Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Say You'll Read These Stories

When I heard several months ago that there was a book of short stories coming out about Africa that was written by a Jesuit priest, a product of an American M.F.A. program in fiction writing, I was astonished. I never thought I would see a book of contemporary short stories by a Catholic priest emerge from a major U.S. publishing house. But that is what we have in Say You’re One Of Them, which was published last month by Little, Brown & Company. The author is Uwem Akpan, S.J., from Nigeria.

The book has generated a lot of attention in literary circles, and has received exceptionally strong reviews in almost every major publication I have seen. Indeed, I have yet to find a negative review for it. As Duke and I are Roman Catholics interested in literature and the spiritual life, I remember showing him a news item saying that this book was forthcoming, and commenting on how ideal it was to receive some attention on this blog. I would have liked to have rushed right out and bought the book, which I did not do for budgetary reasons, so I did the next best thing: I asked my local library if they had it. They did not, but ordered it specially upon my request, and it was in house in about a week. Man, you have got to love libraries. The poor artist’s best friend!

This post is no book review, as I have just finished reading the book, and it is still resonating in my mind to a large extent – which is another way of saying that since I am not writing a review, I am not yet completely sure of precisely how I feel about it. One of the reasons I enjoy writing reviews is to fully articulate my response to a book. That is not what I am doing here. I just wanted to write some impressions down.

I am not sure how many people I would even recommend this book to. That statement has nothing to do with the book’s literary quality and elegance of execution, which are both of the highest order, and especially stuning in a first work of fiction from a writer who happens to be almost exactly my age. This is a hell of a book. That phrase can have more than one meaning as well, as I will attempt to explain.

There’s no question that Fr. Akpan is a gifted writer with a flair for language, an ear for interesting dialogue, and eyes with which to see the terribly vivd colors spayed around a tortured and troubled contintent. In a very interesting story in the New York Times, the writer-priest attributed some of his literary success to his religious training, an idea which I found utterly fascinating:

A great help to him, he said, was his order’s tradition of Ignatian spirituality, which encourages the visualization of certain biblical scenes — the Sermon on the Mount, say. “You try to imagine Jesus 2,000 years ago. You try to see the faces, picture the scenery. I used to really get into it, and I thought if I could imagine 2,000 years ago, surely I could do it for the contemporary world.”

Fr. Akpan has certainly done that in this book, which is closer to a collection of three short stories and two longer novellas.

If the book is so good, so well executed, why wouldn’t I recommend it? The answer is that I would – I just don’t know how many people would want to read it or would enjoy it. For ‘enjoy’ is not the best way to describe one’s experience with these stories, unless you are like me and you take pleasure in watching a skilled artist intelligently and beautifully work their magic. The problem is that the stories in Say You’re One Of Them depict unthinkable evils – abusive acts, mob violence, tribal warfare, starvation, prostitution, drug use, religious tyranny, persecution, corruption, even unmitigated slaughter – and they do so forcefully, so that you have trouble forgetting what you’ve ‘seen’ in your mind’s eye.

But that’s not even the worst part. The worst part is that all of the stories are written from the point of view of children. Which means that the children Fr. Akpan creates in his intense fictions are eye-witnesses to the horror, and frequently victims themselves. If you have your own children or even if you don’t, this is the hardest part of the book to contend with. The images will stay with you, all right. It’s a troubling, moving, difficult reading experience.

Now, in my opinion, this makes Fr. Akpan’s achievement all the more laudable. What he has done is give voices to the ones that have no voice, and through the power of his stories – a power that stories only can generate, as opposed to journalism or memoir – he forces the reader to listen to them. Skillfully drawn characters are easy to recognize; the litmus test is whether or not, when you read their stories, you feel like you know them yourself. When you do you’ll know it because, if something terrible happens to them, you’ll feel it. That’s what happens in this book. You get to know these frightened, maligned children, and you fear for what seems inevitable. So that when you reach the utterly terrifying moment when something horrific happens, as in the story “My Parents’ Bedroom”, where a young girl watches her father murder her mother in front of her with a machete, you recoil with stultifying shock.

