Say You're One of Them (Akpan) - Book Reviews

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

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