Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Say You're One of Them

One of the few benefits of lying in bed for several days with zero energy and a raging cough is that I have been able to do some reading. My current distraction of choice is Say You're One of Them, the best-selling collection of short stories set in Africa and the 2009 selection for Oprah's Book Club.

The author is Fr. Uwem Akpan, a Jesuit priest. This alone is interesting because other than a few veteran writers like Fr. Andrew Greeley, it is almost unheard of for a work of fiction by a Catholic priest to hit the best-seller list...and stay there.

Fr. Uwem, who was ordained in 2003 and works as a parish priest in Nigeria and who studied creative writing at the University of Michigan, says of his book that he set out to write "about how children are faring in these endless conflicts in Africa. The world is not looking. I think fiction allows us to sit for a while with people we would rather not meet...I want their voices to be heard, their faces seen."

The stories, inspired by Fr. Uwem's personal experience with street children in his native Nigeria and in Nairobi where he studied theology, take us into their world of grinding poverty, unrelenting violence, sex trafficking and abuse by the adults in their lives. And they are told literally in the voices of the people -- which means a sort of pidgin English (and occasionally pidgin French) interspersed with Africanisms like "abeg o" and the ubiquitous "dey" wedged between the subject and verb. While authentic, it can make it difficult to understand the characters and, as an ESL teacher, I found it a little annoying and distracting, especially the transposition of consonants (the mixing of "l" and "r" as in "We dey beg you say no bling porice", or "p" and "f" as in "inpidel" and "feofle"). One fares better by giving up a literal word for word understanding of such dialogue and just submerging into the spirit of the stories.

And what a spirit there is! At the moment, I have just finished "Luxurious Hearses" -- a surreal, nightmarish account of a teenage boy's journey in a bus bearing refugees from northern to southern Nigeria. It is a harrowing cacophony of religious and political conflict into which the author manages to work every issue that is tearing his country apart. Faced with his own inner conflicts between his Catholic baptism and Muslim upbringing and the shifting loyalties of the other passengers on the bus, the young Jubril/Gabriel barely knows who he is, let alone who he can trust.

Catholicism comes out looking good among the different religious voices, as the one of calm, peacemaking, and inclusiveness. It is embodied in Madam Aniema, an older woman who is spending her bus journey reading The Imitation of Christ. She endears herself to her fellow travelers by sprinkling holy water on a soldier crazed from post traumatic stress disorder and leading the crowd in a litany of the saints which calms the man down.

The scene ends with an amusing dialogue with old Chief Ukongo -- the voice of traditional African religion:

"You've got the real thing, woman!" the chief cut in with his congratulations..."Your holy water is as powerful as what those bearded Irishmen sprinkled on our ancestors to make them instant Catholics. Then the Church didn't waste time dipping you into the river before you got the Spirit..."

"Yesss!" the Catholics cheered.

"Just three drops of water and you knew Latin like the pope," the chief said.

"Of courssse!"

"I'm going to personally tell Rome to ordain you a priest..."

"No, no, no...That's not our church!"

"Chief, we no dey ordain women for our church!"

A light murmur went through the bus. Some said Madam Aniema should be exempted from church tradition, while the Catholics said it was impossible to ordain women and warned outsiders to mind their own business...
The whole dialogue makes me wonder where Fr. Uwem really stands personally on women's ordination.

Fr. Uwem's writing debut enjoys the support of his bishop, the Most Rev. Camillus Etokudoh of Ikot Ekpene, who penned a very kind afterword telling the priest that his diocese is proud of him. Fr. Uwem has suggested that in future stories he may give a voice to the African immigrant community in America and after reading Say You're the One, we long to hear more.


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