Many people – myself included – are inherently suspicious of art that is topical. Literature is not advocacy, nor should it be a reenactment of news stories, no matter how tragic or important.
Consider, then, the achievement of Say You’re One of Them, a new collection by Nigerian-born Uwem Akpan. These stories are deeply enmeshed in the news: Akpan, a priest who studied fiction writing at the University of Michigan, has not written a roman à clef but has instead used his firsthand knowledge of life in Africa to inhabit the minds of various characters who are all at the center of “big” issues, from religious rioting in Nigeria and the Rwandan genocide to child slavery.
These are topics generally considered the province of reportage. The dangers for a fiction writer are myriad: The work could easily be maudlin or lurid or the print equivalent of a charity flyer.
Akpan does more than skirt those dangers; he combines the strengths of both fiction and journalism – the dramatic potential of the one and the urgency of the other – to create a work of immense power. Even though his subject matter has a ripped-from-the-headlines quality, manifested in Akpan’s artful narration is the broad perspective and empathy characteristic of the highest order of novelist.
Take “Fattening for Gabon,” one of two novella-length stories, which together account for most of the book’s bulk, as well as some of its strongest material. The story’s narrator, a 10-year-old boy named Kotchikpa, and his younger sister live with their uncle in a seaside border town in Benin; their parents are stricken with AIDS and can’t take care of them. The action begins when a strange man brings the uncle an expensive new motorcycle. It’s the kind of “gift” readers know will have strings attached, even if Kotchikpa doesn’t.
“I was already thinking of the celebration that would sweep through our family when we rode in on the motorcycle, and everyone saw that one of theirs had brought in something better than a Raleigh bicycle,” he thinks.
Unlike Kotchikpa, we know that Fofo, his goofy, laughing uncle, is planning to sell him and his sister into some kind of slavery. Much of the novella is devoted to the time in which the children are being “prepared.” Because they must not know what they are being prepared for – lest they run away – they are told they have rich godparents in Gabon who want to take care of them; they will live in a beautiful house and attend the best schools.
It is as natural as it is ironic that Kotchikpa begins to feel guilty about being eager to leave his uncle for such an idyllic future. “I saw myself as an ingrate for wanting to go away.... Who would Fofo talk to when he came back from work? Who would cook for him or wash his dishes? How should we pay him back for his care and for finding these godparents...?”
Akpan avoids the usual pitfall of writing about an issue – in this case, human trafficking – by focusing on the underlying human drama, the interrelationships and the complex gradations of feeling that the characters experience, and by lacing the story with revelations that startle even as they sadden.
The story is compelling and engaging and hard to put down; it may also be relevant, but its political and moral implications are incidental to the story itself.
Throughout the collection, Akpan’s prose is simple and understated, yet it is well suited to do what he wants it to – bring readers into the minds of characters whose realities are as stark as they are foreign to most Americans. Of a teenage character on a fateful journey in the novella “Luxurious Hearses,” Akpan writes: “He was surprised that a bus company could insure its passengers against injury, accident, or cost of burial, whereas the politicians who promised the people better health care never delivered.”
The boy is in earnest: He is not making a complaint about his government, but is genuinely amazed that there is any such organization as competent and organized as the bus company; it defies his entire experience. Akpan’s unadorned, close third-person narration brings that home better than any heated polemical aside.
With “Say You’re One of Them,” Akpan has demonstrated the true talent of a fiction writer: He is a gifted storyteller capable of bringing to life myriad characters and points of view. He doesn’t have to take on big causes or issues to lend gravitas.
That he does take on these issues feels like a choice made from conviction, and the result is admirable, artistically as well as morally.
Adelle Waldman is a journalist and book critic in Brooklyn.