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 CNS Story:

BOOK-AFRICA Aug-1-2008 (430 words) With book cover. xxxm

Priest's stories treat African horrors with heartbreaking normalcy

"Say You're One of Them," by Uwem Akpan. Little, Brown and Company (New York, 2008). 358 pp., $23.99.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Rackover
Catholic News Service

Father Uwem Akpan, a Nigerian Jesuit, writes of religious intolerance and ethnic conflict, and of unspeakable deprivation, with a preternatural calm -- as if one who has really seen it doesn't need to wave his arms wildly or shout about it. Father Akpan's communities are roiling with hideous enmities, with Muslim, Christian, pagan, Tutsi and Hutu neighbors and even families pitted against one another. Yet there is no judgment in his voice.

Considering the atrocities and casualties that drive the narratives of his collected short stories in "Say You're One of Them," this is an admirable, even remarkable feat.

Bigotry, violence, hunger, betrayal and abandonment settle into his stories with a heartbreaking normalcy. Children navigate through unimaginable horrors without stopping to question why such things are happening. They are too busy dealing with reality to quarrel with their fate.

Moments of powerful and startling beauty do emerge -- but they are few. In "My Parents' Bedroom," a young girl says of her mother that "the sequins on her dress glitter in the candlelight as if her heart were on fire." In "What Language Is That?" there is even a sly and sweet rewriting of the rules when two young friends, separated by religious intolerance, find a way to communicate.

Much of the dialogue in Father Akpan's stories presents a challenge. In "Fattening for Gabon" and "Luxurious Hearses," particularly, the unfamiliar language may hold a reader at bay. Unfamiliar words pour from his characters. In exchange for dialectic authenticity, readers may have to work harder than usual to keep up.

There is almost an Old Testament feel to the violence of the stories. While reading, I was reminded of a quote from the writings of the Rev. William Sloane Coffin: "Almost every square inch of the earth's surface is soaked with the tears and blood of the innocent, and it's not God's doing. It's our doing. ... When they see the innocent suffering, every time they lift their eyes to heaven and say, 'God, how could you let this happen?' It's well to remember that exactly at that moment God is asking exactly the same question of us: 'How could you let this happen?'"

Father Akpan doesn't overtly pose this question. He doesn't have to. It is there, lurking in each page of every one of his painful stories.

- - -

Rackover is a parent and religious education teacher in southeast Michigan.

END


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