Uwem Akpan is a Nigerian Jesuit priest and writing teacher living in Zimbabwe, and his stories are garnering much acclaim. Just a few pages into his debut collection, it is easy to see why. Beautiful and devastating, the five tales found in SAY YOU'RE ONE OF THEM are at once compelling and painful to read. All told from the narrative perspective of a child in crisis, they symbolize a continent in crisis as well. Set in African hot spots like Ethiopia and Rwanda, the stories revolve around themes of family and identity, religion and ethnicity, all complicated by violence, fear and poverty.
A destitute family in Nairobi inhales glue to stave off hunger and watches their 12-year-old daughter turn to prostitution in "An Ex-mas Feast." Two little girls in Ethiopia --- one Muslim, one Christian --- are best friends until religious tensions and riots in their city force them apart in "What Language is That?" Both these stories are short yet highly effective. The three remaining tales, however, are even more amazing and heartbreaking.
The nine-year-old girl at the center of "In My Parents' Bedroom" is forced to watch as the horrors and injustices of contemporary Rwanda play out in her house, each of her parents having to take opposing sides. In less than 30 pages, Akpan spins a brilliant tale that entrances and repulses, capturing the complexities of the situation and reminding readers that there are real lives at stake beyond this fiction.
In "Fattening for Gabon" two young siblings are being raised by a kindly and affectionate uncle as their parents lie dying of AIDS in their home village. Kotchipka and Yewa are spoiled and feasted by their uncle's new friends, but Kotchipka realizes that he and his sister are in grave danger and tries to resist their charms. By the end he knows he must fight for his own survival and that of his little sister, or be sold into slavery.
"Luxurious Hearses" is the story of a 16-year-old Muslim boy escaping from one end of Nigeria to the Christian region and the home of the father he has never known. Pretending to be a Christian, he finds himself stuck on a bus full of Catholics and Pentecostals, not to mention a tribal chief of the indigenous religion. As the stuffy, overcrowded bus sits and awaits its driver, wave after wave of tension ripple through it, threatening violence. Differing political views and beliefs find common ground in a hatred of Muslims, and Jubril --- far from his family and having been turned against by other Muslims --- must keep up his façade, all the while praying to Allah for help. The bus becomes a microcosm of a divided nation, and Jubril's internal exploration of identity and personal history is symbolic of the confusion, faith, hopes and fears of its citizens. Akpan takes readers on Jubril's fascinating journey and delivers a surprising and very memorable ending.
In each story Akpan uses language, often a broken but lyrical English, to show the similarities and differences between the diverse peoples of Africa. Because of this, along with powerful plots and sympathetic narrators, SAY YOU'RE ONE OF THEM is an unforgettable, beautiful, authentic and wise literary call to action. Akpan's book is highly recommended and will leave readers wanting more of his dark, carefully moralistic and quite extraordinary tales.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on January 23, 2011