For those of us fortunate enough to live in the comfortable enclaves of the west, where a stability of life—even within the current financial turmoil—has existed for hundreds of years, the chaos of other parts of our world still comes as a shock, even when it concerns the greatest of chaotic places, Africa; so well represented by these stories from a book written by a Jesuit priest reviewed in First Things.
And though we know and often read about the chaos and casual brutality within our western world in the daily papers and watch it on the daily news, we are drawn to the seemingly endless degradation of Africa—where fortunately, the Church is growing mightily—in the hopes our eyes and ears will see and hear something else someday; which continued Church growth may help bring about.
“A knight who battles windmills; a traveling salesman who wakes up one morning a bug; a freed slave who decides to own slaves: One mark of great literature is its power to confront our imaginations with unexpected, idiosyncratic premises and, through the act of storytelling, make it possible for us to find in such premises core elements of wider human experience. Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, and Edward P. Jones’ Henry Townsend (from his novel The Known World) are all characters whose experiences of the world manage at once to captivate us in their irreducible differences from our quotidian own and also keep us reading on, compelled by startling, wonderful, disarming and occasionally unwanted moments of identification with them. “An Ex-Mas Feast,” the opening story of Nigerian writer Uwem Akpan’s first book, Say You’re One of Them, offers just such a blend of the strange and familiar. But before saying more about that remarkable piece of fiction, something needs to be said about the wonderful strangeness of this book’s provenance: When was the last time, if ever, a book of literary fiction has been published that opens with a story that first appeared in the New Yorker and ends with a laudatory note from a Catholic bishop?
“Akpan is a Nigerian-born Jesuit priest who currently teaches in a seminary in Zimbabwe; prior to taking up this position, he studied in the United Sates, and in 2005 he published his first ever fiction, in no less than the New Yorker. This book, one has to assume, came by way of the immediate prominence Akpan gained as a first-time writer appearing in those rarefied pages. While not all the stories and two novellas that make up the collection are of the same quality, those that stand out announce a bold and morally-ordered imagination capable of revealing universal human experiences in places and moments that the First World would much rather identify with through wrist-bands and benefit concerts.
“Now that my eldest sister, Maisha, was twelve, none of us knew how to relate to her anymore”: so opens “An Ex-Mas Feast.” The eight-year old narrator, in complaining about his older sister’s recent separateness from the rest of the family, articulates the confusion and frustration that any family, anywhere, at any time, experiences in dealing with a girl at that changeful age. Unsurprisingly, mother and daughter fight a lot: “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.” Of course the girl ignores her mother’s scolding—what self-respecting twelve-year old wouldn’t? But she ignores it not because her mother is exaggerating the girl’s behavior for effect, but because she has her work to do: She’s a Nairobi prostitute and the family breadwinner. In unfolding the rest of the tale (which takes place over a hot and rainy Christmas day the family spends waiting for the eldest daughter to bring home dinner), Akpan avoids the easy refuges of sentimentality and melodrama for a startlingly matter-of-fact revelation of family life proceeding under extreme conditions. The husband and wife bicker about husband and wife things while the children are made to sniff glue to stay their hunger; the older siblings help with the new baby by taking him into the streets to beg with; the father tries to keep his sleeping daughter comfortable through the mosquito-infested hot night by tearing off their shack’s front door and fanning her with it.”