Sunday, April 25, 2010

Say You're One of Them

"Say You're One of Them", by Uwem Akpan (© 2008, Little, Brown and Company)

Welcome friends to my book club pick for the month of April. This is the first published book by Uwem Akpan. It is a collection of short stories set in several countries within Africa. It has the distinction of being a 2009 Selection for Oprah's Book Club, as noted by the sticker on its front cover. It also won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book, African Region, as well as being nominated for several other awards. Should mean it is good, right? Well, let's take a look...

"Say You're One of Them" is a compilation of short stories, as noted above. There are five stories in the pages of the book and the length of the stories range widely from the 12-pages of "What Language is That?" to 136 pages apiece for "Fattening for Gabon" and "Luxurious Hearses". While there are no hard and fast rules as to what constitutes length for a short story, Akpan stretches the definition to fit his niche. I personally would almost define the 136-page mark more a novella, but perhaps the 32-pages of "My Parent's Bedroom" and 34-pages of "An Ex-mas Feast" balance out the book as a whole. Why do I quibble on page count anyway, you may ask. Well, for myself and some others I have talked to about the book, unfortunately mid-way through the longer tales there were checks to see how much longer the stories were going to go on. I do not mind the short story genre, but there is something to be said about keeping a story moving that maintains the reader's focus on the action at hand versus page count.

As to the actual stories within the pages of Akpan's book, there is much to be said. Akpan was born in Nigeria and has lived in several places within the continent, including Zimbabwe and Nairobi, Kenya (where "An Ex-mas Feast" is set). All of the stories are narrated by children and the plights of these children are all fraught with grief. The first story "An Ex-mas Feast" opens with an eight-year old boy watching his family disintegrate before his very eyes. They live in a ramshackle shanty with his two parents who are unravelling due to alcoholism and substance abuse. His eldest sister at 12-years of age is a prostitute, with his 10-year old sister hot on the heels of her big sister's career path. Various other younger siblings illustrate the plight of a lack of birth control and the ravages of poverty. The baby is used as a pawn to build up coffers while begging. Their life is bleak and the twinge of hope that the 8-year old narrator brings to the story with the prospect of school, spins into the Ex-mas Night. The tale is poignant with its sorrows highlighting a big portion of suburban African life.

 No happiness is gleaned, as the book moves on. Inter-racial tensions are illustrated in their violent worst in the last three stories, often even skipping between family lines, as in "My Parent's Bedroom". Here a family is torn apart by the violence of ethnic tensions that pit Hutu and Tutsi peoples against each other. A mixed race family is at the center of the tale and the whirlwind that surrounds them. "What Language is That?" similarly separates along religious lines, this time dividing two little girls who are best friends, despite their difference of Muslim and Christian backgrounds. "Luxurious Hearses" follows a 16-year old Muslim youth with the distinction of being baptised at birth a Catholic, but living most of his life Muslim. When his country's unrest flairs along religious lines in bloody massacres, he is caught in the middle, with nowhere to turn. 

Akpan does not let the reader hope for a glowing ending for any of his characters. He has seen much of the underbelly of humanity in his years on the continent. The starkness of his tales and dramatics that he uses to illustrate the ills of the children in central Africa leave one nothing, but despair. Even in "Fattening For Gabon", where violence is not the mainstay of the story, the children's plights are no better. This 136-page tale introduces a small measure of wealth to a 10-year old boy living with his 5-year old sister and uncle. The children's parents had died of AIDS and were being taken care of by Fofo Kpee, their uncle. The wealth that seeps into their world in the form of a new nanfang (motorcycle), stereo and more food is slowly seen to be nothing more than bribery. Dreams of wealth entice the children, as their uncle's arrangements are anything, but sincere. Another sad tale that the reader must stumble through, especially as much of the narrative is written with local dialogue. I understand that this gives authenticity to the story and more simple innocence to the children, but I have to say that this is where pages were counted by myself. Where Akpan wants to portray the children with child-like wisdom, I felt perhaps he could have edited the story down some to keep the story flowing better. That being said, I have not been nominated for a Guardian First Book Award, Hurston/Wright Legacy Award or Los Angeles Times Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction. And Oprah hasn't knocked on my door recently either.

So if you are interested in African literature and can steal your heart to the trials and tribulations that ensnare so many of the young from that Continent, then this book is worth a read. I found it difficult to get through the language at times, but applaud Akpan at highlighting the fact that more needs to be done in so many of the ravaged corners of our world. In our fear, anger and ignorance we light the torch. The little ones get lost along the way...


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