Say You’re One of Them by Uwem Akpan

Reviewed by L.D.Y.

Hardcover, 364 pages, 2008

Rating: 10/10

Reason for Reading: I love reading books set in India and Africa and this met the latter requirement.

Synopsis: In this collection of five short stories (though I’d make the argument that two of them approach novella length), each story focuses on children in a different African country. In one, two siblings might be sold into slavery by their uncle, in another a Muslim boy tries to fake Christianity in order to survive a dangerous bus ride across the border, in another a young boy watches his sister as she aims to turn prostitution into a way to capture the riches of white men. In all of the stories there’s a terrible but hopeful struggle for survival and even a quest for something better on a continent where life is often brutal and short.

Why you should read this book: Akpan does a brilliant job of capturing the naive hopefulness of children – and the wisdom that living in Africa has forced upon them. On a practical, survival-above-all level, these kids aren’t dumb about what life probably has in store for them – they can’t afford to be – but neither can they afford to give up hope despite everything around them, especially their parents, showing them that maybe it can’t be done. This collection also does a fantastic job showing the oddity of living in Africa – it seems tradition is often cast aside in an empty quest for Coca Cola and glue to sniff, motorbikes and processed food (oddly familiar, isn’t it?). One of the most fantastic characters is the older Muslim boy named Jubril, who isn’t just battling to stay alive, but is struggling to keep his religion among a bus load of people who may lynch him if they discover his true self. Confronted for the first time with women who aren’t so modest, television, and a host of things that go against his faith, Jubril is forced to discover what is most important to him. All of the children in the book are faced with tough decisions, which is just part of what makes Say You Are One of Them such a fascinating read. Well-written, thoughtful, brutal, and often nothing short of astounding, this debut will have you looking at Africa in a whole new light – and like its children, fighting to hold on to hope.

Why you should avoid this book: French and African languages mixed in with the English can make this book hard to understand at points; the terrible things we do to each other (even just by doing nothing) make it hard to understand in other places. Expect to have your heart broken.

Opening paragraph:

Now that my eldest sister, Maisha, was twelve, none of us knew how to relate to her anymore. She had never forgiven our parents for not being rich enough to send her to school. She had been behaving like a cat that was going feral: she came home less and less frequently, staying only to change her clothes and give me some money to pass on to our parents. When home, she avoided them as best she could, as if their presence reminded her of too many things in our lives that needed money. Though she would snap at Baba occasionally, she never said anything to Mama. Sometimes Mama went out of her way to provoke her. ‘Malaya! Whore! You don’t even have breasts yet!’ she’d say. Maisha would ignore her.

Fabulous quotes:

‘Woman, leave this business to me,’ he said, rebuking her. ‘I’m not going to sit here and let any Honolulus run away with our daughter. They must marry her properly.’
‘You should talk,’ Mama said. ‘Did you come to my father’s house for my hand?’
‘Nobody pays for trouble,’ Baba said. ‘You’re trouble. If I just touch you, you get pregnant. If I even look at you – twins, just like that. Too, too ripe.’
‘Me am always the problem,’ Mama said, her voice rising.
‘All me am saying is we must to treat the tourist well.’

‘Everything is for you, sweetie. OK, Mary?’
‘Yes, Mama…Could I have a Coke, please?’
Mama opened the Coke immediately, as if Yewa would reject her new name if she wasted time, and poured it into my sister’s mouth. Yewa’s face was upturned like a suckling lamb. The bubbly drink filled her open mouth slowly, her throat releasing loud gulps into her stomach.
Mama stopped abruptly.
‘Do you want more, Mary?’ she asked.
Yewa was panting. ‘Yes, Mama.’

Also recommended: The In-Between World of Vikram Lall by MG Vassanji; A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry; Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller.

Also by this author: Say You’re One of Them is Akpan’s first book.

Fun tidbit: Akpan is a priest and started writing during his seminary days. He had to work on community computers and lost much of his work to computer viruses, until a friend who believed in his writing was able to give him a laptop to allow him to really work on this collection of stories.

Would I read more by this author? I’ll definitely look forward to Akpan’s second book.

&#169 Lisa Yanaky 2003-2008

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