Tuesday, October 28, 2008


"Mama smiled at the glue and winked at me, pushing her tongue through the holes left by her missing teeth. She snapped the tin's top expertly, and the shack swelled with the smell of a shoemaker's stall. I watched her decant the kabire into my plastic "feeding bottle." It glowed warm and yellow in the dull light. Though she still appeared drunk from last night's party, her hands were so steady that her large tinsel Ex-mas bangles, a gift from a church Ex-mas party, did not even sway."
—page 7, Say You're One of Them by Uwem Akpan, from the short story "An Ex-mas Feast"

"Danny heard a groan from the next room. He frowned with annoyance. Another groan. He could not help listening. He walked across the room, the dropper in his hand, and inclined his ear to the wall. The groans were coming at regular intervals, a horrible inhuman sound pushed out from the stomach."

—page 29, Interzone by William S. Burroughs, from the short story "The Junky's Christmas"

I thought I had read the ultimate in dreary Christmas tales and that its place as such was secure. But the darkness and despair of Burroughs's holiday Manhattan is no match for that of Akpan's Christmastime Nairobi.

Yes, the Manhattan tale has thievery and drugs and poverty and the everpresent threat of murder. The Nairobi tale has all of that as well, and then adds in child prostitution and the squalor of a crowded shack in the slums of the city and the dysfunction and disintegration of a family—all of it experienced and navigated in attempts to survive each day.

Yes, Burroughs fills his brief tale with hopelessness, but it ends with a scene of concern for one worse off than one's self. It ends with a glimmer of hope and the protagonist rewarded with "the immaculate fix," one that requires no shot of heroin for its high. Akpan's short story ends with a family in disarray, frayed by the promises of a better life that may never come. It ends with shattered lives.

Neither of these tales would be as powerful if they were false "reports" of life on the streets of Manhattan and Nairobi. The truth, however, is in their details and what we know about these "places," these "times," these "conditions" from other accounts—newspapers, documentaries, primary sources. The sadness seeps through and infuses them. The sadness sinks deep into us. May God have mercy upon our souls.


Kimberlee said...

Did you see that he is going to be speaking at Pierce College on Dec. 4?

Troy said...

I thought, "Excellent. I would love to hear Akpan read." Then I saw that it was Burroughs, except that WSB has been dead for a few years. The Burroughs at Pierce College is Augusten Burroughs. No relation to WSB and completely different writing style. But, thank you for the "heads up" even so.

Kimberlee said...

Oops... sorry. See what happens when I'm skimming blogs at work and trying to look like I am working instead. :P