Friday, August 1, 2008

Book Review - Say You're One of Them

Following is a review of Uwem Akpan's collection of stories entitled Say You’re One of Them. It was published by Little, Brown and Co., New York 2008

This collection of stories – two long and three short – received rave reviews in the major media. The attention was well deserved because the collection is unique. It consists of recitations from the child’s perspective of very adult themes – abject poverty, child prostitution, religious intolerance, trafficking in persons and genocide. There are no happy endings. Although it was never explained, I suppose the odd title is designed to encourage the reader to identify with the victims.

The author Uwem Akpan is Nigerian born, obviously an author, but also a Catholic priest. Even though religious themes figure in several of the stories, he certainly was not dogmatic. All organized religious systems came in for criticism. However, getting to the kernel of the matter is what Akpan did best. Because his narrators are innocents, the horrors they uncover or elicit are all the more revolting. Indeed Akpan’s children live in terrible worlds – worlds not of their own making.

The five stories are set in Kenya, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Rwanda. By and large Akpan has the locales and settings nailed. Dialogue between characters strikes chords of realism, even though sometimes it becomes a bit wearisome and difficult for those of us not attuned to Nigerian muttering. Akpan tosses Swahili into the Kenyan story, Kinyarwanda into the Rwandan one, a couple of words of Amharic for Ethiopia, good French alongside Pidgin English in one Nigerian story and a variety of uttering in the other. As with any good dialogue the language compliments the narrative and gives instant reality to the characters.

The book opens with a disturbing Christmas story set in Nairobi’s slums wherein the breadwinner for her family is a twelve year old prostitute. Yet amidst the squalor of her family’s life, there is family and some semblance of hope. How it plays out is the gist of the tale. The book closes with a Rwandan tragedy wherein a little girl must watch how her ethnically mixed family decides who lives or dies.

The two longer stories - one about human trafficking and the other dealing with religious violence - are set in Nigeria. Because of their length more transpires and we learn more about the people involved. They are victims of poverty, greed, ignorance and fear. I liked the story entitled “Luxurious Hearses” best. It seemed to shed light not only on religious intolerance, but on how peoples’ beliefs motivate them and how easily they get caught up in mob violence. Additionally, there was telling commentary regarding the absurdity of Nigerian politics from the perspective of those at the bottom of the pyramid. Finally, construction of the story was intriguing because it occurred on a bus in a bus park waiting to carry refugees from northern violence southward towards home. I was not sure how the author would pull it off. But he did.

In sum, innocent children are caught up in vortices of violence and vice, of which they only grasp the barest outlines. Readers, on the other hand, clearly see the evil at play. By design the book tugs your heartstrings; you pity the children, denounce the adults and deplore the circumstances.