baptizing the writer


I have been trying to fix a particular chapter for about a week now, to submit for a grant application due Friday. This means I have been spending vast amounts of time simply staring into space waiting for the words to appear. Often times it takes reading someone else's work to figure out just what is not working in mine. Unbeknownst to my process, The New Yorker published a short story, Baptizing the Gun, by acclaimed author Uwem Akpan (or at least, let us say, "Oprah's Book Clubbed" author, not sure the level of critical acclaim that affords apart from the NYT bestseller list). What a delight to see mention of Awilo Longomba in the pages of such a stuffy mag.

Last year, Akpan published a collection of short stories, Say You're One of Them, about children growing up in various conditions of social, economic, and political disrepair throughout Africa. I bought the audio book several months ago and have waited to review it here as I have taken long to get through the book. At first I thought it was the poor audio recording (imagine fake, largely caricaturized African accents) that was stopping me in the work, but then my sis, also in Nigeria for the holidays with paperback version in tow, echoed my same impression of the book. I slogged partway through the paperback, silencing my brain's refusal to engage with the characters and settings, ultimately giving up on the whole thing in the end.

It is the kind of text that is unreadable to me, in certain ways, representing in labored, broad, overly historical strokes what should instead be subtler, simpler, and more personal stories. Akpan is a writer young in craft, and it is often apparent in the stories when he tells more than shows what is going on. I find in his stories the same problems I find in my own work, that frustrate me to the point where I cannot read another single word of my not-so-subtly-embedded social commentary, or bold attempts to expose the "rawness" of life. I am well aware that this writing of mine must be refined before it can be presented to the world, or maybe it does not need presenting at all, as it is but an echo of more famous and highly-praised attempts at portraying the rawness of life.

Perhaps there is something more interesting in understanding why certain powers are so captivated by these endless stories of war and starving babies and abuse? For Oprah in particular, whose narrative of the African girl child echoes the one portrayed in Akpan's book by a less than skillful hand. It's not my intention to berate the man, or to question his success, but to attest that it is the desire to refine that matures one as a writer. And that we should all, myself included, continue honing our craft, being truer to our histories and characters and stories especially when others have cosigned them, taking them at face value, baptizing us as writers in a literary landscape languaged primarily by white supremacist imperialism.

But what I really meant to say was, after reading Baptizing the Gun, I had a huge belly-holding chuckle. Three quarters of Akpan's short story take place in a Lagos go-slow, with all the necessary child hawkers and Ndombolo music and food stalls by the roadside. Here I was struggling to edit my own chapter, that starts in a Calabar go-slow, trying to cut back on the amount of visual stimulation and provide more space to make it readable, when Akpan is just piling and piling and piling it on. So perhaps I can consider my job well done?

There are a lot more technical issues with his story that make me wonder why The New Yorker included it. Again, not to berate the man, but simply to understand what it all means.

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  1. I really like your point about continuing to refine one's craft (despite co-signers etc).
    I would even go further with the co-signer theory and say it behooves one to reflect because of who is giving the accolades. My guess is it would be more of an honor to get accolades from Soyinka, Achebe et al. as opposed to Oprah right?
    Then again, I guess it also depends on what the person is seeking cos Oprah's endorsement will surely put cash in your pocket but true lit accolades might not.

  2. Your brief review of Uwem Akpan's book makes me wonder about Oprah, who knows literature, or so she says. I wonder because if the book is this "poverty porn" then why she
    praises it so highly. It seems that
    she has lost herself in Hollywood
    and have taken on that view of life. The readers talk of the book as though reading it was a transformative experience. Now they understand all Africa! I so hate this! In writing, what I love is subtlety. Let us use our intelligence to grab the meaning. Is he spelling out every sight and sound? Every negative kind of situation without balance? I hesitate to read his work now. I'll
    buy his book and read it later down the line. Maybe a year from now.

  3. I think that even if his book didn't work for me, it's still valuable to read, even just to understand the reasons why it didn't work. Maybe I could be clearer about that, really wasn't trying to bash him as an author, as a writer going through his own creative process. Thanks for the comments! :)

  4. Haven't read 'Say You're One of Them,' but I just read the first two pages of 'Baptizing the Gun,' and I like the way he describes the settings.

    I get what you're saying about simplicity and subtlety.


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