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Say You're One of Them (Akpan)

Say You're One of Them 
Uwem Akpan, 2008
Little, Brown & Company
384 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780316086370


Summary
Uwem Akpan's first published short story, "An Ex-mas Feast," appeared in The New Yorker's Debut Fiction issue in 2005. The story's portrait of a family living together in a makeshift shanty in urban Kenya, and their attempts to find gifts of any kind for the impending Christmas holiday, gives a matter-of-fact reality to the most extreme circumstances—and signaled the arrival of a breathtakingly talented writer.

"My Parents' Bedroom" is a Rwandan girl's account of her family's struggles to maintain a facade of normalcy amid unspeakable acts. In "Fat­tening for Gabon," a brother and sister cope with their uncle's attempt to sell them into slavery. "Luxurious Hearses" creates a microcosm of Africa within a busload of refugees and introduces us to a Muslim boy who summons his faith to bear a treacherous ride through Nigeria. "What Language Is That?" reveals the emotional toll of the Christian-Muslim conflict in Ethiopia through the eyes of childhood friends. Every story is a testament to the wisdom and resilience of children, even in the face of the most agonizing situations our planet can offer. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio
Birth—ca. 1970-71
Where—Ikot Akpan Eda, Nigeria
Education—Creighton and Gonzaga Universities; Catholic
   University of Eastern Africa; M.F.A., University of Michigan
Currently—lives in Harare, Zimbabwe


Uwem Akpan was born in southern Nigeria. He was ordained as a Jesuit priest in 2003 and received his MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan in 2006. In 2007, he began a teaching assignment at a seminary in Harare, Zimbabwe. (From the publisher.)

More
In his own worrds:

I was born under a palm-wine tree in Ikot Akpan Eda in Ikot Ekpene Diocese in Nigeria. I studied philosophy and English at Creighton and Gonzaga universities and theology at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa. I have taught English and Literature in English in Nigerian high schools.

Also, I have lived and worked with lepers, played the banjo, and served as a DJ of classical music. I have worked with street kids in Tanzania and volunteered in Chicago's Cabrini Green.

I was inspired to write by the people who sit around my village church to share palm wine after Sunday Mass, by the Bible, and by the humour and endurance of the poor. My grandfather was one of those who brought the Catholic Church to our village. I was ordained as a Jesuit priest in 2003 and I like to celebrate the sacraments for my fellow villagers. Some of them have no problem stopping me in the road and asking for confession! I received my MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan in 2006.

I have very fond memories of my childhood in my village, where everybody knows everybody, and all my paternal uncles still live together in one big compound. Growing up, my mother told me folktales and got me and my three brothers to read a lot.

I became a fiction writer during my seminary days. I wrote at night, when the community computers were free. Computer viruses ate much of my work.

Finally, my friend Wes Harris believed in me enough to get me a laptop. This saved me from the despair of losing my stories and made me begin to see God again in the seminary. The stories I saved on that first laptop are the core of Say You're One of Them.

I always look forward to visiting my village. No matter how high the bird flies, its legs still face the earth. When I get back to Ikot Akpan Eda, my people will celebrate this book in our own way—with lots of tall tales, spontaneous prayers, and palm wine! (From the book's website.)



Book Reviews
A startling debut collection…[Akpan] fuses a knowledge of African poverty and strife with a conspicuously literary approach to storytelling, filtering tales of horror through the wide eyes of the young. In each of the tales in Say You're One of Them a protagonist's childlike innocence is ultimately savaged by the facts of African life.
Janet Maslin - New York Times


It is not merely the subject that makes Akpan's...writing so astonishing, translucent, and horrifying all at once; it is his talent with metaphor and imagery, his immersion into character and place....Uwem Akpan has given these children their voices, and for the compassion and art in his stories I am grateful and changed.
Susan Straight - Washington Post Book World


Nigerian-born Jesuit priest Akpan transports the reader into gritty scenes of chaos and fear in his rich debut collection of five long stories set in war-torn Africa. "An Ex-mas Feast" tells the heartbreaking story of eight-year-old Jigana, a Kenyan boy whose 12-year-old sister, Maisha, works as a prostitute to support her family. Jigana's mother quells the children's hunger by having them sniff glue while they wait for Maisha to earn enough to bring home a holiday meal. In "Luxurious Hearses," Jubril, a teenage Muslim, flees the violence in northern Nigeria. Attacked by his own Muslim neighbors, his only way out is on a bus transporting Christians to the south. In "Fattening for Gabon," 10-year-old Kotchikpa and his younger sister are sent by their sick parents to live with their uncle, Fofo Kpee, who in turn explains to the children that they are going to live with their prosperous "godparents," who, as Kotchikpa pieces together, are actually human traffickers. Akpan's prose is beautiful and his stories are insightful and revealing, made even more harrowing because all the horror—and there is much—is seen through the eyes of children.
Publishers Weekly


