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Author Gives Voice to Plight of African Children


I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Earlier in the program, we talked about the ongoing political crisis in Zimbabwe. It's just one of the crisis points that keeps Africa in the headlines. But behind the reports of war, ethnic unrest and religious conflict are the personal stories of those caught up in these events.

Perhaps those who suffer most are the children, who are often the nameless, faceless victims of horror. But what if those children could speak for themselves? What would they tell us? Writer Uwem Akpan has given these children voice in a remarkable collection of short stories. His first is called "Say You're One of Them," and it came out in bookstores earlier this month.

Uwem Akpan joins me now in our Washington studios. Welcome, thank you for coming.

Father UWEM AKPAN (Author, "Say You're One of Them"): Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: I should say Father Uwem because in addition to being a writer, you're also an ordained Jesuit priest.

Father AKPAN: My mother would like you to say that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Father Uwem.

Father AKPAN: Thank you.

MARTIN: How did you start writing?

Father AKPAN: I have always loved stories, telling stories and listening to stories, even when I was a young kid in my village. But when I started writing, I was more into poetry and articles until one day I could not get my articles into the newspaper. So failure made me look for another means, and I read the same newspaper another day and I saw they had a fiction page.

So I read and I was like, I think I could try this, and I did. After some months it came together, and I took the short story into the reception of the newspaper, the reception room, and three days later it was being serialized in Nigeria.

MARTIN: Where you're from.

Father AKPAN: Yes. It was serialized in early 2000.

MARTIN: And how did this, your passion for writing, coincide with your vocation as a priest, your calling to the priesthood?

Father AKPAN: Well, many priests are writing, and in the Jesuit tradition we've had people who have written literature, like Father Gerard Manly Hopkins in some centuries back. His poetry is very good, and you've had Jesuit playwrights, you know, so it wasn't something alien to, you know, the Jesuit vocation. In fact, it's part of our charisma, so I did not see it as something I was stretching too much, you know, in terms of our history to accomplish.

And I was saying to myself, you know, there are people you can reach by writing, you know, in a fiction that would not normally reach when you stand there in the pulpit and preach. When you preach you are preaching to people who come to church and maybe people who are already baptized or want to be part of this congregation, but if you take some of this message and put it in a book, you might reach the people who normally would not, you know, be within your reach.

MARTIN: I was wondering about that because I think one of the things that characterizes these stories, which are beautiful and heartbreaking, it has to be said. And I must tell you, as a mother, these were some of the hardest things I have read in a long time, visualizing these children in these dire situations.

Father AKPAN: Yeah.

MARTIN: I wondered how you came upon the idea of telling these stories from the child's perspective.

Father AKPAN: Michel, when I started writing in fiction in 1998, '99, I wasn't writing from the perspective of children. But the more I wrote, the more I said to myself, what can I really do with this fiction? And then it occurred to me that I wasn't seeing books, short stories, collections about children written from their own perspective, and then I said to myself, it would be more interesting, even, to do these and set their stories in different countries, dramatizing how the different conflicts on this continent are affecting the, you know, the young.

MARTIN: I want to talk about the first story that opens the book, "An Ex-mas Feast," a Christmas feast. Just to give listeners some background on the story, it's - oh, maybe you should tell and then I'm going to ask you.

Father AKPAN: No, you tell the story. You tell the story.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Well, I don't know if I can do it justice.

Father AKPAN: Yes.

MARTIN: It's a family in a Kenya shantytown and maybe people who will have visited any large city but Nairobi, particularly, will see that there are people who are living in very lean circumstances, and they'll see that the circumstances for the kids are particularly tough. And here's a situation where the eldest daughter in the family is trying to help the younger children get their school fees. And to do so, she - can I just say? She...

Father AKPAN: Yeah. Yeah.

MARTIN: She prostitutes herself.

Father AKPAN: Yes.

MARTIN: She's only 12 and she prostitutes herself as a 12-year-old just to help her little eight-year-old brother get his school fees. And if I could get you to read a short passage.

Father AKPAN: (Reading) Mama's face lit up with surprise. She was so used to being ignored. She opened her mouth to say something but nothing came out. Finally, she sobbed the words. Asante, Maisha, asante for everything, and bowed repeatedly, her hands held before her as if in prayer. The women looked into each other's eyes in a way I had never seen before. They hugged and held on as if their hands were ropes that tied their two bodies together. In spite of the cold, beads of sweat broke out on Mama's forehead, and her fingers trembled as she helped Maisha undo her earrings and necklace. Mama gently laid her down.

I believe that Mama might have been able to persuade her to stay, but then Baba signaled to Mama to keep quiet so that he could be the negotiator. Our daughter, Baba said. You need to rest and think carefully. Maisha, no school for me, I said. I told Mama and Baba they will return fee to you. Jigana, please, please. Don't argue, Maisha said. Even you. You cannot even pity me on this night, just for a few hours?

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Uwem Akpan, author of a collection of five short stories set in Africa, told from the perspective of children. It's a remarkable story and it is so sad.

Father AKPAN: Thank you. I like the way you told the story. I won't be bothering to tell my story.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: There are so many things you see. You see the way the power in the family is disrupted, the fact that this child has way too much responsibility for something she should never have responsibility for. For the fact that these children are sort of essentially trying to save each other, the fact that their parents are so helpless. They're so trapped. And I have to say, this was not your life. This was not your growing up.

Father AKPAN: No, no, no. It wasn't. It wasn't. I've been to readings and people say to me, Father Akpan, when did you leave the streets? I've never been a street person, and I explained all of this, and then someone still gently stands up and says, Father, but is your sister still out there on the streets? And I'm like, I have no sister in real life, but I think people, you know, have eased off a bit from asking me that because now they see many stories set in different countries.

