Review: ‘Say You’re One of Them’

cover

Say You’re One of Them
by Uwem Akpan

  • Date finished: Jan. 31, 2015
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Year: 2008
  • Project: n/a
  • Reading List: Winter 2014-15
  • Grade: B+
  • Thoughts:

You guys, I had to give Say You’re One of Them a ‘B+’ not because it was bad, or even slightly less-good than some of the books I’ve given A’s over the years. No, I had to settle for the less-than-perfect B if only because this book was so hard to read.

Say You’re One of Them is a collection of short stories from Nigerian Jesuit priest Uwem Akpan, a collection that delve into the lives of children living in some of the worst, most heartbreaking conditions across the African continent. There’s a family that lives under a tarp in a dirty metropolitan alley, with a daughter who feels she must be a full-time prostitute in order to stay alive. There’s the brother and sister who are unknowingly being sold into slavery by their uncle. There’s the girl who watches her Hutu father butcher her Tutsi mother during the Rwandan conflict.

There’s these stories and more, and if they sound horrifying and heartbreaking, it’s because they are. And yet, even though the lives Akpan describes are tragic, they don’t feel utterly hopeless since they’re narrated by children. And so, instead of reading high-level commentary about the political and humanitarian elements at work in these settings – much of which is clouded and confused by centuries of colonialism and a kind of tribalism Westerners are unaccustomed to – we learn about this world gradually, through the eyes of innocents who still remember how to be good and pure.

Again, this was not a bad book by any means. Akpan is a phenomenal writer, even if some of the stories were challenging to read (he mimics the way many of these individuals speak in his dialogue). Even the saddest, most heartbreaking story seemed to have a kernal of hope in it, as well as a glimpse into what could be a better future for the region, if only others could try to see the world as children. This book was also written as an attempt to draw attention to the plight of the children across the African continent, and it certainly opened my eyes to the kinds of atrocities these babies are forced to endure, even now.

And yet…and yet. This was such a hard book to read. It took me longer than it should, if only because there were some days I couldn’t bring myself to finish a certain story. Most of the time, I held out hope that each story would end on an optimistic note. Since Akpan is a priest, I even held out hope that Christianity would win the day in some of the stories (religion plays a major role in each), if only so some of these kids would be saved. But every time, it seemed, the ending came with a punch in the gut, and a reminder that even when you have faith, even when you do the right thing, life isn’t always fair or painless.

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