Thursday, January 29, 2009
book review: say you're one of them, by uwem akpan
Say You’re One of Them is a heartbreaking collection of short stories (or, rather, two novellas and three short stories), each set in a different country in Africa. A champion of children, Uwem's collection shines a clear light on the harsh realities of life for many African kids.

In each of these stories, innocence collides with corruption. Set in Benin, “Fattening for Gabon” depicts an uncle who, as the guardian of two AIDS orphans, plans to sell his young charges into slavery. In “An Ex-Mas Feast,” a twelve-year-old girl takes to the Nairobi streets, prostituting herself so that she can feed her family and raise money for her younger brother’s school fees, as he's the sole hope of the destitute family. And in the horrifying “My Parents’ Bedroom,” two Rwandan children bear witness to the unspeakable as their Hutu friends and family members form a violent, mindless mob set on ridding their community of its Tutsi residents. It isn't pretty to think about the things that these children are forced to witness and endure, however these fictitious stories are the reality of many kids, and it's a truth that far too many of us would rather ignore.

Since author Uwem Akpan is also a Jesuit priest, it is hardly surprising that religion permeates these stories, but never in a way that is dogmatic. Rather than choose sides, Akpan instead highlights the innocent victims of religiously-fueled hatred. In the elegantly simple “In What Language Is That?,” a little Ethiopian girl is no longer allowed to see or speak to "Best Friend" because she is Christian and her little friend is Muslim. Although violence is implied rather than illustrated in this piece, the reader just the same feels the dismay of these two little ones who fail to see the difference between them. Following that is the novella “Luxurious Hearses,” which depicts a sixteen-year-old orthodox Muslim boy who, born Catholic, becomes a target of resentment and fear in his own Islamic community, and then again amongst the Christian refugees he tries to flee south with after a violent Islamic uprising in his native Nigeria. And while I felt that this piece was the weakest of the bunch, its ending remains seared in my memory.

Although I generally found the novellas to be less affecting than the short stories - which were somehow more powerful for their conciseness - all five of these pieces are piercing and powerful, and Akpan's prose is positively beautiful despite the ugly subject matter. In short, Say You're One of Them is a startling collection by an important author. Whatever Akpan writes next, I will read.

Say You're One of Them
Uwem Akpan
2008, 368 pages

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