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.
This is the complete text of the short story "An Ex-mas Feast"....
An Ex-mas Feast
Now that my eldest sister, Maisha, was twelve, none of us knew how to relate to her anymore. She had never forgiven our parents for not being rich enough to send her to school. She had been behaving like a cat that was going feral: she came home less and less frequently, staying only to change her clothes and give me some money to pass on to our parents. When home, she avoided them as best she could, as if their presence reminded her of too many things in our lives that needed money. Though she would snap at Baba occasionally, she never said anything to Mama. Sometimes Mama went out of her way to provoke her. "Malaya! Whore! You don't even have breasts yet!" she'd say. Maisha would ignore her.
Maisha shared her thoughts with Naema, our ten-year-old sister, more than she did with the rest of us combined, mostly talking about the dos and don'ts of a street girl. Maisha let Naema try on her high ...
I got stumped last year trying to review this book. On the heels of the Oprah's
announcement that Say You're One of Them would be her next book club
pick, I looked back on my abandoned draft. I see two paragraphs with an "x"
marked through them, and written at the bottom: I'm afraid I don't have the
right adjectives to review this book.
Unspeakable things happen to children in these stories, awful things we know are happening to actual children in the real world. It's hard to explain, then, why anyone should want to read them. The best I can come up with is that these stories aren't about the unspeakable things that happen, but about how these children survive them. It's a small shift, but an important one, and it's the very thing that makes these stories beautiful and completely un-sensational. Without a trace of train-wreck fascination, manipulation, or maudlin plea, Uwem Akpen takes the reader by the hand, as kindly as a child would, inside the story. He captures the inimitable mind of the child -- endlessly curious, hopeful, funny, and resourceful even through terror, trauma, violence, starvation… unfortunately, the list goes on. But at their core, these kids are just like any others, which makes the stories all the more heartbreaking. - Lucia Silva (Reviewed by Lucia Silva).
Full Review (213 words).
Uwem Akpan was born in Ikot Akpan Eda in southern
Nigeria. He was ordained as a Jesuit priest in 2003
and received his MFA in creative writing from the
University of Michigan in 2006.
He started writing fiction during his seminary days, at night when the community computers were free but he lost much of his work to viruses. Eventually, a friend gave him a laptop which, in his own words, 'saved me from the despair of losing my stories and made me begin to see God again in the seminary.'
"My Parents' Bedroom", a story included in this, his first book, was one of five short stories by African writers ...
If you liked Say You're One of Them, try these:
The twelve paired stories in Shobha Rao's An Unrestored Woman trace their origins to the formation of India and Pakistan in 1947, but they transcend that historical moment.
A vivid, fully imagined portrait of an extraordinary African family and the house that holds them together.
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