Say You’re One of Them
By Uwem Akpan
Little, Brown and Company, 2008
368 pp., $23.99/$26.99
It is a great thing that these seven stories, having been chosen for a certain famous book club, will now receive a flood of richly deserved attention. It is a shame that so little of the attention will take into account how Uwem Akpan’s Catholic faith shapes his narratives, or even find that phenomenon worth accounting for. Without such an accounting, the stories cannot be completely understood. Because without such an accounting, the stories—as the New York Times review of July 27, 2008, found them—can be read as merely “grim reportage” of horrors on the ground on a continent few American readers have visited and still fewer understand.
About this grimness, sensitive readers should take note. The three most technically proficient pieces in the collection—“An Ex-Mas Feast,” “Fattening for Gabon,” and “My Parents’ Bedroom”—are also the three most heartrending. In every story in the collection, innocent children suffer from the lust, greed, and hatred of adults. Those adults who also suffer cannot protect the children, while the perpetrators of the crimes enjoy worldly power and comfort. In these three stories, the injustice is made particularly heinous by some corruption of the natural order. “An Ex-Mas Feast” takes place in an economy so wrecked that a twelve-year-old girl must support her whole family, including her parents, through her work as a prostitute. In “Fattening for Gabon,” a similarly wrecked economy leads the uncle and guardian of a ten- and five-year-old to sell the children into some undefined slavery, also possibly sexual (the threat is implied in a hideous scene where the uncle, in a fit of grief and guilt, attempts to “prepare” the children for this possibility). And in “My Parents’ Bedroom,” a young girl watches her Hutu father murder her Tutsi mother during the Rwandan genocide.
While Akpan is not answering Ivan Karamazov’s anguished cry about the suffering child, he does seem to be framing the problem of evil in that notorious character’s terms: What does it mean to believe in God in a world where such things happen? His answer certainly to do with innocence. In a way, it is precisely the innocence of the narrating protagonists that keeps the outrage of these stories from being exploitative. A suffering child is many times less likely to violate his own dignity than even the most caring and pitying of adults. Akpan understands this and therefore lets the children speak for themselves. In so doing he avoids infecting the stories with the adult attitudes and emotions—positive or negative, wise or sappy—that might distract either from the content of the stories or from their immediacy. He allows the reader to supply those emotions instead, thereby increasing their force.
After saying this, it is worth considering one instance where the issue of innocent suffering is complicated by the protagonist’s crime, greater maturity, and complicity in a violent system. “Luxurious Hearses,” the long novella toward the end of the book, concerns a young Muslim man trying to hide his religion and identity as he travels toward his home village on a bus full of Christians and pagans. This is complicated by the fact that, as a subject of sharia law, Jubril—or “Gabriel,” as he was baptized Catholic in childhood and later apostasized—has had his right hand cut off for theft.
Some reviewers—again, the Times of 7/2/7/08 among them —have dismissed this novella as lacking the evidence of technical skill that the rest of the collection shows. This is not totally unfair. “Luxurious Hearses” takes on too much in attempting simultaneously to tell the story of a soul and to educate the Western reader about the divisions and social structures of Africa through the interactions of diverse refugees on a bus. Because of this secondary, didactic purpose, the dialogue ends up containing some phrases that either seem to cross the fourth wall, being more for the benefit of the reader than for the person being spoken to, or that seem to sound more like the speech of Western university students than that of African tribal chiefs or uneducated nursing mothers.
Yet as story-of-a-soul, as it primarily asks to be read, “Luxurious Hearses” strikes all the right notes and asks all the right questions. Ultimately, is Jubril/Gabriel saved by virtue of his baptism and his desire to submit to the will of God, or lost because of his errors about what that will is? The narrative invites the question and offers evidence for both possible answers, but insists on the private nature of the particular judgment, the possibility but uncertainty of final perfect contrition, and the impenetrability of the mind of God.
I think it is significant that Akpan, while to be considered primarily under his role of fiction writer in creating these stories, is also and inseparably a priest. Since “the whole personality participates in the act of writing,” what relevance does his priesthood have to these stories of innocent suffering? The first and most obvious answer that leaps to mind is the connection to Christ on Calvary, the primary instance and example of innocent suffering. What would be senseless and unbearable becomes just scarcely possible to begin to understand and to bear by its participation in His saving act. As the tortured statue in Flannery O’Connor’s “The Artificial Nigger” stands in for a crucifix, the children in Say You’re One of Them stand in for Christ. And in the more complex case of “Luxurious Hearses,” Akpan’s faith accounts for the terms in which Jubril’s situation is proposed and eventually, ambiguously resolved. The humanist tradition has its roots in the Catholic tradition, but branches alone will not provide the interpretive keys to Akpan’s work; the reader will, eventually, have to trace back to the Vine.
Katy Carl, the editor-in-chief of Dappled Things, works as a writer and editor in the Washington, D.C., metro area, where she lives with her husband and son.