Say You're One of Them: A Book Club Review

Asian Fun:

Say You're One of Them by Uwem Akpan is a series of short stories told through various African children's eyes. It's a book that captures multiple interests of mine - Africa and children. The stories are unflinching in the face of the cruelty the children in the stories are faced with whether its a twelve-year-old hooker, child slavery or fleeing violence.

I'm torn about this book. On the one hand, it speaks exactly to my deepest and most passionate interests. Also, as a writer, I tend to be unflinching and blunt as well, and so in theory this book should have been right up my ally, but in fact, I had a difficult time getting into this book. The most glaring thing that annoyed me was the dialogue. This may be a style preference, but in my creative writing class my professor advised us to avoid being overly literal when trying to convey accents, using the Southern accent as an example. He explained, and I totally agree, that it gets distracting if you use half spelled words or incorrectly spelled words in order to convey an accent and that it was better to do so subtly. Unfortunately this book is riddled with distracting and bad dialogue. By the end of the first story I wanted to tear my hair out reading that dialogue and this kept me from getting into the story.

I've been known to be a blunt and unflinching writer about the cruelty children have to endure. I've written about abuse, rape and neglect. In writing about these harsh subjects, I've learned that the most essential component is handling these subject matters with the right balance. Its important to not lose the story in your effort to shine a light on the dark corners of the world. Sometimes when people are passionate about a certain subject matter and they write a fictional story about it, they lose the essence of the story in trying to expose certain realities. I certainly understand the impulse, sometimes you want to shove certain realities in people's faces because it is That important for people to understand, but if in doing so you forget to honor the story then you shouldn't be writing fiction but non-fiction. When writing fiction, the story always comes first before any other agenda. This is something that I feel Akpan struggled with, and while I appreciate his sincere passion for the children of his stories, I also felt the sacrifice to the story itself he made due to this passion.

While both of these factors kept me from truly getting into the stories, I could appreciate the intimate information on the conditions of children in Africa. And for this reason I find this book invaluable for me personally. However, while I find this book valuable for my own personal and academic interests, I have to rate it as a work of fiction.


Puerto Rican Pecan:

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.

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