Many voices, one story

by Ikhide R. Ikheloa

First published in Next Newspapers, September 10, 2009. Reproduced for archival purposes only.

America is getting hard; the dollar is playing hide and seek with all of us; well, it is playing mostly hide. Faced with a costly choice between Uwem Akpan’s book, Say You’re One of Them and Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth, I chose the former.

It would appear, from my limited reading, that I exercised poor judgment in choosing Akpan over Lahiri. Akpan’s book is a series of short stories that aim to highlight an important theme–the plight of dispossessed children and women in Africa. Unfortunately, his approach is tired and made even worse by wooden prose (probably the result of over-editing by copy editors unfamiliar with the African landscape).

From my perspective, Say You’re One of Them does not break new ground. The theme is very familiar–the plight of children and women in sub-Saharan Africa. There is no shortage of books on this, so when reading a new work on the subject, I look for new insights. But the reader is not going to find fresh scintillating prose in this book and the story-telling technique is safe, straight out of an MFA program. It is a carefully written memorandum, as if penned by a timid civil servant, too scared to hurt another.

I would have loved to see some experimentation, something like what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie did recently in The New Yorker with her story, The Headstrong Historian. With Adichie’s piece, you are not conscious of the language; you are absorbed in a story. She pulls off the trick because, like Achebe, her stories wear the English language well. Not so with Akpan.

By the way, what is the purpose of Pidgin English? When do you deploy it and why? I think that was a trick (the use and timing of Pidgin English in dialogue) that Akpan had not mastered. I kept struggling to stay with the book, intent on finishing it just as you would struggle with an expensive meal in a five-star restaurant that turns out to be, well, merely expensive.

One thing I wondered is if Akpan could not be fairly or unfairly accused of manufacturing contrived stories. By this I mean that he deliberately wrote short stories from each of several African countries (Nigeria, Rwanda, Kenya, etc). One writer trying to be in character over such an expansive span of geography, that is an ambitious undertaking and I am not sure Akpan successfully pulled it off.

This is notwithstanding that, as a Jesuit priest, Akpan is trained to be eclectic and is widely travelled. Finally, there is an activist approach to the stories. Akpan’s Jesuit training shows in his anxieties. Nothing wrong with it but that feeling stays with you all through the stories (oh, and a number of them should really be novellas; they are looong).

As for Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s short story (The New Yorker, June 23, 2008), it is set roughly around the time frame of Achebe’s trilogy from Things Fall Apart through Arrow of God to No Longer at Ease. I relished her story on many levels: the headstrong insistence on re-writing from a woman’s perspective and I just loved the stealth with which it crept up on me.

It wasn’t a rebuke of Chinua Achebe’s version, but a polite insistence on another cut. This is a complex and ambitious, and yes, bold, project by Adichie, using an incredibly creative process to start a debate. There is a potentially epic piece of work in there somewhere.

I do regret that the debate was started on the pages of The New Yorker, rather than somewhere else (like Nigeria), but it is not my story. Man, you should see my copy of The New Yorker; all marked up as if it were a sermon. What a treat. I actually thought for a minute I was reading a short story by Chinua Achebe, all the signs were there down to his appropriation of the English language to tell an authentic story.

No gimmicks, just clean, uncluttered communication. And of course there was Achebe’s trademark poetry in the rendering. Adichie sure has a gift. But the mimicking of style for me was deliberate to drag the reader into Achebe’s head and then listen to her voice. I am desperately hoping that this is the beginning of another epic book by Adichie! Ah, something to look forward to! Life is good! Life is really good!

But back to Akpan, whose book is impressive in the sense that it is careful not to present any new insights into the African problem (whatever that is). It is presented in a matter-of-fact style that sent me yearning for some other activity each time I tried to read it. It is pretty bad when you cannot finish a short story. I should have chosen Lahiri. My own assessment of course; I am quite sure that there are others who will find the book a delight. Good for them.