Thursday, August 30, 2012

Say You're One of Them by Uwem Akpan -- A Book Review

Say You're One of Them
Uwem Akpan
pub: Little, Brown & Company.

This is a collection of five short stories each set in a different African nation and narrated by a child undergoing a traumatic event that shatters their sense of the world they live in and threatens to shatter their sense of self.  Poverty, disease, civil unrest, ethnic and religious strife, and exploitation of the vulnerable by the greedy, selfish, cynical, powerful or self-righteous are the themes of these stories.

Each one is as disturbing as a horror story but because the situations depicted are all out of the headlines, so to speak, and grounded in the understood realities of their locals we can't brush off the horror as fantasy as we can with a Stephen King story or a Friday the 13th movie.  These horrors are all inflicted by humans upon one another.

"An Ex-mas Feast," A young boy living with his parents and several siblings in a shanty in Kenya watches as his twelve year old sister chooses the life of prostitution to provide food for her siblings and school and uniform fees for him.

"Fattening for Gabon" A young boy and his little sister orphaned by AIDS are sold into slavery by their Uncle.

"What Language Is That?" A young girl and her best friend since toddlerhood are forcibly kept apart when the local religious tensions between Muslim and Christian explode into violence.

"Luxurious Hearses" A young man in his late teens boards a bus fleeing the religious purges in his village after discovering that his own Muslim faithfulness and piety was not enough to protect him from the vicious suspicions of his peers based on their knowledge that his father, separated from his mother since he was small, was Christian

"My Parents' Bedroom." A young girl and her baby brother witness the bloody ethnic purging in Rwanda play out in their own ethnically mixed family home.

Say You're One of Them, the title taken from advice given to the narrator of "My Parents' Bedroom." won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize, the PEN Open Book Award, and was selected for the Oprah Winfrey Book Club September 2009.  IMHO it deserves every one of those honors and more.  

This is what storytelling is meant to be. Reading them opens our heart and transcends our spirit expanding our view of our world, giving us a sense of kindred with those we thought were alien and imbuing the mundane individual lives with profound universal meaning just as did the parables of Jesus.

Uwem Akpan was born and raised in the village of Ikot Akpan Eda in southern Nigeria.  He was one of three sons of two teachers and grew up speaking both English and Annang. In 1990 at age 19 he joined the Jesuit order becoming a priest in 2003

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