Reading Resolution: “Say You’re One of Them” by Uwem Akpan

6. A book written in Africa: Say You’re One of Them by Uwem Akpan

List Progress: 4/30

What sort of African stories do American audiences want to read? I assume there is a huge range of literature in Africa that American audiences will never see, even if individual readers try; so much of what readers find is filtered through what is distributed abroad, what is translated into English, and what is marketed. All of those filters cut down the breadth of African literature (or literature from any non-Western area), and largely leave books that play into pre-existing American ideas about what Africa is like. Faceless masses murdering each other, big-eyed children starving, mobs tearing through thatch-roof villages. The misery becomes the marketing point. But is that the fault of the individual authors, many of whom are trying to portray their own experiences, that they are part of a reductionist literary trend? All of this is highlighted with Say You’re One of Them, the 2008 short story collection by Uwem Akpan, which was selected for the 2009 Oprah’s Book Club. I’m not saying that that makes the book worse or less deserving of praise. I’m just saying it tells us a bit about what American audiences are hungry for in African literature.

Say You’re One of Them is made up of five short stories, each set in a different African country, and all told from the perspective of children or teenagers. Some are told in third person, some in first, but each of them places their POV child character in the midst of incredibly hardships and suffering. The first story, “An Ex-Mas Feast”, is the weakest in my opinion, in that it is a display of misery with no real point, a exhibition of just how poor and desperate this child’s family is. The best stories in this collection are ones that show suffering but also, crucially, have a strong narrative to go along with it. Unfortunately, I would only say that’s true for two out of the five.

Calling this a short story collection is a bit of a misnomer, when in truth it is two novellas, with three short stories slotted in around them. Going by the table of contents in my copy, these are the respective page counts:

“An Ex-Mas Feast”: 34

“Fattening for Gabon”: 136

“What Language is That?”: 14

“Luxurious Hearses”: 136

“My Parents’ Bedroom”: 34

Both “Fattening for Gabon” and “Luxurious Hearses” are four times longer than the next longest stories, which makes for a very strangely-paced experience when reading the book as a whole. It did not help that I did not particularly care for “Fattening for Gabon”. That story did not need nearly that much length; it tells the story of two young children who have unbeknownst to them been sold into slavery by their uncle. The core story is fine, but it takes far, far too long to get to its point, especially as the audience is told from the first line that this is a story about child trafficking, so it becomes tedious waiting for the narrator to realize it.

“Luxurious Hearses”, on the other hand, creates a setting with inherent pressing tension: a sixteen year old Muslim boy in Nigeria is trying to disguise himself as a Christian to flee riots in the north and blend into a group of refugees taking a bus to the south. He is a fundamentalist Muslim who would have happily joined in the riots if his friends had not betrayed him because of his mixed heritage, so being forced to play-act a different culture has him on edge. He is also missing his right hand, cut off as punishment for theft, and anyone else seeing his amputation would know it means he is Muslim. The group of people is stuck in the crowded, stationary bus for over a day while the driver retrieves fuel, and the bus becomes a microcosm of the tensions of the whole country. It is not a subtle story, and parts of it are still very clunky, but the premise is rich enough to carry it. If I were to recommend an individual story from this collection, it would be this one.

The other two shorter stories are a bit too insubstantial, though “My Parents’ Bedroom” is heartbreaking and has some powerful imagery, but they feel strangely placed alongside such longer and more developed pieces.

Uwem Akpan himself is a Jesuit priest, and he writes with comfort about all different types of cultures and countries. He was born and raised in Nigeria and got his degree from the University of Michigan; Say You’re One of Them was written in English. (One thing that other reviewers have critiqued but I did not really mind was the practice of writing dialogue in phonetic accents. It takes a bit, but you can find a rhythm with it.) Not all of these stories land, and there is a real tendency towards so-called “misery porn” literature, but the images and beats that do land land very well. I was skeptical of this one, but I’m glad I stayed through until the end.

Would I Recommend It: No. But I would recommend “Luxurious Hearses” as a novella and “my Parents’ Bedroom” as a short story.

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