Unflinching Evil in 'Say You're One of Them'

Uwem Akpan

The debut short-story collection by Nigerian writer and Jesuit priest Uwem Akpan offers a sobering view of a world in which atrocity is commonplace and evil is triumphant. Hachette Book Group USA hide caption

itoggle caption Hachette Book Group USA

Remember Holden Caulfield's famously ironic literary fantasy in Catcher in the Rye? The one about how, when you read a book you love, you feel so connected to the author you just want to call him or her up and talk and talk? (It's "famously ironic," of course, because few fans have ever chatted with the super reclusive J.D. Salinger.) Well, I flashed on Holden's fantasy after reading Uwem Akpan's short-story collection, Say You're One of Them.

I wouldn't claim I "loved" the collection — that's too happy, too easeful a word to use in reference to these despairing stories. And (fortunately for me), I don't feel "connected" to Akpan — his world is one in which atrocity is commonplace; the unthinkable is the everyday. No, I feel the naïve urge to call Akpan up and talk and talk because, judging from his life and work, I think he's someone especially suited to respond to the million-dollar theological question: Why does God permit evil to flourish in the world?

Akpan is not just an already-acclaimed, new Nigerian writer on the Anglo-Afro literary scene; he's also a Jesuit priest. All of his stories are told through the perspectives of children — a Kenyan boy who lives with his family on the streets and sniffs glue to tamp down hunger; a Christian girl in Ethiopia who's abruptly torn from her Muslim best friend; a Rwandan girl who witnesses her Hutu father forced to machete her Tutsi mother.

Evil is gleefully triumphant in these stories; human society is chaos, and children — its lightest, most fragile members — are sucked down into the horror just as vividly as Edgar Allan Poe's victim was sucked down into the maelstrom. My impulse is to call up Father Akpan and ask how someone with such an intimate knowledge of hell in his writings can still obviously affirm in his life the existence of a benevolent God. Because in these stories, when evil comes through the door in the form of human tribal enemies, the only defense the narrators' parents — the minor household deities here — can offer their children, is to, in the chilling words of the title story, "say you're one of them."

Maybe Akpan will explore that central theological mystery in a nonfiction book one day; in this collection, his aim seems to be to unflinchingly dramatize partisan hatred at work. Akpan's brilliance is to present that brutal subject through the bewildered, resolutely chipper voice of children; he never succumbs to the temptation of making his narrators endearing or overly innocent. They've seen too much to pretend purity.

All five of these stories are electrifying, but the one I find myself thinking about the most is one of the longest — over 100 pages — called "Fattening for Gabon." (Listen to Uwem Akpan read the opening of this story.) It takes place over three months and has the slow, sinister feel of a dark fairy tale. In it, our narrator, a boy aged 10, and his sister, 5, are sent to live with their uncle because their parents are dying of AIDS. The uncle makes a deal with the devil and sells the children into slavery — although the kids don't know that; they just see a new motorbike appear one day in their uncle's hut. They're treated to fattening feasts of bush meat and pepper soup by a pair of fawning "godparents" who plan to stick them in the bottom of a boat and smuggle them across the border to Gabon. The boy begins to catch on but, to give himself and his sister a chance of survival, he acts dumb and feels bad about himself for being good at it. Referring to his captors, he says, "I felt I had learned evil from them. I had learned to smile and be angry at the same time."

Akpan's narrators speak in a hodgepodge patois of French and African languages and English. They have a gift for rough metaphor: An 8-year-old boy — the hope of his homeless family — who narrates the story, "An Ex-Mas Feast," describes his sister and her fellow prostitutes on the street as "flutter[ing] about under streetlights, dressed like winged termites." The distinct voices of these child narrators and the horrors they bear witness to make Say You're One of Them a haunting debut short-story collection. Or, perhaps it would be more faithful to the bleak tone of these stories to say that readers will be damned to remember them.

Excerpt: 'Say You're One Of Them'

'Say You're One of Them' cover
Say You're One of Them
By Uwem Akpan
Hardcover, 368 pages
Little, Brown & Co.
List Price: $23.99

An Ex-mas Feast

Now that my eldest sister, Maisha, was twelve, none of us knew how to relate to her anymore. She had never forgiven our parents for not being rich enough to send her to school. She had been 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. When home, she avoided them as best she could, as if their presence reminded her of too many things in our lives that needed money. Though she would snap at Baba occasionally, she never said anything to Mama. Sometimes Mama went out of her way to provoke her. "Malaya! Whore! You don't even have breasts yet!" she'd say. Maisha would ignore her.

Maisha shared her thoughts with Naema, our ten-year-old sister, more than she did with the rest of us combined, mostly talking about the dos and don'ts of a street girl. Maisha let Naema try on her high heels, showed her how to doll up her face, how to use toothpaste and a brush. She told her to run away from any man who beat her, no matter how much money he offered her, and that she would treat Naema like Mama if she grew up to have too many children. She told Naema that it was better to starve to death than go out with any man without a condom.

When she was at work, though, she ignored Naema, perhaps because Naema reminded her of home or because she didn't want Naema to see that her big sister wasn't as cool and chic as she made herself out to be. She tolerated me more outside than inside. I could chat her up on the pavement no matter what rags I was wearing. An eight-year-old boy wouldn't get in the way when she was waiting for a customer. We knew how to pretend we were strangers—just a street kid and a prostitute talking.

Yet our machokosh family was lucky. Unlike most, our street family had stayed together—at least until that Ex-mas season.

