Relative Morality

Much to my dismay, I’m distracted. I should be writing about Mexico, but salt water and whale snot has done a number on my camera. I’m at a loss. The best I can do is babble.

I find myself thinking about morality because I just read a book full of immorality, and I found it interesting in that all the characters, moral and immoral, were sympathetically drawn. We learn in writing class that our characters should be drawn in shades of gray with a good mix strengths and weaknesses, but when a character commits an unspeakable act, just how do find the balance without excusing the act itself?

It is a tricky business and far beyond me, but the Nigerian author, Uwem Akpan, pulls it off with seeming aplomb. I am in awe of his talents. Akpan was ordained a Jesuit priest in 2003, and I am left to speculate how his religious background has prepared him for the task of balancing the dark and light.

Say You’re One of Us consists of five short stories based in contemporary African countries. The stories flesh out the human faces behind the headlines and the nightly news.

If you are not a fan of short stories, be assured: although each story stands alone, the title says it all: if you want to survive changing borders; ethnic and religious warfare; corruption; and people brought low by famine and natural disasters, your survival will depend on shifting your loyalties and aligning yourself with the powers that be. If anyone asks, say you’re one of them.

Craig Seligman writing for Bloomberg News wrote, “It takes a great writer to face the extremes of human depravity without either sensationalizing them or trivializing them with easy judgments. Akpan doesn’t blink, yet these stories have none of the moral queasiness of voyeurism.”

The beauty of this book is that all the stories are told from a child’s point of view. You read the words and see what the children see, but as an adult with a multitude of life experience, you will read beyond the words… see between the lines. The children’s point of view takes the edge off. The children’s perspective also leaves us with hope. Out of this morass, can these children build a brighter future?

Only our socio-economic security allows us to read the news from Africa and pass judgement on the atrocities committed there. Read the book and ask yourself what you would do if you were in the same position. Put your morality to the test.

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Writer’s Prompt:

In moral terms, where exactly do we draw the line? As much as we like to think we’re a high-minded, moral people, some times we are more moral than other times.

I’m reminded of a poem by Stephen Dunn, a poet out of Minnesota. The closing lines of his poem “The Same Cold” are: “On blizzard nights with wires down / or in the dead-battery dawn / the cold made good neighbors of us all, / made us moral because we might need / something moral in return.”

Living as I do in the Colorado mountains, I know this poem in my bones. No full-time resident in our community would think of passing a car in trouble along a Custer County road. We are not more moral than others who live in more forgiving climates: we just know that if we stop for them; when our day comes… as it undoubtedly will, they are more likely to stop for us. But our morality is shallow: we are less likely to stop if we are travelling outside the county. Perhaps our morality is site-specific.

  • Create a character who is clearly amoral/immoral and then try to arouse the reader’s sympathy for your character.

About timeout2

I have lived 100 lives. I write essays, short stories, poetry, grocery lists and notes to myself. If I am ever lost, look for a paper trail, but be careful not to trip over any books that lie scattered here and there. I am a reader. I am a reader in awe of writers. When I don't live in Westcliffe, Colorado, I live in London where I am a long-time member of Word-for-Word - Crouch End.
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