Say You're One of Them

By Uwem Akpan
Publisher:Little, Brown and Company, (6/9/2008)

Average Rating:
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4.00 out of 5 (3 Clubie's ratings)

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Uwem Akpan's stunning stories humanize the perils of poverty and violence so piercingly that few readers will feel they've ever encountered Africa so immediately. The eight-year-old narrator of "An Ex-Mas Feast" needs only enough money to buy books and pay fees in order to attend school. Even when his twelve-year-old sister takes to the streets to raise these meager funds, his dream can't be granted. Food comes first. His family lives in a street shanty in Nairobi, Kenya, but their way of both loving and taking advantage of each other strikes a universal chord.

In the second of his stories published in a New Yorker special fiction issue, Akpan takes us far beyond what we thought we knew about the tribal conflict in Rwanda. The story is told by a young girl, who, with her little brother, witnesses the worst possible scenario between parents. They are asked to do the previously unimaginable in order to protect their children. This singular collection will also take the reader inside Nigeria, Benin, and Ethiopia, revealing in beautiful prose the harsh consequences for children of life in Africa.
Akpan's voice is a literary miracle, rendering lives of almost unimaginable deprivation and terror into stories that are nothing short of transcendent. (2008)
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"Say You're One of Them"
By Uwem Akpan

Average Rating:
Very Unleashable
4.00 out of 5 (3 Clubie's ratings)

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The Gentleman
By Forrest Leo

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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Nigerian-born Jesuit priest Akpan transports the reader into gritty scenes of chaos and fear in his rich debut collection of five long stories set in war-torn Africa. An Ex-mas Feast tells the heartbreaking story of eight-year-old Jigana, a Kenyan boy whose 12-year-old sister, Maisha, works as a prostitute to support her family. Jigana's mother quells the children's hunger by having them sniff glue while they wait for Maisha to earn enough to bring home a holiday meal. In Luxurious Hearses, Jubril, a teenage Muslim, flees the violence in northern Nigeria. Attacked by his own Muslim neighbors, his only way out is on a bus transporting Christians to the south. In Fattening for Gabon, 10-year-old Kotchikpa and his younger sister are sent by their sick parents to live with their uncle, Fofo Kpee, who in turn explains to the children that they are going to live with their prosperous godparents, who, as Kotchikpa pieces together, are actually human traffickers. Akpan's prose is beautiful and his stories are insightful and revealing, made even more harrowing because all the horror—and there is much—is seen through the eyes of children. (June) Read a web-exclusive q&a with Uwem Akpan at
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. 

From School Library Journal
Adult/High School—With the intensity of Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, Say You're One of Them tells of the horrors faced by young people throughout Africa. Akpan uses five short stories (though at well over 100 pages, both "Luxurious Hearses" and "Fattening for Gabon" are nearly stand-alone novels in their own right) to bring to light topics ranging from selling children in Gabon to the Muslim vs. Christian battles in Ethiopia. The characters face choices that most American high school students will never have to—whether or not to prostitute oneself to provide money for one's homeless family, whether to save oneself, even if it means sacrificing a beloved sibling in the process. The selections are peppered with a mix of English, French, and a variety of African tongues, and some teens may find themselves reading at a slower pace than usual, but the impact of the stories is well worth the effort. The collection offers a multitude of learning opportunities and would be well suited for "Authors not born in the United States" reading and writing assignments. Teens looking for a more upbeat, but still powerful, story may prefer Bryce Courtenay's The Power of One (Random, 1989).—Sarah Krygier, Solano County Library, Fairfield, CA 
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. 

From The Washington Post

The parents in Uwem Akpan's first collection of stories, set in present-day Africa, make sacrifices and deals that might seem unimaginable to readers in other parts of the world. After finishing this book, I wandered for days staring at my three daughters and countless nephews and nieces, seeing how fragile and dangerous their lives could easily become in a time of war, starvation, and betrayal.

What if even sacrificing our own lives wasn't enough to ensure the survival of our progeny? That is often the case in Akpan's Africa. These five stories - set in Nigeria, Kenya, Rwanda, Ethiopia and Benin - are all about children and their perilous, confusing lives, their searches for bits of grace and transcendence along with food, family and survival. This link allows a huge, perplexing continent to be known in intimate ways.

