Say You're One of Them by Uwem Akpan


If I say I am one of them, will I live?

Synopsis of Say You're One of Them by Uwem Akpan: Each story in this jubilantly acclaimed collection pays testament to the wisdom and resilience of children, even in the face of the most agonizing circumstances.

A family living in a makeshift shanty in urban Kenya scurries to find gifts of any kind for the impending Christmas holiday. A Rwandan girl relates her family's struggles to maintain a facade of normalcy amid unspeakable acts. A young brother and sister cope with their uncle's attempt to sell them into slavery. Aboard a bus filled with refugees—a microcosm of today's Africa—a Muslim boy summons his faith to bear a treacherous ride across Nigeria. Through the eyes of childhood friends the emotional toll of religious conflict in Ethiopia becomes viscerally clear.

Uwem Akpan's debut signals the arrival of a breathtakingly talented writer who gives a matter-of-fact reality to the most extreme circumstances in stories that are nothing short of transcendent.

My two cents

There are five short stories in all, each told from the viewpoint of a child, and take place somewhere in Africa.

An Ex-mas Feast: Jigana is eight and is crammed in a shanty in Nairobi, Kenya with Mama, Bapa, newly-born twins, and his older sister Maisha. It's Ex-mas and they still haven't eaten. When will Maisha come back with their meal for the day? Become privy to the day-to-day happenings of this poverty-stricken family: where a child's normal yet perennial hunger pangs are dulled by sniffing kabire (glue), where a barely-teen girl plies the streets prostituting herself of her family's basic necessities, where the prospect of joining a street gang is more realistic than studying.

Fattening for Gabon: Out of the fire into the frying pan: a horrifying unfolding of events where two young siblings, sent away by loving parents because of AIDs, are prepared by their Uncle to be sold into slavery. The Uncle is initially buoyed by the excitement of a new motorcycle and recognition in the community. His conscience slowly kicks in as he realizes the horror of his actions ... but is it too late to change his mind?

What Language is That? The shortest short story, two young girls who are best friends who live across the street from one another in Ethiopia. Caught in an age-old conflict, these girls don't quite understand why their parents are raising a fuss over their differences in religion: one family is Muslim, the other Christian.

Luxurious Hearses: This is more a novella than a short story, and I felt it was the highlight of the book. It is about a teen Muslim boy named Jubril who pretends to be Christian in order to flee the growing conflict of his hometown. The entire story takes place within a Luxurious Bus, crammed to the rafters with refugees from all walks of life, including their dead, traveling from the north to the safety of the south.

The enclosed space heightens the political and religious unrest across Africa: shown in the power struggle for seats, in heated discussions, of the horrors ongoing on the TV and outside the bus windows. As the drama plays out in the bus, Jubril has flashbacks into his precarious circumstances: born of a Christian-Muslim marriage, yet identifying with the Muslim faith. He bears the telltale mark of a thief in the Muslim tradition: an amputated hand, which Jubril tries to hide from other passengers. Will he make it safely back home?

My Parents' Bedroom: What secrets do their parents' bedroom hold? Young Monique is convinced there are ghosts. A tale of some of the most horrific incidents that took place during the Rwandan genocide, Monique recounts how she witnesses firsthand the Tutsi and Hutu conflict - in the community, and even within the family - all culminating in a shocking resolution.

What I liked:

I read this in way back in 2012. This book very much affected me the first time around and as with most books that I hold dear, I let this percolate and never got around to reviewing it. With my recent re-read, I still feel the same: it seems like an insult to even attempt to review it, to piece together words that I know are will never be enough to express how much this book meant to me.

This collection of short stories is written by a Jesuit priest named Uwem Akpan who was born and raised in Nigeria. He brings out in his calm words unspeakable horrors that the children of Africa face every day, at the hands of adults who are beset by the conflicts wrought by tribe, culture, politics, and religion.

The bottom line: this was very real for me. There is something very chilling about the author's prose and storytelling style; there is a an odd detachment from the terrible things being described.While everything is fictionalized, the characters and their voices evoke a startlingly horrific reality that it's almost too much to bear. All these beg the reader to understand just how depraved these stories are.

Uh-oh's:

I don't think this is going to be a read for everyone. Don't be fooled that these are told from a child's perspective. The stories all have a shock value and if you can't (or are unwilling) to read out of your comfort zone, you may find this disturbing with its graphic descriptions of violence, many of which are inflicted on your children. The fact that these are all rooted in reality makes these stories even moreso disturbing.

There are also sections that are difficult to read because of the lapses into "bad" English, various African dialects, and even some French.

Verdict: While graphic and disturbing, these stories told by children in a conflict-ridden Africa, is a brave voice that speaks of the inequities and the horrors that exist in the world. A short story collection that will challenge and provoke you, I recommend this highly for those who dare to be conscienticized. 

5 comments

  1. I am MISS (Mrs?) Reading-Outside-Her-Comfort-Zone... this collection sound right up my alley, and incredibly powerful. I must check it out. Hopefully sooner rather than later.

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    1. Right you are Ms .. :P I think you'll like this one, April. I suspect if I re-read this one, I'll fell even more strongly about it.

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  2. I'm with April, this collection sounds difficult but phenomenal. Thanks for sharing it!

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    1. Phenomenal, yes. I hope you get a chance to read this Monika!

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  3. Wow, sounds like a powerful and difficult read. The most meaningful books are often those that challenge us and take us to a world completely different than our own. Thanks for this review--I may add this to my list for fall or winter.

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© guiltless readingMaira Gall