Shock is the morally easy refuge of the softhearted

A favorite new writer of mine, Uwem Akpan, has a first book. The New York Times reviews his debut story collection, “Say You’re One of Them,”

Akpan, a Nigerian Jesuit priest currently assigned to a seminary in Zimbabwe, doesn’t write in the confrontational, impassioned voice of the muckraker or the reformer. His even tone, the voice of someone simply relating events, seems to say that shock is the morally easy refuge of the softhearted.

In Akpan’s view, before Africa can be rescued, it must first be rescued from being a fashionable cause. “Say You’re One of Them” is an implicit rebuke to sentimentalities like the ad campaign of celebrities doing themselves up in multi-culti kitsch and proclaiming “I Am African,” an arrogant boast as blind as the blindness it means to address. The horrors that Akpan writes about here — and almost every story is a catalog of horrors — exist outside the realm of the rational or classifiable. To pretend you share them is foolishness.

One of the stories, An Ex-mas Feast, appeared in a 2005 New Yorker, and has since been one of my favorite tales in the magazine–a day in the life of a young boy living in Nairobi’s notorious Kibera slum. It’s A Wonderful Life it is not.

Mama dug on, and the contents of the carton piled up on Baba and the twins. Then she unearthed a tin of New Suntan Shoe Glue. The glue was our Ex-mas gift from the children of a machokosh that lived nearby.

Mama smiled at the glue and winked at me, pushing her tongue through the holes left by her missing teeth. She snapped the tin’s top expertly, and the shack swelled with the smell of a shoemaker’s stall. I watched her decant the kabire into my plastic “feeding bottle.” It glowed warm and yellow in the dull light. Though she still appeared drunk from last night’s party, her hands were so steady that her large tinsel Ex-mas bangles, a gift from a church Ex-mas party, did not even sway. When she had poured enough, she cut the flow of the glue by tilting the tin up. The last stream of the gum entering the bottle weakened and braided itself before tapering in midair like an icicle. She covered the plastic with her palm, to retain the glue’s power. Sniffing it would kill my hunger in case Maisha did not return with an Ex-mas feast for us.

One’s suspicions should be immediately raised by a story of an African child’s misery. But Akpan delivers a sober and uncondescending portrait. In an online interview with the magazine, Akpan talks about his encounters with street children,

When I went to study theology in Nairobi, in 2000, I was just taken by the phenomenon of street kids. I’d never seen anything like it before. I wanted to meet them. So I used to visit the City Centre to watch them some Saturdays, following them from a distance, afraid because they can be wild. I did not know Kiswahili, so that was a barrier, too. I wasn’t thinking of writing then. I was just fascinated and amazed at the endurance I saw in them—how they moved as a group, how they sniffed glue, how they robbed people, how the rest of society regarded them.

Like what you see? The New Yorker also features, by Akpan, this mini memoir on faith and doubt (one of a series), and another short story, My Parents’ Bedroom.

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