I know a lot of people though, avid readers all, who would not want to read a story like the one just described no matter how well written it was. No matter how moving it was. It’s a question of why a person reads. So many people I know might say something like, “I barely ever get the chance to pick up a book, and when I do, I want to be entertained, not depressed. I care about what happens to people in less fortunate countries, but I don’t want to read stories about violence, child abuse, murder and poverty.” This isn’t turning a blind eye to the problems of the world; the same person may go on a missionary trip to Africa or Latin American before you ever do. It’s just that this person knows why they read – for entertainment. Who can argue with that?

For me, though, the whole idea of fiction writing is such a source of inspiration and fascination that the act of reading is every bit as much about my own artistc education as it is about entertainment. I want to read anything that genuinely moves me on an emotional level, and I want to see if I can figure out how they did it. I want to write as well as I can, so I should read writers who write well. If I pick up Father Akpan’s book knowing it’s about Africa’s victimized children, I’m not saying to the writer off-handedly, “Don’t go there” as I begin the book. I want him to go there, and since I’m not going there anytime soon, I want him to take me with him. If he succeeds, as this remarkable writer does, he will make me feel as though I have seen the horrors of Africa myself. That’s incredible considering I have never been to Africa, have no prospects of going there, and doubt I will have the opportunity in the future. (You never know.) It should be noted that Say You’re One Of Them’s five stories are all set in different countries, a clever way for Fr. Akpan to demonstrate that these evil forces at play are not simply confined to one nation but to much of Africa.

The title of this collection comes from a piece of advice that the doomed mother gives to one of her children in the story referred to above. She knew she was in peril, and so she told her daughter that if anyone in the civil war-torn nation of Rwanda asked her to state her business, she should say she is “one of them”, meaning a member of whichever tribal group is represented by her questioner. Given the context, is that phrase alone not extraordinarily powerful?

Congratulations to Father Uwem Akpan, who has succeeded in creating an unforgettable testament to the power of literature and in so doing has simultaneously taken a bold stand for those who cannot stand up for themselves. I urge any reader who takes an interest in what is happening in other corners of the world to seek out this book, to read it, feel it, and gain a broader sense of compassion and understanding.

1 comment:

Duke Altum said...

No problem: I WILL READ THESE STORIES! Of course as you know Mutt (and even mentioned in your post!), I was very interested in them immediately, upon hearing about them from you... your experience in reading them reminds me a little bit of the experience I had with the film Hotel Rwanda. It was a movie you couldn't help hearing about, and it garnered tons of acclaim (certainly helped by a powerhouse and understated performance by Don Cheadle)... but for a long time I resisted watching it, because I thought the subject matter was just too bleak, too difficult to sit there and process for a few hours. But eventually I was on vacation with my wife's family and one night, when the kids were all in bed, someone put it on and I got sucked into it... and I found that, bleak and horrible as the subject matter is, the human elements of the story drew me in... and it reminded me in a very visceral, but valuable, way that what was happening over there was happening to real people with families, mothers and fathers and daughters and sons... any book or film that can give voice to the voiceless and reveal the human lives behind the grim statistics you hear is worth discussing and distributing to as many as possible... BTW, I also appreciated the section of this post that deals with "why we read." This is a subject I actually think a lot about and have many times thought about posting on... book lovers spend a lot of time thinking about what they should read, but how often do we think about why we want to read it? What are we hoping to get out of what we read? You've offered some good personal insights about that here, which I would agree with. But I also think it's a topic that could be explored at much greater length... same thing goes for movies too, or any art form when you think about it... sometimes my wife will ask me why in the world I would want to watch, say, a film that's dark or violent or whatever. What's a good answer to that, that's not about titillation or sratching some kind of itch for violence, crime or sex?? I've talked about this with her but it would make an interesting subject for further discussion on this blog, of all places.