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Unflinching Evil in 'Say You're One of Them'

Uwem Akpan reads the opening of his story 'Fattening for Gabon' from the collection, <em>Say You're One of Them.</em>

Remember Holden Caulfield's famously ironic literary fantasy in Catcher in the Rye? The one about how, when you read a book you love, you feel so connected to the author you just want to call him or her up and talk and talk? (It's "famously ironic," of course, because few fans have ever chatted with the super reclusive J.D. Salinger.) Well, I flashed on Holden's fantasy after reading Uwem Akpan's short-story collection, Say You're One of Them.

I wouldn't claim I "loved" the collection — that's too happy, too easeful a word to use in reference to these despairing stories. And (fortunately for me), I don't feel "connected" to Akpan — his world is one in which atrocity is commonplace; the unthinkable is the everyday. No, I feel the naïve urge to call Akpan up and talk and talk because, judging from his life and work, I think he's someone especially suited to respond to the million-dollar theological question: Why does God permit evil to flourish in the world?

Akpan is not just an already-acclaimed, new Nigerian writer on the Anglo-Afro literary scene; he's also a Jesuit priest. All of his stories are told through the perspectives of children — a Kenyan boy who lives with his family on the streets and sniffs glue to tamp down hunger; a Christian girl in Ethiopia who's abruptly torn from her Muslim best friend; a Rwandan girl who witnesses her Hutu father forced to machete her Tutsi mother.

Evil is gleefully triumphant in these stories; human society is chaos, and children — its lightest, most fragile members — are sucked down into the horror just as vividly as Edgar Allan Poe's victim was sucked down into the maelstrom. My impulse is to call up Father Akpan and ask how someone with such an intimate knowledge of hell in his writings can still obviously affirm in his life the existence of a benevolent God. Because in these stories, when evil comes through the door in the form of human tribal enemies, the only defense the narrators' parents — the minor household deities here — can offer their children, is to, in the chilling words of the title story, "say you're one of them."

Maybe Akpan will explore that central theological mystery in a nonfiction book one day; in this collection, his aim seems to be to unflinchingly dramatize partisan hatred at work. Akpan's brilliance is to present that brutal subject through the bewildered, resolutely chipper voice of children; he never succumbs to the temptation of making his narrators endearing or overly innocent. They've seen too much to pretend purity.

All five of these stories are electrifying, but the one I find myself thinking about the most is one of the longest — over 100 pages — called "Fattening for Gabon." (Listen to Uwem Akpan read the opening of this story.) It takes place over three months and has the slow, sinister feel of a dark fairy tale. In it, our narrator, a boy aged 10, and his sister, 5, are sent to live with their uncle because their parents are dying of AIDS. The uncle makes a deal with the devil and sells the children into slavery — although the kids don't know that; they just see a new motorbike appear one day in their uncle's hut. They're treated to fattening feasts of bush meat and pepper soup by a pair of fawning "godparents" who plan to stick them in the bottom of a boat and smuggle them across the border to Gabon. The boy begins to catch on but, to give himself and his sister a chance of survival, he acts dumb and feels bad about himself for being good at it. Referring to his captors, he says, "I felt I had learned evil from them. I had learned to smile and be angry at the same time."

Akpan's narrators speak in a hodgepodge patois of French and African languages and English. They have a gift for rough metaphor: An 8-year-old boy — the hope of his homeless family — who narrates the story, "An Ex-Mas Feast," describes his sister and her fellow prostitutes on the street as "flutter[ing] about under streetlights, dressed like winged termites." The distinct voices of these child narrators and the horrors they bear witness to make Say You're One of Them a haunting debut short-story collection. Or, perhaps it would be more faithful to the bleak tone of these stories to say that readers will be damned to remember them.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan
Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.