MARTIN: Well, it's a tribute to the work that people think it's so real that you had to have lived it yourself, but we do want to know, how is it that you can describe so keenly what it is like to see your sister leave in order to save you and to prostitute herself? How is it that you describe what it is like for a mother to be giving her child glue in order to stave off hunger pangs when she can't feed the child? How do you think you are able to capture these things?

Father AKPAN: I'm very thankful to God because a big part of fiction is mystery to me. You have insights. You have imagination, and I can't say I know everything about why these stories have come together. But what I can say is I've done a bit of photography and that has really helped me in the, you know, in the process of writing.

What I can also say is in the Jesuit spirituality we have something about composition of place, you know. When you sit down to pray, you read a Bible passage, say the Christmas passage. You pick the place you want to sit down or stand up and pray, and you have to imagine yourself 2,000 years ago. Imagine yourself walking with Mary and Joseph towards the birth of Christ.

What were they talking about when they were rejected by, you know, at the good places? And then, you know, when you imagine these things and pray, you know, in this perspective, you know, you see in the Bible the baby Jesus. Can you reach out and collect that child and carry that child? What would you say to Mary? What would you say to Joseph? And, you know, this is prayer, and you can say now what your heart desires.

MARTIN: So do you think your stories, in a way, are a form of prayer?

Father AKPAN: Yes, in a sense, but what I want to say immediately is I can take this same technique, because I've not been to some of the places I've written about. I've not even been to the country. I can take this same technique and say, if there is tension, you know, and I know I'm from a family, so I know about family, you know, how we love and hate each other. And this child is our favorite child but we don't know why. You know, it's not as if we don't love the others. I can sit down and imagine and, you know, think, if this is the conflict, how would people react in this conflict?

And very carefully, you know, I try to observe, you know, these people in my imagination and try to catch their own expressions, body language, and so it's taken me a long time. You know, these different aspects of my life have helped me to, you know, to write these stories.

MARTIN: Speaking of love and hate within family, within community, another story in the book, "In Your Parents' Bedroom," which I think some will have read in the New Yorker, previously published in the New Yorker Magazine, tells the truly heartbreaking tale of a young girl living in Rwanda during the genocide. And I don't want to give the story away for those who have not yet read it, but her father is Hutu. Her mother is Tootsie, and this a very difficult situation.

And I'd like to ask you again, to the degree that you can answer, how did you put yourself in the place of such horror? How did you imagine it from this child's perspective? And how did you live with it while you were imagining?

Father AKPAN: It was very difficult, and I think what helps me from time to time is I write like five different stories at the same time. When I started writing that story it was in the third person, and somebody had just told me that pain in Rwanda was so much that international psychologists came to minister to the refugees, they themselves became traumatized. And I was like, oh, what kind of pain would do this to a trained counselor? And so I went up to my computer that night and I wrote, maybe if a man killed his wife or if a wife killed her husband. And then I said to myself, the manner of killing would also count. And then the man killed his wife. Then the man killed his wife with a machete. Well, what happened? Where did he hit the woman? How did she fall? So after about, you know, three days, I'm like, what about if they had children? You know, I came up with the daughter. What about if the child witnessed this? What about if the child told this story?

So I wrote that in a painful paragraph first, and I started building forward. If the man did not love the wife or the family, there's no story there. So for the story to work, the man had to have loved the family. So now we get this instance of the man has his back against the wall now, and he has to do something.

So these stories came together very slowly. I wrote it first in 2001. It was only published in 2006 because I couldn't get to Rwanda. I tried to go but I could not. And I had to - after writing this story, I had to research carefully. I had to gain confidence. Because it's such a painful thing for the Rwandese, and I don't want to just go to somebody's culture, and I want to at least research and know, you know, what can I put in this story to make it sound real?

MARTIN: There were also some who - I wonder if anyone has asked you this, who will say, so much of what we hear of Africa is hardship, is suffering. Are there any who question why you've chosen to focus on such pain when there are already people who feel that Africa is only pain?

Father AKPAN: Nobody has put it that way to me yet. I'm not doing propaganda. These children could have been my children. Could have been my - you know, people I know. If I walk on the road, I see two children coming towards me. One is happy, the other is crying. I think I'll go for the one crying, to console the child. So I know people will say something like that. You know, you are projecting the difficult parts of our continent to the world. Can you write a happy story? There are people who will, you know, say this. Maybe I can write a happy story but I wanted to write about these things that drive me crazy, and I thank God I was able to, you know, to do it. I'm a not a sad person or anything.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: No, clearly not.

MARTIN: What do you hope that - or do you hope that there's something that people will draw from your stories?

Father AKPAN: If you have children, do everything to raise them or be there for them. Love them. Make peace within your family, you know, husbands, wives. There's absolutely nothing as good as having a peaceful family. Sometimes there are people in the family that don't feel loved, you know. They are not able to connect, and it's such a trauma for such people, whether it's a husband or child or a mother. Can we risk one more time to make that connection, you know, work?

All the riches we have in this country, child suicide is there. There are opportunities. Why? Somebody's feeling unloved, unaccepted. That's the end of the road. So I think that would be my key message, how can we huddle together, express love in our families, in our work place and even come to accept ourselves and accept love? That for me - that would be very basic.

MARTIN: Uwem Akpan, Father. Uwem Akpan is the author of "Say you're One of Them." His book is available in the U.S. now, and he was kind enough to join us in our studios in Washington. Thank you so much for coming.

Father AKPAN: Thank you, Michel. Thank you.

MARTIN: To hear Uwem Akpan read another passage from "Say You're One of Them," please go to npr.org and click on the Tell Me More page.

(Soundbite of African song "Agbalagba")

Angelique Kidjo: (Singing)

And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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