There are several things I am keeping in mind as I am compiling my fall class: (1) I’ll be teaching undergrads, a majority of which are non-majors, so my books need to be readable; (2) If I am teaching contemporary global literature, I need to have a diverse array of authors; (3) I cannot be telling “a single story.” So I’ve been checking a diverse array of authors from various African nations and wondering which ones will be the best fit for my course. I had placed Uwem Akpan’s Say You’re One of Them on the list a few years back, and now I’ve finally gotten around to reading it.
Akpan has crafted a series of short stories and two novellas that deal with children in Nigeria, Rwanda, and a few surrounding countries. War, violence, and abuse make up a huge portion of the conflicts in each. Needless to say, the stories are all equally gutting, horrifying, and devastatingly sad. Akpan draws attention to racial tensions, poverty, and political terror, through the way these problems affect children and their families. The standout story, for me, is “My Parents’ Bedroom,” in which tribal genocide is told through the eyes of a daughter whose parents inter-married. It’s vivid and evocative, while also being incredibly sad.
As a result, I find myself incredibly torn about this book. On the one hand, Akpan tells an important story that undercuts the kind of privilege that I as a Westerner forget is not available to everyone. It’s gutting, because OF COURSE IT IS. Softening the blow makes the story less effective. And yet I cannot ignore Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s admonition not to tell “the single story” of Africa. If I teach this novel as Nigerian literature, do I not run the risk of implanting in my students’ literary imaginations the notion that Africa is a place of violence and genocide, and not of beauty and endurance? It’s a pickle. I think I may compromise and teach “My Parents’ Bedroom” with other short stories, but stick to Adichie as a novelist’s rendering of Nigeria.