With the intensity of Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, Say You're One of Them tells of the horrors faced by young people throughout Africa. Akpan uses five short stories (though at well over 100 pages, both "Luxurious Hearses" and "Fattening for Gabon" are nearly stand-alone novels in their own right) to bring to light topics ranging from selling children in Gabon to the Muslim vs. Christian battles in Ethiopia. The characters face choices that most American high school students will never have to-whether or not to prostitute oneself to provide money for one's homeless family, whether to save oneself, even if it means sacrificing a beloved sibling in the process. The selections are peppered with a mix of English, French, and a variety of African tongues, and some teens may find themselves reading at a slower pace than usual, but the impact of the stories is well worth the effort. The collection offers a multitude of learning opportunities and would be well suited for "Authors not born in the United States" reading and writing assignments. Teens looking for a more upbeat, but still powerful, story may prefer Bryce Courtenay's The Power of One (1989). —Sarah Krygier, Solano County Library, Fairfield, CA
School Library Journal


Redemption is in short supply in these five stories by a Nigerian priest about children caught in the crossfire of various African countries' upheavals. The opener of this debut collection, "An Ex-mas Feast," is one of the more upbeat entries-which isn't saying much, since its eight-year-old narrator describes sniffing shoe glue to ward off hunger in a Nairobi shanty town while his 12-year-old sister proudly moves from street prostitution to a brothel. In "Fattening for Gabon," a morbid variation on Hansel and Gretel, an uncle literally fattens up his nephew and niece to sell them into slavery. Although he genuinely loves them, his repentance comes too late and with not-unexpected tragic results. The least arresting story is the slight and familiar "What Language Is That?" Their families profess liberal, inclusive attitudes, but a Christian child and her Muslim best friend are prohibited from communicating when rioting breaks out in Addis Ababa, although the girls do find, perhaps briefly, "a new language." That miniscule glimmer of hope for humanity disappears in "Luxurious Hearses," an emotionally exhausting encapsulation of the devastation caused by religion. Baptized as an infant by his Catholic father, raised in a strict Muslim community by his mother, adolescent Jubril is targeted by extremists who happen to be his former playmates. Fleeing religious riots in northern Nigeria on a luxury bus full of Christians, he keeps his right wrist in his pocket; if they see that his hand has been amputated (for stealing, under Sharia law), they will know he is Muslim. Jubril comes close to finding acceptance among his fellow passengers, which only makes their ultimate violence against him that much more disturbing. The final story, "My Parents' Bedroom," goes beyond disturbing toward unbearable as the children of a Tutsi mother and Hutu father in Rwanda witness the unspeakable acts their decent parents are forced to commit. Haunting prose. Unrelenting horror. An almost unreadable must-read.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions
1. Each of the stories in Say You’re One of Them is told from the perspective of a child. Do you think this affected your reaction? If the narrators had been adults, might you have felt differently about the stories? Why do you think Akpan chose to depict these events through children’s eyes? How do Akpan’s young characters maintain innocence in the face of corruption and pain?

2. In “An Ex-mas Feast,” Maisha leaves her family to become a full- time prostitute. Do you think she chose to depart, or did her family’s poverty force her to flee? Is it possible to have complete freedom of will in such a situation? Is it reasonable to judge a person for her actions if her choice is not entirely her own?

3. In “Fattening for Gabon” the children’s uncle and caretaker,Fofo Kpee, sells them into slavery. How does Fofo’s poverty and vanity contribute to his unthinkable actions? Do his pangs of conscience redeem him for you? Why or why not?

4. In “What Language is That?” Hadiya and Selam are kept apart by their parents after the escalation of religious conflict. Have you ever experienced a situation in which friends and family have objected to someone in your life for reasons you didn’t understand? What did you do? How did you feel?

5. The bus in “Luxurious Hearses” is a microcosm not only of African hierarchies and religions but also of the continent’s numerous languages and dialects. Discuss how speech is related to class, culture, religion, and heritage. How does dialogue function in the other stories? Do we hold similar attitudes about language in our own culture? What are some examples?

6. This book takes its title from instructions given to a Rwandan girl by her mother in “My Parents’ Bedroom.” Did the familiar domestic detail in this story — Maman’s perfume, little Jean’s flannel pajamas, toys like Mickey Mouse in the children’s room — intensify for you the horror of what ensued? Is there comparable detail in any of the other stories that helped you to identify with Uwem Akpan’s characters?

7. Although the stories in Say You’re One of Them are fictitious, the situations they depict have a basis in reality. How do the emotions you feel when reading these stories compare to your emotions when reading accounts in the news media of similar atrocities? Has reading Say You’re One of Them changed the way you think about these issues?

8. Uwem Akpan addressed his other vocation in an interview, saying, “A key Vatican II document makes it very clear that the joys and anguish of the world are the joys and anguish of the Church.” While reading these stories, were you ever reminded that this writer is also a Jesuit priest? Does Akpan’s subject matter seem to you to be imbued with religious values? In what ways? Do the drama and power of Akpan’s fiction call forth any biblical stories for you? If so, which ones?

9. Some of the children in Say You’re One of Them are not poor. What are the particular obstacles these children face that are not issues in your own country? Are there challenges other than poverty with which you can identify? Do the family dynamics feel familiar to you?

10. The poet and memoirist Mary Karr wrote that Uwem Akpan “has invented a new language — both for horror and for the relentless persistence of light in war-torn countries.” Did you find any beauty or goodness in these tragic tales? If so, offer some examples.
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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