Last month I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I should probably start by confessing I am something of a latecomer to the love of short stories. It started about a year ago, with Courttia Newland’s A Book of Blues, an eclectic collection of stories inspired by love and music, which danced a journey across pages that swept from London’s Portobello Road to the beaches of Nairobi, through the hot bush of Malindi via packed Miami bars. I discovered there is something quite lovely about the form, that it is a genuine skill to be able to conjure authentic characters, to evoke a vivid landscape, to capture a complete world in a limited number of words. It’s a discipline that I, as a novelist, have never had to concern myself with, but recently I have found myself thankful there are writers who do.Learn more about A Cupboard Full of Coats, and visit Yvvette Edwards's Facebook page.
Chinua Achebe, one of my favourite writers, has said it is the writer's duty ‘to explore in depth the human condition.’ I like to think this is something I have brought to my own novel, A Cupboard Full of Coats, a story about the transgenerational impact of domestic violence. In my opinion, if a story does nothing for every reader, if there is no gain to be had from the reading, no lesson gleaned or learned, no preconception challenged or shifted, I can hardly see the point in the writing at all. Uwem Akpan understands this, and his collection of short stories, Say You’re One of Them, is at once one of the most powerful, challenging, perception-changing books I have ever read.
In Say You’re One of Them, Akpan gives voice to Africa’s children in horrifying circumstances, whose plight, their daily struggle for life on any terms, is virtually inconceivable to most. His five stories encompass child prostitution and trafficking, genocide, and poverty on a scale that would make most inhabitants of the Western World ashamed to ever complain again about being broke. These are emotive subjects anyway, but seen through the eyes of Akpan’s child narrators, they are heart-breaking. In his first story, "An Ex-Mas Feast," we meet Maisha, a girl still too young for breasts, who has elected prostitution so her family can eat, to raise money for her brother’s school fees - the only hope they have of ever escaping poverty. Here in England, glue-sniffing is something people do to get high. In Maisha’s world, glue is a valuable commodity, proffered by loving parents to their children when there is no food available because it staves off hunger. This is a powerful book which introduces Africa’s children with an intimacy no documentary or commentary I have ever seen comes close to, a compassionately crafted work that opens the gateway to a scarcely perceived world.
I have seen famine-stricken children on the news then gone on to watch and enjoy the following programme. I struggle as I write this to identify which single one impacted on me the most. But to read Akpan is to do more than watch from a safe distance. He takes the reader on a journey. He is a gifted writer, and so the journey is an interesting one, but it is far from comfortable. The final story, "My Parents’ Bedroom," narrated from a village in Rwanda, left me reeling and will never be forgotten.
On every level the writing is authentic, the voices clear and articulate, the backdrops vividly rendered. I am bedazzled by Akpan’s clarity, the cool and disciplined control he exerts in the crafting of this passionate and hugely empathic work. I challenge anyone to read it and remain indifferent to the world recorded here.
I have a bookcase at home, upstairs, private, separate from the shelves my visitors see, specifically because often, following discussions of books on my shelves, they have been borrowed and sometimes never returned. I need to own the books I love. As a result, there are books I love that I have loaned out, then gone on to repurchase three, four, five times. My private shelves house the books I do not lend out, and having read Say You’re One of Them, it now occupies a rightly earned space on those shelves.