A look at seldom-glimpsed lives

June 23, 2008 1:03:07 PM PDT
Uwen Akpan's first book bears out the promise implicit in his first short story, "An Ex-mas Feast," published in The New Yorker's Debut Fiction 2005 issue and reprinted here.

"Say You're One of Them" is a tour de force that takes readers into the lives glimpsed in passing on the evening news: the routine of a child prostitute in the slums of Nigeria, an unspeakable decision facing a family in Rwanda, a brother and sister's slow realization that their uncle has sold them into slavery and is fattening them for the trip.

Akpan, a Nigerian-born Jesuit priest, opens a window to this world and asks the reader to sit a while with his characters and to resist the urge to look away. It helps that his narrators are children, whose understanding of the events at the core of the stories can be hazy, cut short by the limited scope of their lives.

The story that lends the book its title is an example. The narrator, a 9-year-old, knows only she's been told to stay indoors. She's restless. Her Tutsi mother's warning before she goes into hiding makes little sense to her:

"When they ask you," she says sternly, without looking at me, "say you're one of them, OK?"

"Who?"

"Anybody."

When the knock on the door comes, it's the child's uncle, her Hutu father's brother. And when she lets him in, he's with a crowd brandishing ID cards and machetes.

"An Ex-mas Feast," a story centered on a 12-year-old prostitute, starts off easy. The narrator, a younger brother, tells of the awkward transition into adolescence that's gripped his sister Maisha.

"None of us knew how to relate to her anymore. ... She had been behaving like a cat 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."

What develops in this story, as in others, is difficult.

Details anchor the narrative: the advice Maisha passes on to her 10-year-sister - never go with man without a condom, even if you're starving; the image of Maisha on Christmas morning when she returns home bruised, bone-tired, her face seared by bleaching creams beneath the makeup; the giddiness of children finally tearing into the food she brought.

There are light moments as well. In "Luxurious Hearses," a Muslim boy trying to hide in a mob of Christians fleeing conflict in Nigeria is at first overwhelmed by the sight of so many women. They're all around, pressing in, their heads, arms, legs uncovered.

To calm himself, he starts counting them. Dozens of women. Then he starts laughing - the hairdos, the beaded cornrows, the crimson painted nails and lips and the tight colorful clothing, it's all so new, but it's not threatening. And it's funny, even amid the squalor. One fear, defeated, many others to go.

These are stories that could have been mired in sentimentality. But the spare, straightforward language - there are few overtly expressed emotions, few adjectives - keeps the narratives moving, unencumbered and the pages turning to the end.

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