On one of her recent video blogs, Oprah pronounced vigorously (and the thousands of her book club members must have nodded their heads in agreement) “I don’t like short stories. I am not a fan of short stories. They leave me wanting more.”
However, she did finally choose a short story collection, and thousands of her book club members rushed to Amazon and Costco to buy it. As usual with the TV cultural Diva’s book choices, it landed on several bestseller lists and jumped up high on Amazon’s sales list. Today, it was # 31, and there were seventy rave “reviews” of the book from Amazon customers.
The book is Say You’re One of Them, by the Nigerian-born Jesuit priest Uwem Akpan, a collection of two novellas and three short stories, about the horrors of street life and genocide in Africa, as experienced by children. “What Language is That?” is the story of a 6-year-old girl who is forbidden to associate with her “Best Friend” because of “faith differences.” In “Ex-mas Feast,” a Kenyan boy, age 8, tells of his 12-year-old sister’s work as a prostitute to help support her family. In “Luxurious Hearses,” a teenage Muslim boy tries to get out of northern Nigeria on a busload of Christians heading south. In “Fattening for Gabon,” a 10-year-old boy and his sister are sent to live with his uncle, who wants to sell them to human traffickers. “My Parents Bedroom” is told by a 9-year-old girl whose Hutu father kills her Tutsi mother.
Oprah has raved about the book on her show and her video blogs, and, although I have always resented the weight Oprah has in influencing the sales of books, I am happy that she has finally chosen a collection of short stories. I just wish they had been better short stories.
In my opinion, Akpan is a capable writer. He is from a southern Nigerian village, but his parents were educated teachers, and he learned English early and grew up reading Shakespeare and the Brontes. He is a recent graduate of the MFA program at the University of Michigan, and his first published story, “An Ex-Mas Feast” appeared in the “Debut Fiction” issue of The New Yorker on June 13 & 20, 2005. He has, what Alan Cheuse called in the Chicago Tribune, a “translucent style,” a straightforward, clear style that does not draw attention to itself as either lyrical or sentimental, but serves as a fairly clear glass through which one witnesses horrors of poverty, ignorance, and intolerance.
The issue Akpan’s stories raise for me is that of “mind vs. heart.” I think Cheuse is right when he says that the stories “nearly render the mind helpless and throw the heart into a hopeless erratic rhythm out of fear, out of pity, out of the shame of being only a few degrees of separation removed from these monstrous modern circumstances.”
I don’t really want my mind rendered helpless when I read, and I distrust fiction that, sans mind, tries to get to my “heart,” a word that I reserve for the mindless pump that a surgeon laid bare a couple of years ago to perform for me a triple bypass. “Heart” is a word that Oprah, on her show and video blogs, uses easily and frequently. She recently said that Akpan’s “Ex-Mas Feast” "opened her heart."
And the seventy or so readers who have posted their comments on Amazon.com proclaim that their hearts also have been opened. If Say You’re One of Them does anything to make people more aware of the horrors of life in much of Africa, because of poverty and murderous intolerance, I applaud the book as a valuable social document. But Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a valuable social document; that does not make it a valuable work of literature.
The most thoughtful review I have read of Akpan’s book is by Charles Taylor in The New York Times. Akpan has said in an interview that the world is not looking at the miseries in Africa. Taylor agrees, but adds, “looking isn’t enough for art.”
I quote below the last paragraph of Taylor’s review:
“For some, the impulse to repel will be seized on as proof of the importance and power of Akpan’s writing. Aesthetic judgments are usually the first casualty when any writer addresses a humanitarian disaster, and it would be silly to deny that sometimes a writer’s moral urgency can render aesthetic judgment beside the point. Still, though it seems self-evident, importance of subject matter does not equal quality of execution. No matter how much Akpan particularizes his characters’ plights—a one-handed Muslim boy trying to hide his identity from a busload of Christians; a 10-year-old and his sister being readied for slavery or worse; a Rwandan girl watching the madness that overcame her country invade her house—they remain little more than stand-ins for the suffering millions. They are not just marked by their suffering; they are nothing more than their suffering, and therefore on some basic level they are faceless. Humanist empathy devoid of the distinctly human is finally not art but merely grim reportage.”
A webcast with Oprah and Uwem Akpan is scheduled for Mon. Nov. 9 at 9:00 p.m. Eastern time. You can find it on Oprah’s website.