Three years ago, when the Nigerian-born Jesuit Uwem Akpan’s story “An Ex-Mas Feast” first appeared in The New Yorker’s Debut Fiction issue, deputy fiction editor Cressida Leyshon asked him about the stories that would comprise his still incomplete debut collection. Akpan, who was ordained a Jesuit in 2003 and received his M.F.A. from the University of Michigan in 2006, said: “I would like to see a book about how children are faring in these endless conflicts in Africa. The world is not looking. I think fiction allows us to sit for a while with people we would rather not meet.”
His new book of stories, Say You’re One of Them , offers us that look. From the opening scene, narrated from the perspective of an eight-year-old thief named Jigana, who introduces us to his sister, Maisha, a 12-year-old prostitute, it is quite clear that African children are not faring well. (All the stories are told from a child’s perspective.) In effect, through these five stories, Akpan allows his readers not just to sit with the characters, but more. He desperately makes us want to step in and baby-sit for them. It is true that we would rather have not met them. We want to protect them in the absence of parents too poor, too drunk, too cruel or simply too sick; to defend them against those adults who would quell their children’s hunger with kabrie, or shoe glue, before sniffing it themselves, or who would fatten them up and teach them to lie before selling them into a life of servitude; to rescue them from prostitution on the streets of Nairobi, Kenya, the sectarian violence between Christians and Muslims in Khamfi, Nigeria, or the tribal conflicts everywhere that divide families and lend the book its title. “When they ask you…say you’re one of them, OK?” a Tutsi mother tells her daughter, Monique, in the collection’s final story, “My Parents’ Bedroom.” “Who?” the girl asks. “Anybody,” her mother replies.
Why? the reader thinks. Why say you’re one of them? Monique narrates the answer, which might have come from the mouth of any of Akpan’s children: “We want to live; we don’t want to die,” Monique concludes. “I must be strong.” Sitting with them, the reader—like, it seems, the author—wants to keep the kids from death. So we read slowly, knowing that new violence, starvation and murder might follow on every page. Death is all around, often, though not always, mercifully just out of view. And all these children want is to live.
In Say You’re One of Them, being strong enough to live usually means running away: slipping away through a window, hiding among a group of other retreating children, scaling a road divider, lying to conceal your identity and, most difficult yet so common, leaving someone else, usually another child, behind. The lucky children disappear, leaving unlucky ones behind. The even unluckier ones, together with so many unlucky adults, are made to disappear.
Of Akpan’s five stories, the first, “An Ex-Mas Feast,” told by Jigana about his thieving, glue-sniffing family and their dependence on Maisha, the prostitute, remains the standout of the collection. “Fattening for Gabon,” a story describing in detail the fate of two young AIDS orphans whose uncle plans to sell them into slavery for a Nanfang motorbike, makes explicit the central problem of the book. No matter how fast they run, these children cannot escape the influence of the adults around them. Says the 10-year-old narrator Kotchikpa near the end of the story: “I felt I had learned evil from them. I had learned to smile and be angry at the same time.” “Luxurious Hearses,” the third of Akpan’s three long stories, has a young Muslim, Jubril, board a “Luxurious Bus” full of Catholics and say he’s one of them in order to escape religious riots in his “multiethnic, multireligious” Khamfi, a town quickly becoming “the corpse capital of the world.”
In terms of dead bodies, “Luxurious Hearses” is undoubtedly the most gruesome of the stories, and so the hardest to look at. Of the three long pieces, it is also the slowest and least subtle. (While no less well written and no less tragic, Akpan’s two shorter stories, “What Language Is That?” and “My Parents’ Bedroom,” get lost in this slightly unbalanced collection.) Waiting for his bus to depart—a process that takes far too long; the reader, like the young Muslim, wonders well over halfway through the long story “when the driver would wake up so they could begin their journey”—Jubril recalls the riots that sent him running. Hiding out under the protection of a self-proclaimed “serious Muslim” teacher, Mallam Abdullahi, who had in the past harbored Christians, Jubril worries he will be given up when a mob of fellow Muslims approaches the house looking for traitors. From Jubril’s hideout, the action outside “sounded like a play, and he waited for him [Abdullahi] to crack under the pressure.” We know that he does not, nor do his children, which allows him, “filled with thanksgiving, with a mysterious pride that his fellow Muslims could risk everything for infidels,” to escape the craziness of Muslims attacking Muslims and board the bus in the first place. There he waits.
Like the scene Jubril imagines from under cover, though, “Luxurious Hearses” itself often sounds like a play, and the reader worries, and waits, for it to crack under the pressure. And crack it occasionally does, especially when its sometimes pat conclusions are contrasted with the more complicated lessons about the relationship between anger and evil from “Fattening for Gabon.” At one point, pocketing the telltale stump of a wrist that remains after having his hand cut—a Muslim punishment for theft—Jubril thinks: “It was time to be a human being and to celebrate that. What mattered was how to get people to lay down their weapons and biases, how to live together.” How is it, the reader asks, that the 10-year-old Kotchikpa could see his world more clearly than the 16-year-old Jabril?
Asked to look, when we do we cannot help but feel bad for these children of Africa. We want to care for them. Yet there is no moralizing in Say You’re One of Them. For Akpan, religion offers no simple solutions and, while playing its role in “all the stupid wars on the African continent,” has proven to do more harm than good. Still, God is never the problem and never to blame. Akpan hopes, in fact, that despite all our human frailty—his own, no doubt, included—God’s compassion can be revealed “in the faces of the people” he writes about. And it is. Which is why, page after terrible page, we continue to sit with them. Until, time and time again, they run.
Akpan understands, of course, that God’s compassion alone goes only so far. It is our compassion he’s counting on to keep these children, who must be strong enough to run, from dying.