Jesuit novelist mines Africa's joy and anguish

By  Michael Higgins
  • August 7, 2008

A fine novelist can capture in fiction what objective documentary evidence is unable to realize. No matter how detailed, objective and scientific a study of a human calamity like the Holocaust can be — and there are many human-generated catastrophes to choose from in our carnage-loving time — the capacity to evoke true horror as well as the power of the human spirit to survive is only approximated by historical analyses. Art invariably succeeds where analysis fails. And it need not be in words.  Think of the haunting works of the Polish composer Henryk Gorecki.

In the dying days of the last century the madness unleashed in the Balkans and in Rwanda left the world reeling. Who could forget the moral eloquence of General Romeo Dallaire’s despair-ridden recollections or escape the accumulated reportage of on-site journalists?

But nothing for me was more unsettling in its evocation of the all-encompassing terror that overtook Rwanda than the short story “My Parents’ Bedroom” that appeared in The New Yorker last year. I was so moved by it that I made note of the author — Uwem Akpan — and resolved to read anything further that was published under this name. The brief biographical note indicated only that the author was a Nigerian; no mention of the gender, profession, or literary history of the writer was provided. 

Because the narrative voice was that of a young girl so expertly told I concluded, falsely as it happens, that the writer was a female. Not so. Some months past I received a review copy of the author’s first collection of short stories, Say You’re One of Them (Little Brown and Co.), and discovered that Uwem Akpan is a Jesuit priest and a very hot literary sensation, according to the publicists and critics. Of course, had I roused myself and googled Akpan I would have solved the mystery.

Currently teaching at Arrupe Seminary in Zimbabwe, when not on book tour, Akpan is an astonishingly effective writer and clearly understands the close relationship that exists between his vocation as an artist and his vocation as a priest. He sees no conflict between the two. In fact, as quoted in a portrait by The Tablet’s Lucy Lethbridge, he observes that he likes being a priest and a writer and that “both give me energy. Gaudium et spes, a key Vatican II document, makes it very clear that the joys and the anguish of the world are the joys and anguish of the church. The Jesuits have a rich tradition of writing and involvement in social issues.”

His short stories are short neither on joy nor on anguish. He looks at the world in Say You’re One of Them through the eyes of children and allows his readers access to complex, violence-saturated, and soul-crushing structures of injustice that somehow don’t succeed completely in vanquishing hope. God’s grace can be found in the depth of our love and that love can look twisted from the outside. It can be found in a child prostitute’s love for her siblings, in a relative’s dangerous volte face over the pending enslavement of his charges, in a subversive defiance of religious boundaries.

Say You’re One of Them is rich in patois, local culture and regional differences.  Akpan deliberately avoids collapsing everything into one African reality. All the differences are respected and observed. Each country has its own voice whether the part played is substantial or minor: Sierra Leone, Liberia, Benin, Gabon, Nigeria, Niger, Rwanda, Kenya, and Ethiopia. Akpan’s canvas is large and generous but never so as to dwarf his characters.  He is a moralist for sure but not at the expense of his art. His skill at creating a child’s voice that is innocent without being naive, and his skill in establishing an atmosphere of menace that is credible precisely because it is measured and not excessive, ensure that the reader will not be lulled into easy judgment or avoid emotional engagement. These stories will sink deeply into your soul.

Akpan is refreshingly self-effacing about his work as a writer, and his fame — in great measure a result of his being a New Yorker-published fiction writer — is taken in stride. All in a day’s service to the Divine Majesty.

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