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Friday, December 18, 2009

SAY YOU'RE ONE OF THEM - UWEM AKPAN

Wow. What a book. Uwem Akpan's books of short stories, Say You're One Of Them, is excellent. Focusing on various regions in Africa, Akpan has created five short stories which showcase the brutality and very real types of lives that the children of Africa are experiencing. Each story is told from the perspective of a child and through their vivid descriptions we are able to envision the poverty, ugliness, violence, beauty, innocence, and horror that they experience on a daily basis. In An Ex-Mas Feast, we have a young girl prostituting herself in order to support her family and raise enough money for her brother to attend school - he is overwhelmed with guilt at the idea of his sister moving away to live in a brothel that he runs away at the end of the story in order to free his parents and his sister of one more mouth to feed. The next story, Fattening for Gabon, tells the tale of two little kids who are being sold into slavery by their uncle. He is preparing them for their departure by feeding them and teaching them how to speak and what answers to give when they are questioned. In What Language is That?, we learn about two best friends who are used to spending every day together, until they are told by their parents that they can no longer speak to each other - the reason is due to differing religions. The next story is called, Luxurious Hearses, and tells the story of a Nigerian boy who is trying to escape to the south in order to avoid the religious persecution happening all around the south - he winds up on a bus that is filled with the same types of persecution he is desperately attempting to avoid. The final story is the most chilling and haunting of all. It is titled, My Parent's Bedroom, and focuses on Rwanda. The genocide has begun and two little children are ordered to stay put in their parent's bedroom and say that they have no idea where their parents are and to remind the people that they are one of them. Their mother is Tutsi and their father is Hutu and the children are afraid. The story is told through the daughter's eyes and we learn of her fear and how she knows her mother does not love her and how her father dotes on her and that her brother is her responsibility - all the things that a little girl would think about, especially when her parents are not looking at her and her brother and are speaking to each other in such a guarded way. The first night that they are alone, her uncle and his gang come into the house and basically trash it and terrify the children and demand to know where their parents are. The threaten the children that there is no escape for any of them. The parents return and continue to argue about what to do in this situation. Eventually we learn that the mother has made her husband promise to kill her in order to spare her son and daughter's lives. The husband cries and pleads that she must escape. The machete gang return and demand death and so he picks up a machete and kills his wife in front of his children and everyone. Crying he leaves with the gang. The daughter is traumatized and does not believe her mother is really dead - she believes that she is hiding in the ceiling with the rest of the Tutsis her parents have chosen to hide up there. Her little brother plays in their mother's blood, not truly understanding what has just happened. Scared of what will happen, she grabs her brother and runs. She hears the machete gang and hides in the bushes and watches as they return to her home and burn it down, thereby killing all the hidden Tutsis. This final story was the most powerful of them all for me. I think it has to do with the fact that I have read Gourevitch's non-fiction account of the Rwandan genocide, We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families; a book which details the genocide from beginning to end and shows us how this horrific part of history could have been avoided or ended sooner than those 100 days. Reading about this young girl's experience with the genocide leaves you feeling sick to your stomach, because you know it is real and that there is no way for her to ever forget the image of her father killing her mother. These five short stories are powerful and important and should be read by all. They bring awareness to the struggles that the African children have endured and continue to encounter on a daily basis. Akpan has given a voice to these children with his writing and for that he should be applauded. I hope that you all seek out this terrific book and read about these children's lives.

8 comments:

Steph said...

Fantastic review. I won a copy of this book and intend to read it, hopefully in the new year, but I've been holding off because I know the subject matter will be grim and I know I'm not in the right frame of mind for the gritty realism that will be portrayed. After reading Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee, I've become a lot more interested in exploring Africa through literature, and I think this will be a great perspective to add to the mix I have lined up for 2010.

claire said...

I also have a copy, and will be reading soon. Thanks for your thoughts. I'm now looking forward to it even more.

Aths said...

Excellent review!! Now you've made me want to read this. I hope I can get to it sometime soon!!

Lisa said...

I'm always hesitant when Oprah picks a book but this one is getting such great reviews, I think I'll have to get over the Oprah thing.

Coconut Library said...

We are on the same "page" with our reading and posts! Glad that this book is getting buzz from all types of readers.

Lisa, I, too, often skip Oprah's pick because they are so depressing. This one is as well, but is worth it.

readerbuzz said...

First story was so depressing that I closed it and packed it off to the library. Perhaps I should give it another try.

dolcebellezza said...

I know this story talks about very real issues. But, like Readerbuzz said above me, the very depressing things (which Oprah always excels at choosing) are not for me right now. I admire your strength in getting through it.

Nadia said...

Hi all! I know the topics in the book are disturbing and hard to get through, but the stories are well worth it. Just read one at a time and take a break from the book if need be - just read the book. I usually don't go for Oprah's picks either, but this one was an exception.