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Saturday, August 27, 2011

"Say You’re One of Them" by Uwem Akpan

Thanks to Ayọdèlé Morocco-Clarke who gave this book as a gift.


As I flip from page to page riding on the tidal currents of Uwem's offerings, I could feel that Uwem has more experiences to be shared than what he has written on in those five stories that make up Say You're One of Them. My premise is rooted in the manner Uwem drags on in some of the stories, which individually spans almost a hundred pages, sating the reader with every of the superfluous details he wants the reader to know. He tends to be so compassionately biased with the way he tells some issues with brevity aided with creativity and others in a narrative that nearly makes them novellas within an anthology of five short stories. What however makes Uwem lure the reader into every of his story is in how he gets the reader with the storytelling spells that can only be identified with a narrator who is not only telling his stories in vivid descriptive words alone but in the fluidity of one who knows his stories well before telling them. You might be wondering what kind of literature with five short stories really chronicle the events in Africa in picturesque sequences, you only would need to be told that each of the stories set in five different countries of the continent told in children's perspective, does not foist what should be on you but rather makes you piece meanings together for yourself from the accounts of disoriented children of nefarious abuses and violence. 

Uwem must have been aware that his piece of literature could easily be thrown off as one of the lots that appeal to the West with stereotypical African themes of child soldering, religious calamity, child trafficking, etc, hence he adopts the point of view that speaks with tones of innocence rather than narrative that relays events with adult confident accuracy.  Sympathy could always save flaws when stories are told by a child and one might not quickly overreact against pictures that are just too blackly painted to seek pity when it is a minor blathering about it. Say You're One of Them seems to make a reader confess and expiate on behalf of the villain in sheer empathy that grieves one so dearly after each story.  

Say You're One of Them is an afro geo-collection of short stories which unfolds in different settings of five African countries.


The Five Short Stories

An Ex-mas Feast (kenya):  Maisha is never her family's favourite when it comes to moral standards, but she does command the greatest dignity when the family needs depend on the finances she get from prostituting as a minor. She is the sacrificial lamb that holds the family together in seeming unity until the Ex-mas Feast when she explores full time in her trade to cater for the more demanding wants of her family.

Fattening for Gabon (Benin): For Yewa and Kotchikpa, the coming of a Nanfang motorbike into their uncle's, Fofo Kpee, home is the beginning of the abysmal era that will soon ravage them apart. When the source of the Nanfang is known, it has already become too late for Fofo Kpee to remedy events and save his cousins from the suffering he has sold them into. The story delves into the hypocrisy of religion while it still maintains its objectivity on the child-trafficking issue that majorly characterizes the story.

What Language Is That? (Ethiopia): Before the war that tears the narrator apart from her best friend, Salem, all what they know is the world they have mutually created in their own infantile simplicity. In severe suddenness, they become as guilty as the circumstance that creates a gorge between them. With the falseness of emotions that those caught in the middle of religious crisis exude, the two children go aboard to learn another language that could communicate their friendliness to each other even though the plumes of thick smoke that billows from the charred part of their houses robs the atmosphere of all harmony.

Luxurious Hearses (Nigeria):  The quietness of the hearse might not be luxurious to the dead. The still silence of the dead that squirt blood all over is never a pleasant sight even when ferried in luxurious buses. The situation that plagues the characters in this story is antithetical to the lives they must have lived at one time or the other. After Tijani's co-Muslim faithful betray his trust during a religious war that breaks loose in the northern part of the country, he returns to reposing his confidence in the God of the south he knows little about. A fanatic of some sort, Tijani who calmly watches the martyring of his blood brother of the Christian faith can't brave to reveal his Muslim identity in the refugee bus where he seeks protection. Amidst staccato of gunfire, jarred dismembered bodies and reprisal attacks from the two religions (Muslim and Christian) and ethnic groups (North and South), Tijiani almost does make it, but when his chopped off wrist gives him away in the South-bound luxurious bus, nothing could save him as a northern- adherent- Mohammed- worshipper.

My Parents' Bedroom (Rwanda): As succinct as this story is, it well re-enacts the inter-tribal carnage between the Hutu and the Tutsi brilliantly. A child can eavesdrop on the creaking bed of his parents, but when the matrimonial room of the home becomes an abattoir where the mother's head is slashed, the memory of the bedroom may become a hunting ghost. This story uses the setting of a simple Rwandan family to show how inhuman the war between the two tribes is and how the actors of the savage wear bestiality as fitting garbs.


Take this…

This anthology might turn out to be Uwem's definitive work, I don't see him writing anything as entrancing as this. That some of the stories were almost on the whole pages of the book shows that he was under pressure as to what genre to writer under; a collection of short stories or a full novel. Writing about religion is one fragile issue writers seldom dwell on. Being a Jesuit priest I thought Uwem Akpan was going to let prejudice guide him towards giving an imbalanced narration while stifling the views of the opposite religion in Luxurious Hearses. The diplomacy he employed in equally giving voices to the two religious groups takes Luxurious Hearses out of the packs that use literature as their controlled mock courts where cases are adjudged on emotions and microscopic reasoning.


  1. I've heard so much about this book
    Unfortunately, I havent been privileged to read it yet.
    I must, must, must get it

  2. @N.I.L. Please get the book and settle down with it, it is a good read apart form the issues I have pointed out in the review.

    Thanks again for reading the review and commenting.

  3. He really did do a good job of giving a wide number of views didn't he? This isn't a favorite of mine because it is so negative and depressing (I know I know, I need to get over that bias to happier stories!) but it was definitely very well written. Glad to see you enjoyed it.

  4. @Myne Whitman. Thanks for reading and considering the review worthy.

    @Amy. I hate the negativity of the book too - too black and gloomy. Nevertheless, the reading was worth the while.

  5. A well-rounded review. Thanks for sharing it.

  6. What a coincidence that we read this at about the same time. Craftsmanship is the word in this book, Uwem showed that his MFA was not useless. Lets get to see his next work. My favourite part was where Maisha's dad stole the taxi driver's money, it was so dramatic. The characterisation of Chief Ukongo was solid and My Parent's Bedroom moved me to tears. Uwem really spent time on his work, its that category of 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration.

  7. @Kiru. I am encouraged, sister! Thanks for reading too.

    @Nnadozie. I found that dramatic instance you observed of utmost interest too when I was reading "An Ex-mas Feast".

    You are right, Nnadozie, when you said the book possesses "10% inspiration and 90% perspiration". The emotions "My Parent's Bedroom" draws from one are just so enormous. That story is one of my favourites in the book.

    One thing I wouldn't forget so quickly is the ability of Uwem at fleshing out characters that makes you think he knows who you are trying to connect with his character-description.

    Thanks for reading. I hope you come around any time soon.

  8. I bought this book from a library shelf disposing books for a dollar.
    I will not sell it for a thousand dollars
    I just wish my son could read it!


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