Awe is the only appropriate response to Uwem Akpan’s stunning debut, Say You’re One of Them, a collection of five stories so ravishing and sad that I regret ever wasting superlatives on fiction that was merely very good.
The setting is Africa; the protagonists, children — smart, innocent, greedy, furious, witty — who are caught in the tragedies that have lately befallen the continent, from AIDS to genocide to the comparatively banal business of grinding poverty. Akpan, a Nigerian-born Jesuit priest, writes with precision and sympathy about people of different faiths and nations. His first tale, ”An Ex-mas Feast,” delivers a gut punch from which the dazed reader never quite recovers. Eight-year-old narrator Jigana dreams of going to school while living on the streets of Nairobi with his family, including a shiftless, intermittently tender mother who sends him out begging and accepts handouts from her tough-minded daughter, a 12-year-old prostitute.
As the story begins, Jigana’s family is intact, if barely, crammed inside their makeshift shanty, hoping for a lavish holiday meal. By the end, even this provisional community dissolves, a portrait in microcosm of the way a whole culture collapses. Hand-wringing journalists have described the misery of Africa’s urban poor, but Akpan also captures the humor and fleeting grace that make the degradation infinitely more painful to read about. His youthful protagonists are not the waifs of UNICEF ads or the noble victims of guilt-ridden postcolonial lit. Unlike the unshakably high-minded Valentino Achak Deng of Dave Eggers’ earnest quasi-real novel about Sudanese war orphans, What Is the What, Akpan’s characters are ordinary, flawed, sometimes funny kids who happen to be caught in a nightmare.
You’ll find no relief in the second tale, the masterful ”Fattening for Gabon,” in which a brother and sister wait for their uncle to sell them into slavery. In one of the most disturbing scenes in recent fiction, he strips off his pants and tries to coach his young charges about sex — a skill they will presumably need in their new life. The hallucinatory ”My Parents’ Bedroom” dramatizes the ordeal of Monique, a pretty, pampered 9-year-old girl, as her home is destroyed over two bloody nights during Rwanda’s civil war in the 1990s. ”When they ask you,” her mother tells her, ”say you’re one of them, OK?” ”Who?” asks Monique. ”Anybody,” answers her mother. The book should be depressing, but the blazing humanity of the characters and the brilliance of Akpan’s artistry make this one of the year’s most exhilarating reads. A