God is in the details—or is it the devil? Authenticity certainly lurks there, which is abundant in the best fiction. Uwem Akpan understands this. When writing about Rwanda, he wanted to get the details right. Marriage customs, traditional dress, the color of the earth—the small, everyday matters that make a story come alive and that inhabitants of a place will spot right away if a writer gets it wrong. So Akpan attempted to travel to Rwanda for research.
But his superiors wouldn’t let him take the trip—they preferred that he remain at his seminary in Kenya. He was resigned to asking questions of his Jesuit brothers in letters and e-mails, and left to imagine Rwanda’s earth.
Akpan is most likely the first Nigerian Jesuit priest to have two stories published in The New Yorker, that Holy Grail for short story writers. “An Ex-Mas Feast” and the Rwanda story “My Parents’ Bedroom” are both featured in his first collection, Say You’re One of Them, published last June by Little, Brown and Company. In two novellas and three stories, he juxtaposes startlingly lucid writing and imagery with nearly unspeakable situations—child trafficking, genocide, religious and tribal divisions and violence, and desperate poverty. Each of the stories takes place in a different African country, and all are told through the perspectives of children.
Here’s the voice of 8-year-old Jigana at the opening of “An Ex-Mas Feast”: “Now that my eldest sister, Maisha, was 12, none of us knew how to relate to her anymore. She had never forgiven our parents for not being rich enough to send her to school.”
This scene could be set in a suburban Cincinnati home. Complaining little brothers and moody older sisters are not, after all, unique to Africa. The twist comes at the end of the paragraph: “Sometimes Mama went out of her way to provoke her. ‘Malaya! Whore! You don’t even have breasts yet!’ she’d say. Maisha would ignore her.”