Not until I noticed that I’d been lucky enough to win a copy of The Granta Book of the African Short Story, edited by Helon Habila*.
And then, well, I got carried away by the excitement and I figured it was fate, right? Next thing you know, I had a copy of this collection in my eager reader’s hands, ready to read.
And when I did? I started with Uwem Akpan’s “An Ex-Mas Feast”.
Every year we say that we are going to decorate for “Ex-Mas” on December 1st.
But every year something else claims the first day of the month. I don’t remember what the “something else” was this year, but I remember thinking that yet another December 1st was going to slip past without decorating.
So the little trees and the animal carvings and the stars and the paper-chain garlands and the corn-husk angels and the collection of old decorative tins (which used to have my grandmother’s Russian Butter Balls and Gumdrop Cake and Traditional Shortbreads in them) and the little wooden villages and the candle holders and the two porcelain Victorian houses (with their snow-capped roofs and windowsills) and the strings of lights and and and and and … all that had to wait.
And wait it did, this year.
We didn’t decorate until the morning that the first of the guests arrived.
(If you’re reading this, I bet you were fooled by the layer of dust that rested on everything else in the house, fooled into thinking the decorations had been up for weeks. Tricksy, I know.)
In between, I did read this short story.
If my life was different, I might have actually saved it for “Ex-Mas” Day. (In years that I spent most of the holidays alone, I got a lot of reading done in between watching holiday specials.)
As it was, I sat down to read this story one morning with a cup of fair-trade coffee and two chocolate-chip muffins. It was going to be a busy day, with shopping and marketing and so much to do with a household of people on their way. But there was time for a story.
It took me most of the morning to read the story, however, and my shopping lists ended up being much more straightforward than they would have been without “An Ex-Mas Feast”.
The story is 26 pages long; it took me all morning to read, because I only sat for 3 or 4 pages at a time. In between, I got up and did some of the cleaning and tidying that I’d planned to do the next day.
I met Maisha and Naema. I did the dishes. I learned that Maisha, at twelve, was the family’s main source of income. I washed the labels off the empty jars of preserves that we buy at the farmer’s market.
I met Mama, Baby, and Atieno and Otieno; I learned that Baby being hauled about for begging purposes brought in a bit of extra money. I folded the laundry.
I listened to Mama’s holiday prayers, her gratitude for Maisha having been sent white men to service (because they pay more). I took out the compost and the recycling.
I understood that Maisha and everybody else in the family, Baba included, is set on Jigana going to school: Maisha’s brother is going to study and he will have a better life. I wiped out the fridge and inspected those bizarre jars with two tablespoons of mysterious substances left in the bottom of each.
The lives of these characters leapt off the page at me.
This is one powerful story. It made me feel furious, unsettled, anxious, sad, restless, determined and grateful.
I spread its sentences throughout my morning. I hope I will be spreading its spirit throughout not only my Ex-Mas, but all of my days.
Well, that’s what good art does, right? It changes you. One page at a time.
* distributed by House of Anansi in Canada