Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Uwem Akpan, Say You’re One of Them

I have to give a talk later today on Akpan's stories, as part of a panel. thought i would indulge myself and post here. i definitely urge you to read the book, and then send it to our English-speaking libraries! A nice audio interview with Akpan is here.

Let me begin by observing that the stories in this collection are awfully saddening. They echo, in their staging of bleakness, the dystopia of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. After reading that book, my response was “grim, grim, and grim.” Uwem Akpan’s stories are even grimmer, for they are true and of the present. As anyone who has spent time living and sleeping with very poor people in Africa will confirm, Akpan’s descriptions are exact: from the windowless rooms where you sweat all night on a mat on the floor, to the clothing draped across a rope strung from ceiling to ceiling, to the sickening colors used to paint the interiors of decrepit houses with tin roofs. The darkness, dirtiness, and smelliness are so very distant from the luxury of the rooms where Akpan’s stories will be read. This distance should reignite in us a fierce desire to relearn and remember what misery is, and rededicate ourselves to the purpose of combating that misery.

I am teaching a class right now called the economics of gender in developing countries. I thought then that I would devote a few moments to exploring some of the gender dimensions to the plots and characters. Akpan’s characters, male and female, are conscious of their gendered surroundings. But they never turn into caricatures as they might under a less capable writer. Much fiction from African countries draws one of three caricatures for female characters. The first is the personality-less beauty who is the object of desire for a young man who comes of age. The young man usually has to overcome a cynical, wealthy and powerful older man who wants the girl for himself. The girl bathes by the river at least once in the novel. A second caricature is the philosophical but resigned senior wife whose husband betrays her and marries a younger scheming second wife. The third is the rebellious younger woman who flouts gender strictures and ends up a journalist in a town newspaper, much like the author herself. These very simple female characters often stand in for a didactic lesson; they never really “think” about the choices they have to make, the author makes the choices for them.

In Akpan’s stories we find women (and men) with real personalities—a little proud, a little insecure, a little cowardly. So they make real choices, sometimes choices without thinking, but rather emerging from their personalities. Akpan’s stories span five countries, and within each country where the story is set there is typically a couple of ethnic or religious groups and class strata represented in the story. The gender dimension is subordinate to the dynamics of how these other social groups drive individuals into terrible dilemmas and situations. For Akpan, and his characters, gender issues are not what drive their lives.

That said, let me point out three aspects of gender as presented in Akpan’s stories.

The first point is that gender relations in the stories are much more egalitarian than you might have thought. In An Ex-mas Feast, Mama and Baba are dysfunctionally amiable, full of bluster and threats, but with no real power over each other or even over the children. In Fattening for Gabon, the child traffickers Mama and Papa again appear as equals; evil adults, to be sure, but not bound by a gendered structure into relations of subservience. The same equality, this time for good in the face of evil, is true of Papa and Maman in My Parent’s Bedroom. Akpan portrays intimate and ordinary domestic lives where men and women very much are on the same level, even in the face of extraordinary circumstances .

The second point is that this equality between men and women emerges from apparently uncontested gender equality between brother and sister, the central characters for many of the stories. These include Maisha the child prostitute and her younger brother Jigana, in An Ex-mas Feast, Yewa and her older brother Kotchikpa in Fattening for Gabon, and the older Monique and Jean in My Parent’s Bedroom. The relationship between these siblings of different genders is the same as if they had been the same gender: they fight and care for each other as siblings, not as boys and girls.

The third point is that sometimes the nature of gender relations becomes the subject of dialogue itself; gender is not a hidden structure. The characters on the bus in Luxurious Hearses talk about gender openly. For example, one of the passengers, Emeka, the loudmouth, calls out to Madame Aniema, Tega, and Ijeoma, “Let me tell you something, you women,” as he launches into a disquisition on civilian versus military rule. The retort is quick: “What do you mean by ‘you women’”, followed by, “Yes, Mr. Man…” and then “He dey talk rike porygamous man!” In this humorous way, Akpan captures the deliberateness of men and women in negotiating public gender stereotypes.

Let me turn to another issue. The audience for Akpan’s stories is you, the people in this room. The sad fact of African publishing and reading is that the public for his fiction in Africa is a future public. The question then is how you should respond to the deliberate education (setting aside the art) offered in the stories. Should one start working as an activist, combating child trafficking? Should one graduate from the university and move to Nigeria and work promoting mutual tolerance between Muslims and Christians? Or should one join the Genocide Intervention Network?

The answers to these questions would seem like obvious affirmatives, except that recently there has been a wave of criticism against naïve activism and do-gooders who produce unintended consequences. I am thinking in particular of Mahmood Mamdani’s just-published diatribe against the Save Darfur movement, entitled Saviors and Survivors. He makes plenty of valid points, particularly about the self-indulgence of this kind of activism that is more explicitly about consciousness-raising than direct action. Should this criticism delay your involvement? Is the responsible thing to do to spend ten more years learning how to fully understand Mamdani and other such critics before you begin to act? I am somewhat sympathetic to this view, as a late-comer myself to the world of action and activism—I started Friends of African Village Libraries in 2001, and not as a twenty-something. But only somewhat sympathetic. I think that experience and knowledge are valuable traits in making the world a better place, but passion and dedication, without the burdening responsibilities of professional and family life, are also valuable traits. And I note that while the image of Save Darfur is of young people, the board of directors and the executive of the organization are people much older and with much experience. So each person can and should respond to these stories in their own way.

Let me close by saying that whatever your response, at the very least you will take Akpan’s admonition of the title seriously, and “Say You’re One of Them.”

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