is a moving and chilling addition to the literary treasure-trove of children’s perceptions. In the opening story, “An Ex-Mas Feast,” a twelve-year-old Kenyan girl named Maisha prostitutes herself to pay her younger brother Jigama’s school fees. The family’s desperate circumstances are seen through Jigama’s eyes. “Fattening for Gabon” is narrated by another young boy, ten-year-old Kotchikpa, on whom it slowly dawns that the new wealth of his uncle and the attention he and his sister are getting from their new “godparents” will not lead to the wonderful future they anticipate. The shortest piece, “What Language Is That?” looks very simply at the impact on two Ethiopian children, one Christian and one Muslim, of the ethnic and religious conflicts of their parents’ generation. In “Luxurious Hearses” we are transported to another scene of Christian-Muslim strife, this time in Nigeria, the author’s birthplace. A young Muslim, Jubril, must hide his religious identity from the very colorful busload of Christian refugees with whom he is traveling. In the final and most harrowing of the five stories, nine-year-old Monique, a child of mixed Tutsi-Hutu blood in the midst of the Rwandan genocide, looks on uncomprehendingly as ethnic hatred and pure blood-lust destroy her family.
More shocking than the horrific circumstances in these stories are the images of children trying to negotiate some kind of normality. A brother and sister play and laugh in the streets of Nairobi, but the girl is a prostitute waiting for a client. Locked in a dark room, waiting to be sold, two children dissolve in giggles as they tickle one another. A Rwandan baby plays in blood as if it were mud. Of course, there is horror in what adults do to one another out of fear and hatred, but what their choices do to children is the main theme of Akpan’s stories. The children at the center of these tales are nearly all nine or ten years old—old enough to see, but still too innocent to comprehend.
Akpan has said that growing up in Nigeria, in a culture that prized storytelling, helped him develop his impressive narrative skills. He has a particular talent for capturing genuine interactions between people, and the pidgin English his characters often speak is rendered with clarity without becoming an obstacle to the reader. One can imagine his talent lending itself to social comedy with great success. Even these stories, with their grim subject matter, contain moments of humor—the comical banter among the refugees in “Luxurious Hearses” is particularly accomplished.
Akpan, who has published two of his stories in The New Yorker, honed his craft while in formation as a Jesuit. He has said he learned patience and fortitude from the years he spent working on an unreliable “community computer” in the seminary. Otherwise, the influence of Akpan’s Jesuit identity on his fiction writing is not easy to discern. Religious and ethnic rivalries are present in all the tales, but the only overt religious symbol is the fluorescent crucifix featured in “My Parents’ Bedroom,” which functions more as a reminder of a life lost than as a devotional object. In “Luxurious Hearses,” Jubril comes to realize that the fundamentalist Muslims who disfigured him are hardly better or worse than the hate-filled Christians with whom he is sharing the bus. Theology, church, and sacraments are occluded by the grip that evil has on people and places in turmoil. But perhaps Christ is present in the compassion with which the children are depicted. Akpan’s steady resistance to passing judgment is a kind of testimony to unconditional love.
There are moments of grace, mostly in the love and care the children have for one another, but also in the occasional act of kindness or courage by an adult. However, there is no resolution and no clarity about either providence or salvation. “Finding God in all things,” that most Jesuit of practices, is under severe stress here. Death and despair are present in all the stories, and if evil is not allowed to have the last word, it is also never clear that evil will be overcome. Theodicy gives way to the hopelessness of the characters’ situations.
But the children remain the focus, and Akpan leaves them with limited but real possibilities for hope. It is possible that Maisha will find a way back to a normal child’s life, retiring from prostitution to go to school, though such a path seems unlikely. Perhaps Kotchikpa and his little sister will escape the hunters—and maybe Monique and her baby brother will survive genocide, even though their mixed race makes them potential targets for both Hutu and Tutsi. Hope for the future, however tenuous, is founded in the resilience of children, who will always try to make a life out of the broken shards of adults’ dreams. In Akpan’s stories, it’s possible that the simple wish to be normal could prove an occasion of grace and a source of infinite possibility.
Related: Paul Lauritzen interviews Uwem Akpan in a Commonweal podcast