Say You’re One of Them by Uwem Akpan

2008. Little, Brown and Company. Hardcover. 358 pages.

From: the public library

In a nutshell:

Say You’re One of Them is a collection of five stories (two long ones and three shorter ones) that all concern African children caught in some level of peril.

Review:

When there was buzz about Say You’re One of Them a few years ago, the cover image stuck in my mind. I didn’t remember quite what the book was about – I believe I vaguely thought it was about a child soldiers in Africa – but the cover continued to catch my attention.

This is what the five stories are actually about: “Ex-Mas Feast” tells of a boy whose older barely-teenage sister works as a prostitute in Nairobi, Kenya. In “Fattening for Gabon”, two children are unknowingly being prepared to be sold into slavery by their uncle. “What Language is That?” is about two little Ethiopian girls – one Muslim, one Christian – whose friendship is forbidden by their parents. “Luxurious Hearses” follows a teenage Muslim boy who is trying to reach relatives in southern Nigeria by pretending to be a Christian on a bus full of Christians. “My Parents’ Bedroom” takes place during the 1994 Rwandan genocide and is from the perspective of a young girl whose father is Hutu and whose mother is Tutsi.

What you get from Akpan’s stories are a firm sense of place and an increased grasp of the forces shaping the lives in that place. Unfortunately, Akpan’s writing voice is inconsistent; he cannot quite settle into the voices of the children. This distracted me, especially in the first-person stories. Akpan would try to keep a limited child’s view of the situation, but sometimes an omniscient distance crept into the telling, awkward references to the bigger picture.

I’ll try to illustrate with an example from “Fattening for Gabon”:

She started giggling, a rubbery sonority muffled by her body. It was if she was mocking me or perhaps mocking all child traffickers of this world.

p. 150

In the context of this quote, ten-year-old Kotchikpa and his sister Yewa had been locked in a room after an escape attempt. It didn’t make sense to me that Kotchikpa would be thinking of their situation in the context of global child trafficking. It came off as the author speaking, not his character.

“Fattening for Gabon” is actually the story I thought was the best in the collection. From the outset, you know the children are being considered for trade. The story begins with the uncle ‘suddenly’ coming into money and buying a motorbike. As the story continues, the two siblings meet the traffickers who pretend that they are from an NGO that will take the children to a new good home. Their uncle’s behavior gets increasingly bizarre, and slowly Kotchikpa realizes that his trust in the adults has been betrayed. It’s a claustrophobic story. What I thought Akpan got exactly right in this story was his depiction of five-year-old Yewa. She was a vivid character, with a tendency to be obstinate. I think she is what I will remember most about Say You’re One of Them.

“What Language is That?” is the shortest story, and with the tricky second-person perspective, it comes off as a writing exercise. I could not finish “Luxurious Hearses” which is the longest story in the book.  After I read a little over 15 dragging pages of it, I decided the narrative wasn’t engaging enough for me to finish reading it.

In Say You’re One of Them, most of the child protagonists are left in limbo, their futures bleak. The book serves to shine a light on their plight and for that I am appreciative. And I like that it’s a book about Africa by an African man (Akpan is Nigerian.) Sadly, I think I’ve only read one other fiction book by an African author (also Nigerian): Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus. I have some others on my to-read list that I’d like to get to (more on that later).

I saw a comment by a reviewer on goodreads named Michael Klass where he stated about Say You’re One of Them: “They are, none of them, happy stories, and herein lies my only regret with this book: It did little to expand my view of the African continent beyond the stereotypes and common wisdom of war, hunger, strife, and religiously motivated madness. That said, it was clearly never the author’s intention to focus on the progress that’s been made in many African nations, but rather to broaden the reader’s understanding of the atrocities that have occurred there. ”

I do agree with this statement. I’m not tired of having my eyes opened to what’s going on in the world, but I do feel the majority of the stories (fiction & non-fiction) that I’ve consumed about Africa have been very much “issue” driven.

In contrast, I think of the documentary miniseries called Long Way Down, where actors Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman motorcycle from Scotland to South Africa. As they travel through Africa, they only have a brief experience with each country they pass through, but watching the episodes, I was struck by the beauty and joy they experienced on their trip. It’s not that I thought these attributes were lacking in Africa, it’s just that they had rarely been so front and center.

Some of the books on my to-read list by African authors include Baking Cakes in Kigali by Gaile Parkin, and two detective stories: Wife of the Gods by Kwei Quartey and Tail of the Blue Bird by Nii Ayikwei Parkes. While not necessarily books that will be ‘happy’, the first sounds like it will be about life forged after tragedy and the latter two will be genre fiction set in Africa, which will be a different take for me.

Other reviews on Say You’re One of Them:

The Book Brothel – “Akpan does a brilliant job of capturing the naive hopefulness of children – and the wisdom that living in Africa has forced upon them.”

Bermudaonion’s Weblog – “I enjoyed Say You’re One of Them and think it’s a significant book, but I found some of the dialogue very difficult to read.  I think it would have been even harder if I didn’t know some French.  There were times when I had to read sentences several times to extract their meaning.”

Leaning Towards the Sun – ” . . . I think the stories go beyond Africa and expand to reflect what is possible when there are misunderstandings in our world. These stories are happening and can happen anywhere.”

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1 Comment

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One response to “Say You’re One of Them by Uwem Akpan

  1. Your review is fantastic ! I don’t tire of hearing stories like these either. Hopefully we’ll do something if we hear them often enough. Thanks for linking to my review.

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