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Say You’re One of Them

 

 

It is impossible to emerge unchanged after reading the five astonishing, harrowing, desperately beautiful stories in Uwem Akpan’s Say You’re One of Them, a collection centered upon children in various African countries. The book is increasingly garnering acclaim because it does what the best literature has always done: It invites us into a realm that may be new to us, and at the same time it illuminates the world to which all of us inescapably belong. The title itself carries a dual meaning: The mother in “My Parents’ Bedroom” counsels her daughter to pretend to belong to the tribe that wishes her harm. But “saying you’re one of them” also carries a moral imperative, one that courses in the veins of these brilliantly alive stories: We must recognize and declare our human links with every body and soul on earth, every conflict, every suffering child.

Though large subjects are tackled — human trafficking, starvation, tribal massacres — the book is never didactic, never preachy, never too generalized; instead, the writing reminds us of the tremendous ability of fiction to haunt, to get under our skin and into our heart as well as into our mind. The finely-wrought images are so intense that they turn into imprints that a reader will carry forever: A twelve-year-old prostitute staggers home with money to help her brother gain an education; parents urge their children to sniff glue to stave off hunger; meat must be eaten carefully in order to avoid biting into the “pellets that had brought down the animal”; motorcycles are blessed in a church where wealth is hailed as the approach to God. No reader will close the book after the closing scene in the last story — one of five finalists for the Caine Prize for African writing — without being knocked sideways with what has to be one of the most shocking, breathlessly powerful moments to grace a written page in any language and in any time.

Children guide us through realms where the adults entrusted with their care cannot be trusted. In “Fattening for Gabon,” we are trapped in a dark, airless room with ten-year-old Kotchikpa and his five-year-old sister, Yewa. When he cannot persuade her to race through a window to escape being sold into slavery by their family, he hurtles forward alone and declares, “I ran into the bush, blades of elephant grass slashing my body, thorns and rough earth piercing my feet … I ran and I ran, though I knew I would never outrun my sister’s wailing.” In “Luxurious Hearses,” unclaimed dead bodies are crammed inside buses doomed to wander like ships without a port, and the eyes of our narrator, Jubril, “…were tired and so sunk in, it seemed tears would never climb their steep banks to be shed.” But the collection is also rich with gentle, humane incident: A mother takes a gift of dried milk “carefully in her hands, like one receiving a diploma” and in peaceful times, kites are flown joyfully, “rising against the distant coffee fields,” and friends adore calling out rhymes from opposing balconies. Schoolchildren see words as hallowed, full of the hope of salvation.

The writing is clear-sighted but poetic; it’s unflinching but, in the end, etched fully with a sense of delicacy and redemption. Depicted here so vividly is a continent in utter upheaval. Children are without homes; the social fabric is so torn that families are caught up in betraying one another. The lingering effect of this spectacular work of art is that readers will also find themselves incapable of outrunning the howling but also the grace at its core. Rarely does one read a book that hits so forcefully, and with such devastating and loving accuracy, with the sense that a continent unmoored means that we, too, are unsettled.

—Katherine Vaz, 2009 finalist judge


2009 Fiction Runner-Up

Click to see video (photo of Uwem Akpan by Comfort Ukpong)
Click to see video

(Click photo to see acceptance speech at awards dinner.)

Uwem Akpan
Say You’re One of Them

Uwem Akpan was born in Ikot Akpan Eda in southern Nigeria. After studying philosophy and English at Creighton and Gonzaga universities, he studied theology for three years at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa. He was ordained as a Jesuit priest in 2003 and received his MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan in 2006.

"My Parents' Bedroom," a story from his short story collection, Say You're One of Them, was one of five short stories by African writers chosen as finalists for The Caine Prize for African Writing 2007. Say You're One of Them won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best First Book (Africa Region) 2009 and PEN/Beyond Margins Award 2009, and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction.

In 2007, Akpan taught at a Jesuit college in Harare, Zimbabwe. Now he serves at Christ the King Church, Ilasamaja-Lagos, Nigeria.

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