The first story, "An Ex-mas Feast," is told by Jigana, an 8-year-old boy living with his parents and siblings in an improvised shack in the slums outside Nairobi. His 12-year-old sister, Maisha, is a veteran prostitute who has amassed a collection of secret treasures inside a locked trunk, which their mother maneuvers around the shack while she tries to take care of her other five children. She sends out the older two with Baby, who is a begging tool, and gives Jigana "New Suntan shoe glue" to kill his hunger. "I watched her decant the kabire into my plastic 'feeding bottle.' . . . The last stream of the gum entering the bottle weakened and braided itself before tapering in midair like an icicle."

Akpan, a Jesuit priest born in Nigeria, teaching now in Zimbabwe after earning his MFA from the University of Michigan, researched the lives of the children he writes about, but no amount of research produces the perfect details and images that he has set down here; only imagination, empathy and a careful ear can accomplish this. The details of street life in Nairobi -- girls who bleach their faces at age 10 to stand on street corners and be picked up by white men and tourists -- and of the way Western ideas have insinuated themselves into every aspect of African life are on convincing display here. These characters speak a lingua franca that changes with each nation, but English words and American capitalism are everywhere.

"No food, tarling," Mama tells Jigana. "We must to finish to call the names of our people." Jigana's mother commands her husband to help consecrate a ceremony that involves holding the coverless Bible inscribed with the names of their relatives, people dead and disappeared due to razed villages, tribal conflicts, mistaken identity and sexual slavery. Her prayer ends with, "Christ, you Ex-mas son, give Jigana a big, intelligent head in school."

In "Fattening for Gabon," an uncle is charged with the care of his niece and nephew when their parents are sickened by AIDS. He plans to sell them into slavery, but, in an agonizing meltdown, he cannot go through with the deal. The language in this story is a mélange as well, in which yearning and tradition seem painfully melded. The nephew, Kotchikpa, who is 10, meets the Gabon trader for the first time in his uncle Fofo Kpee's yard: " 'Smiley Kpee, only two?' the man who brought Fofo exclaimed, disappointed. 'No way, iro o! Where oders?'

" 'Ah non, Big Guy, you go see oders . . . beaucoup,' said Fofo, a chuckle escaping his pinched mouth. He turned to us: "Mes enfants, hey, una no go greet Big Guy?' "

This story is long, but like the other four it manages to capture a whole nation and how that nation has been affected by border strife, AIDS, international peacekeepers, internal tribal conflicts and even family fights.

"Luxurious Hearses" is a journey into a nightmare world in Nigeria, where Muslims in the north are rampaging against Christians who are fleeing to the south where their religion is more dominant and where the inhabitants are killing Muslims. The buses that ply the highways are now thronging with refugees from both sides, including Jubril, a teenage Muslim boy whose hand was recently amputated when he stole food. He's another child caught between worlds, and the world of this bus is huge, with tribal elders, former soldiers, university students and desperate mothers pressing against every window.

We are soon thrust into another desperate journey, another fateful decision and another world expertly limned by Akpan. On the stalled bus, waiting for fuel, the crowded passengers fight over the televisions showing corpses and fighting from Khamfi, in the south:

"I say everybody shut up," a passenger named Emeka yells. "I dey watch my people do combat! You get relative who dey do Schwarzenegger for cable TV before?"

But then Nigerian police show up and turn off the television. " 'Please, show me my cousin!' Emeka said, tears running down his face. 'Please, return to that channel. . . . I want to see my cousin again! Is he alive?' The police did not even look at him. 'Officer, I'll give you whatever you want later . . .'

