The Empire of Hell is very diverse. It embraces all races, socio-economic classes, even religions -- the rainbow residents of Hell pray to all the gods in heaven, and tragically, all their prayers are answered.
And because the history of Hell is so long and we are only human, we tend to focus on certain stories that encapsulate the time and spirit of the place. E.g. the Nazis 1942, cattle trains filled with humans, leather gloves, gunshots and men's hard laughter echoing on cobblestones. Or Cambodia 1976, mass evacuations, rice fields littered with starved bodies, sharpened bamboo, shallow graves. Just to name a few.
Welcome again to Hell and a brief visit to its current provinces: Rwanda, Nigeria, Kenya, and Ethiopia. Our guide's name is Uwem Akpan; his book of two novellas and three stories is called, Say You're One of Them.
Born in southern Nigeria, Akpan was ordained a Jesuit priest in 2005, and received a Master's of Fine Arts from the University of Michigan in 2006. His first book of stories challenges our assumptions, our beliefs and our stomachs: a poor family celebrates Christmas with a bag of glue for sniffing; a Rwandan father commits the unspeakable; a brother and sister enjoy their first luxuries, unaware that they've been sold into slavery; a luxurious bus carries passengers who are both fleeing and inflicting death.
Akpan aims to make us see, hear, and smell these scenes. He offers only one lesson: that humans are capable of monstrous acts. His unwavering, unemotional gaze places us so close to the action that to turn away is impossible. In "Fattening for Gabon," for example, a young brother and sister eagerly drink their cups of precious fruit juice, and the two children's different drinking strategies foretell their separate futures:
"Yewa drank hers immediately, in one long endless gulp, tilting the cup so quickly that the juice poured from both sides of her face and dribbled onto her belly, thick red teardrops. I took one gulp and stopped, thinking it would be better to save the juice until dinner, and went to set my cup down on a safe spot between the lantern stand and the wall."
Occasionally Akpan's steady gaze and tone waver slightly. In "Gabon" the narrator muses on the relationship between his actual and his "new" parents:
"I also began to miss our godparents whom I hadn't met, because I was already a beneficiary of their goodness; they were like a second pair of parents in a world where sickness had almost robbed me of the first."
Lines like this in Akpan's writing mark the moments when his teacher's tone undercuts his artful authenticity. Most often though, his clean and precise language captures moments of beauty commingled with dread: "Sometimes, from where we sat, we saw the beams of their headlights sweeping the skies of neighboring villages, like searchlights."
Listen to the first two lines of the novella "Luxurious Hearses," the book's best story:
"It was late afternoon. It was before the new democratic government placed a ban on mass transportation of corpses from one end of the country to the other."
Okay, so right away we know we have left Seattle -- we are not searching for Caf