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Say You're One of Them

von Uwem Akpan

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1,930656,724 (3.62)118
This singular collection of five stories takes the reader inside Nigeria, Benin, and Ethiopia, revealing in beautiful prose the harsh consequences for children of life in Africa.
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Although I don't often read short stories, the spine of this book caught my eye, and I'm glad it did. Uwem Akpan is a Jesuit priest from Nigeria who was educated in Kenya and the US. He says he wanted to write "a book about how children are faring in these endless conflicts in Africa. The world is not looking. I think fiction allows us to sit for a while with people we would rather not meet...I want their voices heard, their faces seen" (from an interview in The New Yorker quoted in the after matter). The result is a collection of five stories narrated by children who are trying to make sense of a violent world without the help of adults and often at the mercy of them.

In An Ex-mas Feast Jigana is waiting in a leaky shanty in Kenya for his twelve-year-old sister, Maisha, to return. She is a prostitute and the only reliable income for the family. Sniffing glue to stave off the pangs of hunger, Jigana argues with his parents that he would rather give up going to school than have Maisha move to a brothel to earn the school fees.

Fattening for Gabon is the story of ten-year-old Kotchikpa and his five-year-old sister Yewa. They are being raised by their uncle because their parents have aids. In an attempt to increase his fortunes, Uncle Fofo trades his wards for a motorcycle that he can use to illegally ferry more people across the Benin-Nigeria border. He is instructed to teach the children certain things in preparation for their journey to Gabon.

In What Language is That? a younger sibling talks about the relationship between two little girls who live across the street from one another in Ethiopia. They are best friends until sectarian violence breaks out, and their parents forbid them to speak to one another.

In Luxurious Hearses sixteen-year-old Jubril boards a bus of refugees bound for southern Nigeria. Ethnic cleansing has swept through the north, and despite considering himself a conservative Muslim, one who has willingly submitted to Sharia law, he is targeted by his friends for having Christian relatives. The bus is a microcosm of society as a whole and conflict between religions, genders roles, politics, civilian/military, and age consumes the passengers.

The last story, My Parents' Bedroom is the shortest but most devastating. Nine-year-old Monique is from a blended family. Her mother is Tutsi and her father is Hutu. One night she is told to watch her younger brother and to not open the door for anyone.

Despite their horrific nature, each story contains a moment of grace: an act of kindness that, although unable to mitigate the present, offers a glimmer of hope for the future. Sometimes a child can be saved, sometimes a person of one religion will protect a person of another religion, sometimes an adult is a safe person. But not often. And there are always consequences.

These stories are well-written and, with the exception of Luxurious Hearses which drags a bit, page-turners. I can't say I enjoyed reading this collection, but I am glad I read it. ( )
1 abstimmen labfs39 | Sep 30, 2021 |
Digital audiobook (abridged) performed by Robin Miles & Dion Graham
4****

This is a collection of short stories, dealing with various social issues facing African people throughout numerous countries on the continent. One story may deal with the Rwandan genocide (My Parents’ Bedroom), while another explores the competing goals of a family at Christmas (An Ex-Mas Feast), and yet another shows how a desperate uncle raising children orphaned by AIDS is coerced into an agreement he cannot keep (Fattening for Gabon). Two stories deal with the differences between Muslims and Christians (Luxurious Hearses focuses on a Muslim youth living with his mother in Nigeria’s north who is hoping to reunite with his Christian father in the south, while two six-year-old Best Friends in Ethiopia try to understand why their parents now tell them they must not play with one another (What Language Is That?).

All are beautifully written even when heart-wrenchingly difficult to read. Uwem focuses an unblinking eye on serious issues and while the reader is fortunate to not have to face such dilemmas, the reactions of the characters are totally understandable and relatable. The local English dialect used in some of the stories was sometimes difficult to get used to, but really gave a sense of place to the narrative.

The audiobook is abridged, with narrators reading only three of the stories. Still, Robin Miles and Dion Graham do a wonderful job of performing the text. And it is sometimes easier to understand the local dialect by hearing it than reading it on the page. ( )
  BookConcierge | Mar 27, 2021 |
Horrifying, sobering, here and there a little tedious. More of a "good for you" read than a "you'll enjoy it" read. ( )
  dllh | Jan 6, 2021 |
This book is very Hard to read. If you at all in a bad place do not read it. ( )
  FurbyKirby | Jan 5, 2021 |
I'm really torn about this book. On the one hand, Akpan tells a crucial and gripping story about violence and the horrors of war upon children. We can't ignore these fallen voices. On the other hand, I feel like people *already* have this perception of Africa as a continent of violence, of genocide, of poverty. And if there's anything I've learned from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's amazing talk, "The Danger of a Single Story," it's this: we cannot reduce a complex history to a single story. Therefore, I won't be teaching this in a survey course but will instead save for a seminar in a more focused conversation about diverse African (or even Nigerian) writers.

That said, the story, "My Parents' Bedroom," would make an interesting conversation piece if you needed a short story unit. ( )
  DrFuriosa | Dec 4, 2020 |
Even the most realistic humanist films and literature are rendered with a beauty of perception that lifts us beyond ourselves even as it wounds us.

Though he is obviously a talented writer, in these stories such transcendence eludes Uwem Akpan. Inevitability is an integral part of tragedy, but for it to overwhelm us, we mustn’t see it coming. Inevitability is far different from the queasy dread of waiting for horrors we’ve already guessed at.
 
[The] imagery... is far more vibrant than the mechanical ways in which these stories move toward doom. With his trajectory always a fait accompli, Mr. Akpan fares better with small, evocative details than with broad strokes.
hinzugefügt von Shortride | bearbeitenThe New York Times, Janet Maslin (Jun 27, 2008)
 
The distinct voices of these child narrators and the horrors they bear witness to make Say You're One of Them a haunting debut short-story collection. Or, perhaps it would be more faithful to the bleak tone of these stories to say that readers will be damned to remember them.
 
Awe is the only appropriate response to Uwem Akpan's stunning debut, Say You're One of Them, a collection of five stories so ravishing and sad that I regret ever wasting superlatives on fiction that was merely very good.
 
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If our God, the one we serve, is able to save us from the burning fiery furnace and from your power, O king, he will save us; and even if he does not, then you must know, O king, that we will not serve your god or worship the statue you have erected. - - Daniel 3:17-18
What is good has been explained to you . . . to act justly, to love tenderly, and to walk humbly with your God. - - Micah 6:8
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For my parents, Linus and Margaret, whose love is a world of stories between them.

And for Uncle George, who was there.
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Now that my eldest sister, Maisha, was twelve, none of us knew how to relate to her anymore.
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This singular collection of five stories takes the reader inside Nigeria, Benin, and Ethiopia, revealing in beautiful prose the harsh consequences for children of life in Africa.

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