A reader who skirts around the international page of news sections may recall the grim events around which Uwem Akpan’s debut story collection revolves. In 1994, with the encouragement of their government, the Hutu majority of Rwanda systematically murdered nearly one million Tutsi people. In 2002, the BBC reported that aid workers in Western Africa were exploiting sex from child refugees. Two years ago, violence between Muslims and Christians ratcheted up in Ethiopia. Today, girls as young as 11 are being recruited into the sex trade from shantytowns outside Nairobi, Kenya.
In Say You’re One of Them, Akpan teleports readers out of their chairs and into the lives of children trying to survive these dire circumstances. The book is less a story collection than a powerful, frankly activist work of fiction that often succeeds in spite of its best intentions. Akpan, who is a Jesuit priest from Nigeria, exhaustively catalogs the meager circumstances of his cast. In “An Ex-Mas Feast,” an entire family clusters around one glue bottle, with which they get high and stave off hunger. They spend the story eagerly anticipating the nightly haul of their 12-year-old daughter, who has become a streetwalker.
Akpan often narrates in the first person, a storytelling strategy that allows him to contrast how much his young narrators understand about their situations, and how little the chances are that they can escape them. In “Fattening for Gabon,” a young boy and girl are sold into semi-slavery when their parents are diagnosed with AIDS. Their uncle ferries the kids to the border, where they are fed stories of happy lives and platters of Western food and sea breezes. Only as they get closer to departing, their uncle’s actions in the bedroom reveal they may be on their way to a living hell.
There is little reprieve from the bleakness of these stories. Like Flannery O’Connor’s best work, they absorb any light you project upon them; Akpan’s characters are wrapped in the hard-edged, inscrutable armor of people in situations so desperate, superhuman instincts take over. In “My Parents’ Bedroom,” a young girl named Monique tells of how a Hutu mob came for her Tutsi mother during the Rwandan genocide. Monique's mother, a paragon of sacrifice, saved her children, her husband and then her friends—who hid in the family attic while Monique’s father proved his loyalty to Hutus by killing his wife.
Akpan is such a clever, instinctual writer, that even when his characters are providing testimony, it feels like art. Each narrator in this book has a different style of speaking—often a mixture of a colonial language and its more complicated African brethren—and a slightly different nature. But they have a universal method of dealing with the worst disasters: they run. When a young girl’s neighbors forbid her to play with their children, the girl’s family packs up and leaves. When a one-handed Muslim notices that events are out of control, he disguises himself and boards a bus south. These stories are dispatches from a journey, Akpan makes clear, that has only begun. It is to their credit that, grim as they are, you cannot but hope they have a sequel.
In spite of all the top-rate university programs, the hundreds of literary quarterlies and a reading public, it remains hard in America to find a short story writer who has something to say, and says it well—unlike in Europe, which still has an appetite for short fiction.
Tobias Wolff is the exception. For the past 30 years, he has been publishing stories that feel yanked from the jagged mouth of real experience and turned into art. He writes gracefully of soldiers, lovers, dogs and families. He knows a thing or two about California. Enter his world and you will be told a story in the old-fashioned way. Something happens; something is at stake; finish one and you’ll need to pause before reading the next.
At this rate, there are at least two months’ worth of reading pleasure in Our Story Begins, Wolff’s latest book, a new and selected volume of stories. Even if you have been following Wolff all along, this book is worth bringing home and reading.
It’s hard not to marvel at how natural Wolff makes telling a story seem. He is no fancy-dancer; you will find no prose hijinks here. He writes short, easygoing sentences and is funny without showing off. He lets his characters’ talking do the trick. And yet when the pathos descends on the page, it falls like a hammer.
One of the best stories in the collection is called “The Other Miller,” in which the army mistakenly tells a soldier his mother has died. Driving back to civilian life, Miller, who knows it’s an error, can barely contain his glee. Not only is his mother alive, but he gets a break. Gradually, though, the karmic wrongness of his celebration hits him. And then Wolff reveals the real reason—the nasty, sadder one—why Miller is celebrating.
One after the other, the tales in Our Story Begins perform this shattering turn-about: The entire moral crux of a life pivots on (or falls apart in) an instant. “Bullet in the Brain” is another such tale. A snide and sarcastic book critic enters a bank on the day it is robbed and proceeds to critique the gunmen’s lingo. Not surprisingly, he winds up dead on the floor. But what is shocking is how much drama Wolff extracts from the flickering final moments of the angry man’s mind.
It’s very hard to describe what makes Wolff such a special short story writer because, looking at Our Story Begins, it’s clear he has done just about everything. He has told gripping stories in the first person and in the third. Some of his tales do loop de loops. Others are swift as bullets. All of them, however, feel true. It feels funny to say that, especially in this age of “ truthiness.” So perhaps it’s better to say this: These stories remind how powerful and important good stories are, especially ones that look right into our wicked, yearning hearts and refuse to blink.