- Say You’re One of Them by Uwem Akpan
- Hardcover 368 pages
- Little, Brown, and Company 2008
- Nigeria, Gabon, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Kenya
- My rating: 4 out of 5 chapatis
If you are looking for a super depressing book to read, then look no further. Never has a piece of literature caused me to sink so low as Say You’re One of Them. It is truly relentless in its misery.
The author, Uwem Akpan, has been the darling of literary critics since the first story in this collection, “An Ex-Mas Feast,” appeared in The New Yorker’s debut fiction issue in 2005. Another story from the book, “My Parent’s Bedroom,” was shortlisted for the the 2007 Caine Prize for African Writing. Somehow, I picked up my copy before I read the copious praise for Akpan’s prose. I simply perused the back cover: a brief except from “My Parent’s Bedroom.” It looked like a compelling read with a unique twist: stories about African conflict told through the eyes of children. I was sold.
“An Ex-Mas Feast” and “My Parent’s Bedroom” are the two best reads, and they are bookends on this five-story collection. The former follows a Kenyan family that survives on the wages of their twelve-year-old daughter, who prostitutes herself in the slums of Nairobi. The latter describes the terrible choice that must be made by a family caught in the middle of the Rwandan genocide. The three other stories included (two of which are book length) are not as well balanced or written, and drag out towards inevitably awful conclusions.
If Akpan had packaged this book to include only “An Ex-Mas Feast” and “My Parent’s Bedroom,” it would be outstanding work worthy of all the buzz it has generated. Even with a few pieces that are not quite as stellar, it’s obvious that Mr. Akpan is a tremendous talent. I will be looking forward to his future work.
An excerpt from “An Ex-Mas Feast” p. 7
Mama smiled at the glue and winked at me, pushing her tongue through the holes left by her missing teeth. She snapped the tin’s top expertly, and the shack swelled with the smell of a shoemaker’s stall. I watched her decant the kabire into my plastic “feeding bottle.” It glowed warm and yellow in the dull light. Though she still appeared drunk from last night’s party, her hands were so steady that her large tinsel Ex-mas bangle, a gift from a church Ex-mas party, did not even sway. When she had poured enough, she cut the flow of the glue by tilting the tin up. The last stream of the gum entered the bottle weakened and braided itself before tapering in midair like an icicle. She covered the plastic with her palm, to retain the glue’s power. Sniffing it would kill my hunger in case Maisha did not return with an Ex-mas feast for us.