Akpan is a Nigerian-born Jesuit priest who currently teaches in a seminary in Zimbabwe; prior to taking up this position, he studied in the United Sates, and in 2005 he published his first ever fiction, in no less than the New Yorker. This book, one has to assume, came by way of the immediate prominence Akpan gained as a first-time writer appearing in those rarefied pages. While not all the stories and two novellas that make up the collection are of the same quality, those that stand out announce a bold and morally-ordered imagination capable of revealing universal human experiences in places and moments that the First World would much rather identify with through wrist-bands and benefit concerts.
“Now that my eldest sister, Maisha, was twelve, none of us knew how to relate to her anymore”: so opens “An Ex-Mas Feast.” The eight-year old narrator, in complaining about his older sister’s recent separateness from the rest of the family, articulates the confusion and frustration that any family, anywhere, at any time, experiences in dealing with a girl at that changeful age. Unsurprisingly, mother and daughter fight a lot: “Sometimes Mama went out of her way to provoke her. ‘Malaya! Whore! You don’t even have breasts yet!’ she’d say. Maisha would ignore her.” Of course the girl ignores her mother’s scoldingwhat self-respecting twelve-year old wouldn’t? But she ignores it not because her mother is exaggerating the girl’s behavior for effect, but because she has her work to do: She’s a Nairobi prostitute and the family breadwinner. In unfolding the rest of the tale (which takes place over a hot and rainy Christmas day the family spends waiting for the eldest daughter to bring home dinner), Akpan avoids the easy refuges of sentimentality and melodrama for a startlingly matter-of-fact revelation of family life proceeding under extreme conditions. The husband and wife bicker about husband and wife things while the children are made to sniff glue to stay their hunger; the older siblings help with the new baby by taking him into the streets to beg with; the father tries to keep his sleeping daughter comfortable through the mosquito-infested hot night by tearing off their shack’s front door and fanning her with it.
As the story develops, we learn with the narrator that his big sister has turned to prostitution in part to make his tuition money, which of course drains the boy’s excitement at the prospect of returning to school, while also placing him in an impossible situation of guilt and gratitude. We also learn that the parents’ anger and shame about their daughter’s work is mitigated by their hope that she’ll do well. Hence their unsettling pride when they learn that she’s been picked up by a trio of wealthy white tourists: “Motorcar? They had a motorcar? Imachine a motorcar to pick up my daughter,” the mother boasts, smiling. As the family waits for the girl’s return, Akpan offers a formidable account of Nairobi in its teeming destitution:
The rain had stopped, but clouds kept the night dark. The city had gorged itself on the floods, and its skin had swelled and burst in places. The makeshift tables and stalls of street markets littered the landscape, torn and broken, as if there had been a bar fight. Garbage had spread all over the road: dried fish, stationary, trinkets, wilted green vegetables, plastic plates, wood carvings, underwear. Without the usual press of people, the ill-lit streets sounded hollow, amplifying the smallest of sounds. Long after a police car had passed, it could be heard negotiating potholes, the officers extorting their bribes . . . from the people who could not afford to go to their up-country villages for the holidays.
The girl comes home through these streets in a battered taxi, bringing bagfuls of Christmas cheer on which the starving family gorges, past the point of vomiting. They eventually realize the daughter has brought them a farewell feast. She’s leaving home. They protest, but she leaves anyway. As a crowd of street kids gathers at the commotion, the remaining family does what it must, as the narrator explains after sniffing some glue to calm down (and just before running away himself): “We struggled to stuff the food into our mouths, to stuff the bags back inside the shack, but the kids made off with the balloons and the cards.” Pathetic, tragic, shameful and, as Akpan presents it, practical family living in the wreckage that is the Nairobi streets.
“Fattening for Gabon,” the novella that follows An Ex-Mas Feast, is likewise marked by an arresting combination of moral probity and matter-of-fact description. This latter work, also narrated by a young boy, concerns a brother and sister sold into an adoption scheme by their unstable uncle, whose guilt over what he has done leads to a series of harrowing captivities and escapes. Akpan deftly reveals how vulnerable childrenespecially starving, impoverished, lonely childrencan be to shined-up sweetness: The narrator watches his initially-unwilling little sister forsake her name and her parents for new ones, changes that her self-styled new mother confirms by pouring Coke down the little girl’s throat: “Yewa’s face was upturned like a suckling lamb’s. The bubbly drink filled her mouth slowly. . . . Mama stopped abruptly. ‘Do you want more, Mary?’ she asked. Yewa was panting. ‘Yes Mama.’” Malicious nurturing aside, this story also suggests Akpan’s storytelling verve: Near its end, when the boy is plotting his and his sister’s escape from a guarded house, the tension and excitement of the build-up is so well done it feels like an old-fashioned boy’s adventure story until Akpan reveals the nature of the boy’s success: “I ran into the bush, blades of elephant grass slashing my body, thorns and rough earth piercing my feet. . . . I ran and I ran, though I knew I would never outrun my sister’s wailing.”
With the exception of the closing story, the second half of the collection is much weaker than the first. “Luxurious Hearses,” another novella, is a failure of form: Slack and meandering, its middle length lacks the allusive density of a short story and the expansive reach of a novel. Moreover the novella, which concerns the efforts of a young Muslim man trying to pass as a Christian on a bus rumbling through a bloodily sectarian Nigeria, is chock-full of undigested information about African politics, military power, religious affiliations and tribal identities. All of this material, so delivered, makes the story seem more focused on educating the Western reader than on enlarging our capacities for imagining human experience in Africa. Likewise, the novella is sometimes marked by phrasing that sounds more native to an American college student than to a bus-riding Nigerian Muslim praying for his life in a violently divided country: “If you do not accept me and my plans to embrace my southern identity and lead me safely home,” the protagonist secretly petitions Allah late in the novella, “who will?”
The collection’s last story, “My Parents’ Bedroom,” which details the supremely violent division of a Hutu-Tutsi family in genocide-era Rwanda, represents a notable return to form. In addition to offering the collection’s titlethrough the direction a mother gives her daughter for whenever anyone knocks at their door during the killing timethe story’s calibrations of horror and sadness and insight into what loved ones can be willing or forced to do to each other, makes you grateful that such a strong and distinctive voice as Akpan’s has come on the scene to tell such stories. And, in truth, one is more grateful still to know such stories only at a remove, through an enlivened and shuddering imagination.
Randy Boyagoda is a professor of English at Ryerson University in Toronto and the author of Governor of the Northern Province (Penguin), a novel.