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Catholic writers: Uwem Akpan’s ‘Say You’re One of Them’ touches on stories of darkness

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Each opening sentence of Uwem Akpan‘s short stories in his debut collection “Say You’re One of Them,” pull the reader into the story:

“Selling your child or nephew could be more difficult than selling other kids.”

Or

“Now that my eldest sister, Maisha, was 12, none of us knew how to relate to her anymore.”

Each of these five short stories is told from the perspective of a child, and with the first sentence, Akpan demands your attention.

Uwem Akpan was born in Nigeria and educated at Christian schools. Akpan’s Catholic family read Brontë and Shakespeare but also gathered after Mass to tell folk stories and memories of the Nigerian Civil War. The language of storytelling seeped into his childhood.

Akpan went on to study humanities and philosophy at Jesuit universities, Creighton and Gonzaga in the U.S., and on to a theology degree from the Catholic University of East Africa in Kenya. Ordained a Jesuit priest in 2003, Akpan applied for the Master of Fine Arts program at University of Michigan the following year.

Although it was obvious Akpan had raw talent, the admissions committee was hesitant to accept a priest to workshops where students would be writing about sex and drugs. But a man who knows the glory of the light knew the contrast of deep darkness.

The stories from “Say You’re One of Them,” which was featured for Oprah’s Book Club, came out of those workshops. Through the narrative of children, Akpan, who has left the priesthood, imparts horrific stories of darkness with an even, dispassionate, nearly matter-of-fact tone. These stories are told by children who have known nothing different. They reveal the struggles and resilience of these children to survive.

One story, told through a 10-year-old boy, tells of his 12-year-old sister who has become a prostitute to provide for the family. His family lives in a lean-to on the streets. As they wait for his sister to return home from a night of work, their hunger pains worsen. His mother gives the rest of the children glue to sniff to dull the hunger pains.

In another story, siblings are literally fattened up by their uncle who is preparing to sell them into slavery.

Most of us have not experienced such evil. We cannot comprehend it. But we do know it exists, out there somewhere. These stories are not for the faint at heart, but open a wider world vision of the body of Christ. Akpan writes these children as if they represent all who suffer in this way. The reader begins to understand that they are one of many who have suffered such atrocities.

Christian imagery and language drip from the pages. Most of the characters call themselves Christians yet the theology of the adults is often misleading. For these adults God is a Santa Claus character who blesses those he loves with material possessions, or, even worse, God is used as a weapon, to justify the evil they do.

Akpan said the tradition of Ignatian imaginative prayer was helpful to him as he wrote these scenes. In imaginative prayer, one imagines Jesus in biblical scenes. Akpan applied this discipline to his stories, often based on real situations. Where was Jesus in this contemporary scene?

In the midst of a suffering child, Jesus is there. We see Jesus in the child’s undaunting hope for redemption, goodness or escape. In an interview with The New Yorker, Akpan said church teaching makes it clear that “the joys and anguish of the world are the joys and anguish of the church.” By telling the stories from the point of view of a child, we too are there, in the skin of the child, suffering, waiting, hoping with them.

Gonzalez is a freelance writer. Her website is www.shemaiahgonzalez.com.