" 'Later? We no dey do later for cable TV,' the police said, watching Emeka's hands like a dog expecting its owner to offer something. 'Give us de money now now. . . . Cable TV, life action . . . e-commerce!' "

The final story may be the most devastating of all, in its depiction of a Rwandan family -- Hutu father, Tutsi mother and their two children for whom they make the ultimate sacrifice. It is not merely the subject that makes Akpan's story or his writing so astonishing, translucent and horrifying all at once; it is his talent with metaphor and imagery, his immersion into character and place. The view from a child's eyes carries the reader directly into Africa and the lives of the child narrators. One of these is Monique, daughter of two tribes, in "My Parents' Bedroom." She says of her friend, who is Twa, the smallest, most ignored tribe: "Hélène is an orphan, because the Wizard fixed her parents last year. Mademoiselle Angeline said that he cursed them with AIDS by throwing his gris-gris over their roof. Now Papa is paying Hélène's school fees." After the massacre begins, Monique watches her parents rescue the girl: "Hélène is soaked in blood and has been crawling through the dust. Her right foot is dangling on strings, like a shoe tied to the clothesline by its lace."

Hélène is put into the attic, with the Tutsi relatives of Monique's mother, and when her father's Hutu family arrives, he is forced to make a terrible choice. This choice, as happens so often in this collection, is death for life. Akpan's incredible talent as a writer prevents the story from becoming a polemic, diatribe or object lesson. He is too good for that. The story stays firmly focused on Monique and that house with the desperately crowded attic: "I cry with the ceiling people until my voice cracks and my tongue dries up."

Uwem Akpan has given these children their voices, and for the compassion and art in his stories I am grateful, and changed.

Copyright 2008, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved. 

From Bookmarks Magazine
Hailed as “a major literary debut” (San Diego Union-Tribune) and “brilliant” (USA Today), Uwem Akpan’s collection Say You’re One of Them fulfills the promise of his 2005 short story, “An Ex-Mas Feast,” in the New Yorker. Without flinching or lecturing, Akpan shares the almost unimaginable horrors that threaten Africa’s most vulnerable children. A Jesuit priest, he also evokes the love, grace, and other spiritual values that can emerge from the fight for survival. Critics universally praised Akpan’s writing, although the New York Times found Akpan’s use of details and individual characters more convincing than his attempts to describe larger issues. This collection will undoubtedly be widely readâ€"not only for its literary merit but also so that readers may better understand a large, complex, and often faceless continent.
Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc. 

From Booklist
In nineteenth-century Japan, sake brewing and family duty were everything. Rie, the only surviving child of a major brewer, tries to manage both the business and her personal life. As a woman, Rie is not technically allowed to manage the business, but her behind-the-scenes work keeps the brewery running for decades, into a new age of Japanese government. Her personal life does not run as smoothly. Her personal desires are set aside out of duty. But others, including her wayward husband, are not willing to do the same. As times change, Rie’s children and stepchildren become increasingly difficult to control. The complex and unusual social norms and mores of nineteenth-century Japan are woven cleanly into the story line, without clumsy exposition. The unfamiliar setting allows Lebra to create a historically believable heroine that modern women can relate to, a difficult task for historical fiction. --Marta Segal Block 

"Awe is the only appropriate response to Uwem Akpan's stunning debut, Say You're One of Them, a collection of five stories so ravishing and sad that I regret ever wasting superlatives on fiction that was merely very good. A." (Entertainment Weekly (EW Pick / Grade A) Jennifer Reese )

"[A] startling debut collection... Akpan is not striving for surreal effects. He is summoning miseries that are real.... He fuses a knowledge of African poverty and strife with a conspicuously literary approach to storytelling filtering tales of horror through the wide eyes of the young." (The New York Times Janet Maslin )

"Uwem Akpan's searing Say You're One of Them captures a ravaged Africa through the dry-eyed gaze of children trying to maintain a sense of normalcy amid chaos." (VogueMegan O'Grady )

"The humor, the endurance, the horrors and grace-Akpan has captured all of it.... The stories are not only amazing and moving, and imbued with a powerful moral courage-they are also surprisingly expert.... Beautifully constructed, stately in a way that offsets their impoverished scenarios. Akpan wants you to see and feel Africa, its glory and its pain. And you do, which makes this an extraordinary book." (O Magazine Vince Passaro )

"Uwem Akpan, a Nigerian Jesuit priest, has said he was inspired to write by the 'humor and endurance of the poor,' and his debut story collection...about the gritty lives of African children - speaks to the fearsome, illuminating truth of that impulse." (Elle Lisa Shea )

"Haunting prose.... A must-read." (Kirkus Reviews (starred review) )

