Thursday, October 16, 2008

Africa through the eyes of a child

My “what I’m reading now” list is currently full of books assigned to me as part of the MFA program I’m finishing off. I do, however, have a book on my "to read" list that I thought may be of interest to those reading this blog: a short story collection entitled Say You're One of Them by Uwem Akpan, a Nigerian Jesuit priest.

Just reading a few reviews and interviews has been enough to reveal some appealing characteristics of Akpan's collection. For one, each of the five stories is set in different African country--Nigeria, Kenya, Rwanda, Ethiopia and Benin. Although it is not a book explicitly about religious tension, at least two of the stories apparently have to do with conflict between Christians and Muslims. Akpan also (and inevitably) deals with the tribal conflicts in these countries, which I am also very interested in learning more about, as it I think an understanding of such dynamics is essential to have when dealing with persecution reports we receive from these countries.

Also, I was intrigued to learn that every story is told from the perspective of a child. For many writers (myself included), navigating fictional terrain through a child narrator can be a difficult task. In any story, the balance of innocence and experience, knowledge and naiveté is not easily achieved; you don’t want to give your young narrator an unrealistic degree of understanding (or even vocabulary), but neither do you want to undermine the powers of perception and insight that the young can possess. I can only imagine the struggles Akpan faced in dealing with subjects such as child prostitution, genocide and poverty through the eyes of a child.

From the sounds of it, Akpan does not shy away from graphic details or disturbing scenes when bringing war-torn Africa to life on the page. And yet, nearly every review I’ve read notes that the book's power lies in its sense of hope, beauty and compassion, not its images of violence or pain. This, I believe, is the very impact for which the fiction writer grappling with the subject of Christian persecution should strive.

If you’d like to know more about Akpan, you can listen to a radio interview he gave a few months ago, in which he discusses his experience writing Say You’re One of Them, including his decision to write from a child’s point of view. I very much look forward to crossing the collection off of my "to-read" list soon—and would love to hear from anyone who already has.

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