Say You're One of Them by Uwem Akpan is a collection of short stories written about several African populations, from the point of the child. I think that Akpan summed up his novel well, so I’m going to quote him. He said, “I think fiction allows us to sit for a while with people we would rather not meet.” This is exactly how I feel about his novel. What do any of us in America really know about people living in Africa? Sure, if you get up early on the weekends, there are telethons to “help the starving children of Africa.” There are news stories about the wars, the starvation, the AIDS crisis, complete with pictures of children with distended bellies and dirty, tear-streaked faces. This is the Africa we know. And it’s G-rated in comparison to Akpan’s novel. You would rather not read it, but for the sake of the reality in which Akpan depicts.
My favorite story was the one entitled, “Luxurious Hearses.” In it, a Muslim teenager is trying to escape from his war-torn city in the north to his father’s Born-Again Christian home in the south. I loved seeing how all the different religions converged on this bus, and how old traditions collided with new ideas. **Spoiler Alert** Akpan skillfully lured us into loving Jubril, the extremist Muslim hero, by showing his human side to us. Most of us know about biracial children, but Akpan shows a different version of this in his story. Jubril is bi-religious, his mother being Muslim and his father being Christian. Akpan shows how we all hide parts of ourselves that might make people loathe us. Though he hides his Muslim self, he struggles to try to understand the Christian self he is portraying. He feels much of the same struggle that biracial children feel in the U.S.; never being fully accepted into any one race. Because he is baptized, his Muslims friends can only see him as an evil Christian, and because he is missing his right hand, the bus full of Christians cannot see anything but an evil Muslim before them. Akpan shows us the similarity in the two religions, which really focus on finding salvation in doing right by others, and yet, their hatred of each other. When he is killed at the end of the story, I felt true shock. I think I was expecting the happy ending, even though I couldn’t fathom what he would do when he got to his fatherland. So beautiful was Akpan’s writing, I could really feel Jubril’s peace in his acceptance of himself before his death.
Everyone should read this book, because though the stories may be fictional, the people in them are not. Akpan’s children are real children. This book is depressing, painful, gut-wrenching, and it is also the responsibility of people to know.