The sun had gone down on Ex-mas eve ning. Bad weather had stormed the seasons out of order, and Nairobi sat in a low flood, the light December rain droning on our tarpaulin roof. I was sitting on the floor of our shack, which stood on a cement slab at the end of an alley, leaning against the back of an old brick shop. Occasional winds swelled the brown polythene walls. The floor was nested with cushions that I had scavenged from a dump on Biashara Street. At night, we rolled up the edge of the tarpaulin to let in the glow of the shop's security lights. A board, which served as our door, lay by the shop wall.

A clap of thunder woke Mama. She got up sluggishly, pulling her hands away from Maisha's trunk, which she had held on to while she slept. It was navy blue, with brass linings and rollers, and it took up a good part of our living space. Panicking, Mama groped her way from wall to wall, frisking my two-year-old twin brother and sister, Otieno and Atieno, and Baba; all three were sleeping, tangled together like puppies. She was looking for Baby. Mama's white T-shirt, which she had been given three months back, when she delivered Baby, had a pair of milk stains on the front. Then she must have remembered that he was with Maisha and Naema. She relaxed and stretched in a yawn, hitting a rafter of cork. One of the stones that weighted our roof fell down outside.

Now Mama put her hands under her shuka and retied the strings of the money purse around her waist; sleep and alcohol had swung it out of place. She dug through our family carton, scooping out clothes, shoes, and my new school uniform, wrapped in useless documents that Baba had picked from people's pockets. Mama dug on, and the contents of the carton piled up on Baba and the twins. Then she unearthed a tin of New Suntan shoe glue. The glue was our Ex-mas gift from the children of a machokosh that lived nearby.

Mama smiled at the glue and winked at me, pushing her tongue through the holes left by her missing teeth. She snapped the tin's top expertly, and the shack swelled with the smell of a shoemaker's stall. I watched her decant the kabire into my plastic "feeding bottle." It glowed warm and yellow in the dull light. Though she still appeared drunk from last night's party, her hands were so steady that her large tinsel Ex- mas bangles, a gift from a church Ex- mas party, did not even sway. When she had poured enough, she cut the flow of the glue by tilting the tin up. The last stream of the gum entering the bottle weakened and braided itself before tapering in midair like an icicle. She covered the plastic with her palm, to retain the glue's power. Sniffing it would kill my hunger in case Maisha did not return with an Ex- mas feast for us.

Mama turned to Baba, shoving his body with her foot. "Wake up, you never work for days!" Baba turned and groaned. His feet were poking outside the shack, under the waterproof wall. His toes had broken free of his wet tennis shoes. Mama shoved him again, and he began to wriggle his legs as if he were walking in his sleep.

Our dog growled outside. Mama snapped her fingers, and the dog came in, her ripe pregnancy swaying like heavy wash in the wind. For a month and a half, Mama, who was good at spotting dog pregnancies, had baited her with tenderness and food until she became ours; Mama hoped to sell the puppies to raise money for my textbooks. Now the dog licked Atieno's face. Mama probed the dog's stomach with crooked fingers, like a native midwife. "Oh, Simba, childbirth is chasing you," she whispered into her ears. "Like school is chasing my son." She pushed the dog outside. Simba lay down, covering Baba's feet with her warmth. Occasionally, she barked to keep the other dogs from tampering with our mobile kitchen, which was leaning against the wall of the store.

"Jigana, did you do well last night with Baby?" Mama asked me suddenly.

"I made a bit," I assured her, and passed her a handful of coins and notes. She pushed the money under her shuka; the zip of the purse released two crisp farts.

Though people were more generous to beggars at Ex- mas, our real bait was Baby. We took turns pushing him in the faces of passersby.

"Aii! Son, you never see Ex- mas like this year." Her face widened in a grin. "We shall pay school fees next year. No more randameandering around. No more chomaring your brain with glue, boy. You going back to school! Did the rain beat you and Baby?"

"Rain caught me here," I said.

"And Baby? Who is carrying him?"

"Naema," I said.

"And Maisha? Where is she to do her time with the child?"

"Mama, she is very angry."

"That gal is beat-beating my head. Three months now she is not greeting me. What insects are eating her brain?" Sometimes Mama's words came out like a yawn because the holes between her teeth were wide. "Eh, now that she shakes-shakes her body to moneymen, she thinks she has passed me? Tell me, why did she refuse to stay with Baby?"

"She says it's child abuse."

"Child abuse? Is she now NGO worker? She likes being a prostitute better than begging with Baby?"

"Me, I don't know. She just went with the ma-men tourists. Today, real white people, musungu. With monkey."

Mama spat through the doorway. "Puu, those ones are useless. I know them. They don't ever pay the Ex-mas rate—and then they even let their ma-monkey fuck her. Jigana, talk with that gal. Or don't you want to complete school? She can't just give you uniform only."

I nodded. I had already tried on the uniform eight times in two days, anxious to resume school. The green- and- white-checked shirt and olive-green shorts had become wrinkled. Now I reached into the carton and stroked a piece of the uniform that stuck out of the jumble.

"Why are you messing with this beautiful uniform?" Mama said. "Patience, boy. School is just around the corner." She dug to the bottom of the carton and buried the package. "Maisha likes your face," she whispered. "Please, Jigana, tell her you need more—shoes, PTA fee, prep fee. We must to save all Ex-mas rate to educate you, first son. Tell her she must stop buying those fuunny fuunny designer clothes, those clothes smelling of dead white people, and give us the money."

Excerpted from Say You're One of Them by Uwem Akpan. Copyright (c) 2008. Reprinted with permission from Little, Brown and Company. All rights reserved.

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