Summary and book reviews of Say You're One of Them by Uwem Akpan

Say You're One of Them

by Uwem Akpan

Say You're One of Them
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2008, 368 pages
    Paperback:
    Jul 2009, 384 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Lucia Silva

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Book Summary

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 ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. Each of the stories in Say You're One of Them is told from the perspective of a child. Do you think this affected your reaction? If the narrators had been adults, might you have felt differently about the stories? Why do you think Akpan chose to depict these events through children's eyes? How do Akpan's young characters maintain innocence in the face of corruption and pain?
  2. In "An Ex-mas Feast," Maisha leaves her family to become a full- time prostitute. Do you think she chose to depart, or did her family's poverty force her to flee? Is it possible to have complete freedom of will in such a situation? Is it reasonable to judge a person for her actions if her choice is not entirely her own?
  3. In &...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

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 Members Only (213 words).

Media Reviews

Chicago Tribune - Alan Cheuse

An important literary debut.... Juxtaposed against the clarity and revelation in Akpan's prose -a s 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.

O magazine - Vince Passaro

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.

Entertainment Weekly - Jennifer Reese

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....Akpan's characters are ordinary, flawed, sometimes funny kids who happen to be caught in a nightmare.... The book should be depressing, but the blazing humanity of the characters and the brilliance of Akpan's artistry make this one of the year's most exhilarating reads. A.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. 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.

Kirkus Reviews

Haunting prose. Unrelenting horror. An almost unreadable must-read.

Reader Reviews

BeeLyn Araya

Say You're One Of Them
Say You're One of Them is in a word, haunting. I read each paragraph, afraid, anxious of the next. I found myself objecting out loud, rooting for the children, not wanting to believe that the evil would prevail. This is the most important book I've ...   Read More

Ally

Sad, but so boring
This book is very sad and very true, but the only thing about this book is that it's sooo boring at first. I mean the only story I found interesting was My Parents Bedroom.

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Beyond the Book

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 ...

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