"Uwem Akpan's stunning short story collection, Say You're One of Them, offers a richer, more nuanced view of Africa than the one we often see on the news....Akpan never lets us forget that the resilient youngsters caught up in these extraordinary circumstances are filled with their own hopes and dreams, even as he assuredly illuminates the harsh realities." (Essence Patrik Henry Bass )

"In the corrupt, war-ravaged Africa of this starkly beautiful debut collection, identity is shifting, never to be trusted...Akpan's people, and the dreamlike horror of the worlds they reveal, are impossible to forget." (People Kim Hubbard )

"All the promise and heartbreak of Africa today are brilliantly illuminated in this debut collection..." (Seattle Post-Intelligencer John Marshall )

"Akpan's brilliance is to present a brutal subject through the bewildered, resolutely chipper voice of children...All five of these stories are electrifying." (NPR's "Fresh Air" Maureen Corrigan )

"...a tour de force that takes readers into the lives glimpsed in passing on the evening news...These are stories that could have been mired in sentimentality. But the spare, straightforward language - there are few overtly expressed emotions, few adjectives--keeps the narratives moving, unencumbered and the pages turning to the end." (Associated Press )

" extraordinary portrait of modern Africa... [Akpan]... is an important and gifted writer who should be read." (USA TODAY Deirdre Donahue )

"This fierce story collection from a Nigerian-born Jesuit priest brings home Africa's most haunting tragedies in tales that take you from the streets of Nairobi to the Hutu-Tutsi genocide." (Minneapolis Star Tribune Margo Hammond & Ellen Heltzel )

"Akpan combines the strengths of both fiction and journalism - the dramatic potential of the one and the urgency of the other - to create a work of immense power...He is a gifted storyteller capable of bringing to life myriad characters and points of view...the result is admirable, artistically as well as morally." (Christian Science Monitor Adelle Waldman )

"It is not merely the subject that makes Akpan's...writing so astonishing, translucent, and horrifying all at once; it is his talent with metaphor and imagery, his immersion into character and place....Uwem Akpan has given these children their voices, and for the compassion and art in his stories I am grateful and changes." (Washington Post Book World (front page review) Susan Straight )

"Say You're One of Them is a book that belongs on every shelf." (New York Daily News Sherryl Connelly )

"Searing...In the end, the most enduring image of these disturbing, beautiful and hopeful stories is that of slipping away. Children disappear into the anonymous blur of the big city or into the darkness of the all-encompassing bush. One can only hope that they survive to live another day and tell another tale." (San Francisco Chronicle June Sawyers )

"These stories are complex, full of respect for the characters facing depravity, free of sensationalizing or glib judgments. They are dispatches from a journey, Akpan makes clear, which has only begun. It is to their credit that grim as they are-you cannot but hope these tales have a sequel." (Cleveland Plain-Dealer John Freeman )

"An important literary debut.... Juxtaposed against the clarity and revelation in Akpan's prose-as translucent a style as I've read in a long while--we find subjects that nearly render the mind helpless and throw the heart into a hopeless erratic rhythm out of fear, out of pity, out of the shame of being only a few degrees of separation removed from these monstrous modern circumstances...The reader discovers that no hiding place is good enough with these stories battering at your mind and heart." (Chicago Tribune Alan Cheuse )

"A stupefyingly talented young Nigerian priest. Akpan never flinches from his difficult subjects--poverty, slavery, mass murder--but he has the largeness of soul to make his vision of the terrible transcendent." (Bloomberg News Jeffrey Burke and Craig Seligman )

"Any of the six stories in this collection set in Africa is enough to break a reader's heart. Two are novella length, including a tour de force, 'Luxurious Hearses,' which takes place on a crowded bus." (From citation by Larry Dark for SAY YOU'RE ONE OF THEM, a Notable Book finalist for The Story Prize. ) 

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Uwem Akpan was born in a village in Nigeria and currently teaches in Zimbabwe. After studying philosophy and English at Creighton and Gonzaga universities, he studied theology for three years at the Catholic University of East Africa. He was ordained as a Jesuit priest in 2003 and received his MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan in 2006. "My Parents' Bedroom," a story included in this, his first collection, was one of five short stories by African writers chosen as finalists for The Caine Prize for African Writing.

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