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