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Heartbreak and the buds of Africa's hope

Uwem Akpan's short stories view bitter facts with the beauty of compassion.

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Many people – myself included – are inherently suspicious of art that is topical. Literature is not advocacy, nor should it be a reenactment of news stories, no matter how tragic or important.

Consider, then, the achievement of Say You’re One of Them, a new collection by Nigerian-born Uwem Akpan. These stories are deeply enmeshed in the news: Akpan, a priest who studied fiction writing at the University of Michigan, has not written a roman à clef but has instead used his firsthand knowledge of life in Africa to inhabit the minds of various characters who are all at the center of “big” issues, from religious rioting in Nigeria and the Rwandan genocide to child slavery.

These are topics generally considered the province of reportage. The dangers for a fiction writer are myriad: The work could easily be maudlin or lurid or the print equivalent of a charity flyer.
Akpan does more than skirt those dangers; he combines the strengths of both fiction and journalism – the dramatic potential of the one and the urgency of the other – to create a work of immense power. Even though his subject matter has a ripped-from-the-headlines quality, manifested in Akpan’s artful narration is the broad perspective and empathy characteristic of the highest order of novelist.

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