Surviving the horrors

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 1 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 despite 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 the 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 are the chances 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. 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-edge, inscrutable armor of people in situations so desperate that 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 can feel 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 neighbor forbids 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, which has only begun. It is to their credit that grim as they are -- you cannot but hope they have a sequel.