When The Fringe Becomes The Core
A review by Lindsay Barrett
TITLE: Say You’re One Of Them
Author: Uwem Akpan
Publisher: Bookcraft Publishers, Ibadan
This is one of the most exciting and unusual literary debuts ever published anywhere, not only in Africa, but it is also a powerful testament to the extraordinary re-awakening of Africa’s cultural conscience in the twenty-first century. As anthologies of stories go it is surprisingly frugal in its content since there are only five tales included. In spite of this it is a profoundly satisfying and remarkably comprehensive study of the brutal experiences that have become commonplace news on the fringes of various African national entities. At the heart of its conceptual framework is the concern that it shows for the emotional sensibilities of the brutalised young children who are its main protagonists. The author is a Roman Catholic priest but there are no overtly religious overtones in these remarkable anecdotes, except in the final story set in Rwanda. Even there though the expression of religious sentiment is used as a device to express and strengthen the voice of the dispossessed rather than an instrument used to promote either conversion or proselytization. In this wise this book could be the herald of a remarkable authorial debut, but even if Fr. Uwem never writes another work he has produced a lasting and objective masterpiece.
Fr. Uwem sets out to build fictional edifices on the skeletons of identifiable crises of social dysfunction in five African nations. His visionary expertise and extraordinary talent makes this work highly relevant as an exercise in contemporary observation of the social mores of the fringes of African society. At the same time each tale establishes the centrality of social distress to the basic reality of nationhood and thus places the fringe experience at the core of national responsibility. Luxurious Hearses, the longest story in the book, is a free-wheeling narrative about the displacement of persons after a religious riot in Northern Nigeria leads to a breakdown of trust all over the nation. It is a frightening tale with a brutally pessimistic ending that is especially prescient in its description of the inter-communal confusion arising from historic religious alliances and assumptions of territorial rights in Nigeria. Anyone reading it today, whether Nigerian or non-Nigerian can hardly help relating the events depicted therein to the news emanating from the areas that have been besieged by the Boko Haram outrages of recent times. Although it is a complex and surreal examination of an individual’s pain it is also a terrifyingly realistic exposition on the breakdown of public order and as such it explores and comments upon the fragility of Nigerian nationhood.
The formal concept of the anthology is based on a territorial imperative in which each story is set in a particular national context. Apart from the Nigerian dichotomy of the North-South emotional divide that is so finely chronicled in the afore-mentioned Luxurious Hearses, Nigeria features more obliquely in the most touching of the tales the surprisingly compassionate Fattening for Gabon. In this story although the national setting is the Republic of Benin the real location appears to be one of the many amorphous border slums on the Nigeria/Benin border that feature changeable boundaries that shift and disappear according to the whims and appetites of corrupt border officials. Fr. Uwem’s extraordinary talent for satirical characterisation is at its best here in his depiction of one such official in particular named “Big Guy”. While this reviewer has no empirical evidence to confirm this, the suggestion that this particular character is based on a conglomeration of character sketches of several such Nigerian border officials is particularly attractive. The character’s language and conduct is redolent with cross-border references, and he is depicted as a symbol of official collaboration with criminals in cross-border smuggling and especially in child trafficking. At the heart of this story the deceptive relationship between the struggling guardian and his nephew and niece, who are to be transported, becomes the central focus of the tale. The narrative related by the young nephew, who eventually escapes into a limbo of empty terror, is that of hopelessness. Yet because the actual instance of captivity is constantly denied a sense of triumphant humanity pervades the tale.
Fr. Uwem’s relentless confrontation of the most terrifying circumstances that young children can face in modern day Africa is deliberate. His stories are built out of the substance of danger and distress that so often forms the basis for the existence of children caught up either in conflict or on the outer edges of the social matrix of modern life in most African communities. Poverty is at the core of the life that they must endure but Fr. Uwem places the breakdown of moral responsibility at the centre of his universe of distress as the most devastating element of the experience of children caught up in the dilemmas of adult misconduct. An Ex-mas Feast the very first story in the anthology, set in the urban slums of Nairobi, Kenya, deals with this dilemma in a quiet but comprehensively credible manner. The use of territorial mannerisms in language to define personal behaviour is a particularly effective and unique quality of his writing. This exposes the disenchantment between parent and offspring in a particularly expressive manner and transforms the conventional idea of the spirit of Christmas from that of giving to that of greed and expectation as the functional core of this particular tale. Fr. Uwem is clearly touched by the plight of those who are the most vulnerable victims of social dysfunction around the Mother Continent. On the other hand in an especially unique way he is also an advocate of the plight of the oppressors as he appears to regard them as lost souls whose self-abnegation makes them victims of their own loss of humanity. This particular sensibility is at the core of the shorter tales here and is nowhere more impressively expressed than in My Parents’ Bedroom the remarkable final story set in Rwanda at the height of the infamous massacre of Tutsis and their Hutu sympathisers of two decades ago.
The Rwandan tale contains probably the most devastating and yet most believable reportage included in this collection. It shares an interesting point of view with the much less brutal circumstances included in What Language Is That?, the shortest tale here, which is set in Ethiopia. In both of these tales the challenge to parenthood to remain structured, relevant, and protective, under pressure from the destruction of trust among people of varying ethnic and religious alliances in national communities is at the heart of the dilemma posed for the child protagonist. Fr. Uwem’s preoccupation with this dilemma finds extraordinary depths of passion and loss in the juvenile victim’s perception of the critical loss of parental control and veracity. However while the dilemma is largely a question of intellectual perception in the Ethiopian tale it encompasses the violent and unimaginably brutal violation of the deepest sinews of family relationships in the Rwandan tale. The final tale in fact pushes the envelope both in the use of language as a tool of reflection as well as of elaboration and reveals the true wealth of talent and vision that the author possesses. Say You’re One Of Them is a brave and adventurous work and its selection as a Rainbow Book Club Book of the Month is a brave and adventurous choice.
4 JANUARY 2015