Thursday, February 04, 2010

Luxurious Hearses in "Say You're One of Them" by Uwem Akpan

  • Hardcover: 368 pages

  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company; 1 edition (Jun 9 2008)

  • Language: English
"Luxurious Hearses" is this ( "Say You're One of Them") collection's fourth and longest story but perhaps its most important. I see it as important because more than any other story I have read here so far, it is this one that brings to life the political, economic and religious strife we read so much about in Africa.

The story, set in Nigeria, illuminates the political situation of Nigeria, the poverty of the people in the Nigerian Delta, the tension between the Muslims in the North and the Christians in the south and what happens when innocent people get caught in between.

After you read this longish nouvella you come away, seeing with new eyes why every now and again Nigeria plunges into Muslim-Christian riots and why, despite all the oil that Nigeria possesses, its people are so poor.

Our protagonist in this story is a 16-year old boy called
Jubril who is forced to head south (towards the Christian part of Nigeria) after riots broke out in his very-Muslim city of Khamfa which is in the north. Ordinarily Jubril may not have had to run away, but when his own Muslim friends turned against him for having a Christian father (whom he had never seen or known) he decided that if he was interested in saving his life it would be prudent for him to leave his town and Muslim mother (and her family) and head south to be reunited with his Christian dad.

The story of his journey from the North to South in the midst of some of the worst religious riots Nigeria has ever seen with a host of wonderfully- colourful characters that are his bus companions; his fears and insecurities about heading to a part of the country that is so alien to him and his perpetual fear of being found out as a Muslim in bus full of Christian refugees is riveting, suspenseful and unputdownable! The reader is as tense as Jubril who is forced to try and blend in with the other people on the bus, a task made much more difficult because his right hand was lopped off when he was arrested for stealing a goat months before.

As always, Akpan's writing holds you spellbound. Most of the story takes place on the bus with occasional flashbacks to Jubrail's life in Khamfa before he had to flee. As a reader you are privy to all the conversations that place on the bus...the fears, egos, anger and other emotions that the passengers bring with them; power dynamics between the well off and the not so well off,the sick and the healthy. Many a time, like Oprah, I got so claustrophobic from being on that bus I had this strong urge to jump off and yet, the writing and the thought of what might happen next kept me glued to the pages.

"An Ex-Mas Feast" was audacious, "The Fattening of Gabon" was downright sad, but "Luxurious Hearses" is gruesome. You're going to need a strong stomach to endure the second half of the novel. Gruesome it might be but at no point do you get the feeling the author is aiming for sensationalism, instead, you come away feeling deeply for the characters, the victims and the persecutors alike, for you come to understand that each man is simply doing all he can to survive.

Since each of the five stories in this book are set in different countries in Africa, you might want to use Howard French's "A Continent for the Taking" or even Richard Dowden's "Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles" as a companion read. I found both very helpful in explaining Africa to me.


Susan Abraham said...

Thoughtfully portrayed, Angie. A lot of this is evident in Nigerian cinema. Basically, you do need a strong stomach to visit even East Africa and to come away unscarred.

Lotus Reads said...

Isn't that the truth, Suse? Even so, I was just wondering if perhaps contemporary literature is just a little more unkind to the Nigerian than it is to any other person of African heritage? How do the Nigerians feels about being the bad boy of Africa, I wonder?

Leela Soma said...

I look at this story from Nigeria as another contribution to Nigerian Literature. We've had Nigerian Achebe, Adichie writing about the civil war and their wonderful storytelling comes to the fore. In this story/ novella as you rightly say Angie, looking at the divided society from the child's eyes makes it so poignant. Yes, I did feel like jumping off that bus too, but I had to see it through to the end. Your review I'm sure would make people want to pick this book and read it. You've done the book great justice by reviewing each story. Congrats.

Susan Abraham said...

Hi Angie,
I discovered recently on scouring the bookshops in Africa, that there's just a fair bit of East African literature which missed seeing the light of day in other countries. Kenya is quite well-known but I haven't probed deeply into this.
South African literature and also the Congo have portrayed stark cruelties. I've got some new literature on the Congo. Will start reading this in the summer. One is a work of non-fiction, Tim Butcher's Blood River.
I'll have to discover the others but am still on Tanzania, Zanzibar & Nigeria at the moment. Am aiming to understand these countries a bit more before exploring the rest of the Continent.
But as Leela said you've conducted a really good review. xx

Angela in Europe said...

Seems like a good read! I so need to broaden my horizons when it comes to reading. I peruse news articles about places like Nigeria but I never get to know it through its fiction. Thanks for always giving me good ideas!

Sanjay said...

Wonderful Lotus as always. I unfortunately don't get time to read like I used to, but I enjoy what you have to say, for as always you are full of such eclectic reads!
Just curious, why the title "Luxurious Hearses"? Is this a reference to the bus journey that Jubrail is undertaking? Is it due to the fact that he has to hide who he is on the bus?

Lotus Reads said...

@Leela ~ Glad you liked the review! Each and every one of these stories is so powerful, I felt compelled not to slot them together but to write about each story individually. It is very exciting to see the literature coming out of Nigeria and also from Nigerian writers in the UK. Reminds me of India from a few years ago when we were celebrating the fresh arrival of a group of Indo-Anglian writers on the world stage.

@Suse ~ True! There is so much African literature to discover, one hardly knows where to start! I have been exposed to some literature from Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda largely thanks to MG Vassanji. I've been told Nuruddin Farah (Somalia)is an excellent writer but I have yet to sample his work. I think of the entire continent, South Africa, Nigeria and Ghana are probably the best represented, wouldn't you say?

Lotus Reads said...

@Angela ~ You are quite welcome! This is an excellent book to read if you want a taste of the underbelly of Africa.

@Sanj ~ Good question and something I wanted to explore but the review was getting far too long! :) The buses that Jubril travelled on were called "Luxurious Buses" because that is what they were with their brightly lit interiors, attached toilets, TV etc, but when the riots started the very same buses were being used to carry dead bodies hence they turned into hearses!

Anonymous said...

great read. I would love to follow you on twitter. By the way, did you know that some chinese hacker had busted twitter yesterday again.

Id it is said...

Thanks Lotus for sharing this....I'm going to use this review as a reading supplement in my class where we are currently covering Nigerian writers and film makers. The religious divide in Nigeria makes for some powerful and complex conflicts in Nigerian art, but often times writers and artists get sidetracked into the sensational as you point out, and therefore there have been times when you are compelled to leave some of these novels half way through.

Chimamanda is one definite exception....I love her writings though I have only read her short stories and none of her novels.... Have you?

Lotus Reads said...

@Id ~ Wow, sounds like such an interesting course...I would love to do something like that! The literature coming out of Nigeria and the Nigerian diaspora has always been of a very high quality, so I am sure your students are enjoying discussing the various writers and their works

I love Chimananda Adichie's work and I honestly think that although she is good at both, I much prefer her when she is using the novel format. I find that her short stories tend to end fairly abruptly. You really should treat yourself to "Half of a Yellow Sun", Id, I feel confident you will enjoy it very much!

Uwem Akpan is a truly masterful storyteller, the stories he has crafted in "Say You Are One of Them" are truly one of a kind! Like one reviewer said, "Uwem Akpan's collection is so ravishing and sad that I regret ever wasting superlatives on fiction that was merely very good..." That about sums it up for me too!

Your class will enjoy this story Id and will learn a lot about the North-South divide too. But be warned, it's more of a nouvella than a short story.

オテモヤン said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.