Say You’re One of Them by Uwem Akpan.
Back Bay Books; Little, Brown, and Co.; Hachette Book Group; 2008, expanded edition 2009.
Adult short story collection, realistic fiction, 369 pages including extras.
Selected for Oprah’s book club in 2009.
NOTE: THIS BOOK IS FOR ADULTS ONLY. NOT FOR CHILDREN OR TEENS.
Further Note: This is a work of fiction although I am not reviewing it on Fiction Friday.
This collection of short stories deals with the children of Africa. Specifically, children who are individually dealing with a variety of horrific circumstances, many of which do not have happy endings. The author is a Nigerian priest but took care to set his stories in several countries in Africa. There is a handy map in the front of the book for Americans or the geographically challenged.
Before I go any further, EVERY TRIGGER WARNING YOU CAN THINK OF for this book. If you are sensitive to bad things happening to children, you might not be able to read this book or even this review. But, on the other hand, I think every adult should read this book at least once. Because these are real things happening to children, and if we ignore this then it will just keep happening.
There are five stories in this book that vary greatly in setting and action, although not by quality of writing. There is one short story that is available on the author’s website. By reading that story, you can determine if you would be able to stomach the rest of the book given the incredibly difficult topic (although again, I strongly recommend this incredibly difficult book).
How did I come across this book? A Nigerian friend recommended it to me, much as I am recommending it to you. He told me that the stories were incredibly difficult yet important and beautifully written, and he thought I could handle it. This was before I started parenting. Now that I am a parent, I certainly approach it differently, because I can picture some child I deeply love in every situation and it breaks my heart.
I’m going to break down and briefly review each story, but if you’d just like my thoughts on the collection, you can scroll down to the bottom.
An Ex-Mas Feast, p. 5-35.
The first short story is available for free on the author’s website. Since you may choose to read it there, here is most of the first paragraph:
Now that my eldest sister, Maisha, was twelve, none of us knew how to relate to her anymore. She had never forgiven our parents for not being rich enough to send her to school. She had been behaving like a cat that was going feral: she came home less and less frequently, staying only to change her clothes and give me some money to pass on to our parents. When home, she avoided them as best she could, as if their presence reminded her of too many things in our lives that needed money.
As the story goes on, the reader quickly becomes aware that Maisha is a child prostitute and the family’s major breadwinner. Her closest sibling is the narrator Jigana, and he is also the family’s hope for the future – he has had some basic education, and his sister is working to earn his continued school fees.
Mild Spoilers. When his sister makes her big choice and he then reacts, it is so hard to read. Because you want something different for them, yet there are no other options. How can she not make the choice she does and give all she has for her brother and her family’s future. But how can he accept such a terrible gift, knowing the price she paid? /Spoilers.
I convinced a book groups I’m in to read this short story, and many people didn’t even come to the meeting. Those of us who did really struggled with it. As people who can access the internet, most people reading this post are unlikely to deal with anything even close to what these children are living. Yes, this is fiction, but fiction closely based on realities.
Fattening for Gabon, p. 39-172
This story is about Fofo Kpee, who is planning to sell his niece and nephew. That is not a spoiler, by the way, as we are told this in the first page of the story. The suspense then comes from two directions – how will he carry out this plot (by the next page I had nearly forgotten that he had this in mind, so caring did he seem) and will the children be able to escape it?
Akpan was very crafty in putting this story directly after An Ex-Mas Feast. After the horrid conditions of that story, the Western reader is no longer shocked by the idea that the children are delighted to have a small cup of juice for the first time in months. The family has a form of permanent housing rather than a shack, and Fofo Kpee has regular employment, which, though illegal, is considerably less offensive than the last story. So as the story’s slow build brings a mounting sense of horror and desperation, it sneaks up on the reader and kept me turning pages even though the story is quite long. The final sentence haunted me.
What Language is That? p. 175-186
Second person stories always irritate me, which is why this Ethiopian tale is my least favorite story in the book. You are Selam’s best friend, even though she is Muslim and you are not. The imam isn’t happy with this, but it’s okay because Selam’s parents are progressive and raising her to make her own choices. Until one day it’s not. Until one day there is smoke in the air and your parents say you can’t play together and Selam’s parents say the same.
I wasn’t sure specifically which religious conflict this story was meant to represent (perhaps readers more familiar with Ethiopia can chime in?), but it didn’t matter, because this story could apply to many different situations. While I don’t enjoy reading the second person, overall Akpan did a good job of portraying the thoughts of a six-year-old girl. The style lends an immediacy to the story that helps to convey her feelings. This is one of the “happiest” stories in the book, but I still felt a lot of tension about the ending – it’s slipperier than it first appears.
This is the only story here that I would consider as being appropriate for younger-than-college readers.
Luxurious Hearses p. 187-322
The protagonist is a little older than some of the other stories in this book at 16 years old. He’s more independent and able to survive alone and make some of his own decisions, like allowing, even encouraging his hand to be cut off for stealing.
At the moment of our story, he is trying to board a bus that (he hopes) will take him to his father’s family, because although he is a devout Muslim, he was born to a Christian father and baptized. Therefore he is disguised as a Christian and as he enters the “Luxurious Bus”, trying to hide things like his accent and missing limb while encountering new and challenging experiences like seeing a woman’s legs and television for the first time.
Another man sits in his seat and he has to navigate trying to get his seat with not wanting his secret to be exposed. In the crowded and often desperate conditions of the bus, his story intertwines with others, including a man dying of malaria whose best hope for a funeral is to die on the bus. This story had a depth and a richness that encourages thinking about and would be a good choice for discussion.
My Parents’ Bedroom p.323-354
This first person story tackles the Rwandan genocide from a mixed-ethnicity child’s point of view. Her mother is Tutsi, her father is Hutu, and she is responsible for her younger brother. The violence comes to their house, first threatening the lives of the children, then claiming the lives of many others. The story, and the collection, end on a heartbreaking but not entirely hopeless. I enjoyed the last sentence of the second to last paragraph, which states simply “We walk forward.” (p. 354)
Not long after the genocide, I took a class on Holocaust literature and our instructor required us to read about Rwanda, so I knew the basics. But this story brought it to vivid light in a simple way. You can see how the violence that the extended family, angry about the interracial marriage, brought about became uncontrolled and expanded beyond what they intended or wanted. This story is just as heartbreaking as the first one, but in a deeper and more emotional way. There is a small hope and also the absence of hope.
There is just no point at which Akpan pulls his punches. Every story is designed to destroy you and make you overcome with a desire to help these fictional children in every way possible (which hopefully translates to helping the real children in these situations).
As the bishop of Akpan’s home diocese states: “It is my belief that the publication of Say You’re One of Them is a bold attempt to enlighten readers about children in Africa, fueled by a passionate desire to create a safer place for children all over the world.” page 358.
If nothing else, this is a book sure to draw you away from the self-importance of your own daily struggles. It is moving, and an incredibly difficult read, but worthwhile, and important for first world adults to ponder as we consider what our global responsibilities might be. Akpan introduces us to a variety of worldwide plights in a short and memorable way. Strongly recommended for all adults.