This is Oprah’s current book club selection. Apparently it has received lots of good press both before and now after her selection. I had never heard of it and was excited to see a book of short stories about African children written by an African man in Target. I picked it up a few months before Oprah selected it and decided to go ahead and read it as a way to be able to share in the dialogue. I love when the masses read. I love when the masses read outside of their comfort levels.
Say You’re One of Them is a collection of five short stories each written from the point of view of children living in various countries in Africa. It is definitely not a comfortable read. Each story recounts a hardship experienced by the children’s families and thus the children. There are political and religious struggles, war, and economic instability. We experience the situation from their eyes as they try to survive and make sense of their world. Akpan’s characters are observant, smart, and extremely resilient.
“An Ex-mas Feast” is about a poor family living in a small shack. The parents are out of work and rely on their children to bring in money. When we meet them the most important thing for the family seems to be paying school fees for the young boy. Through begging with a smaller child and the prostitution of the eldest daughter the family hopes to have enough food for an ex-mas feast and to send their son to school. The eldest daughter, Maisha has taken on the role of an adult in the home and has come to resent her situation. She constantly disagrees with her parents and wants to leave. She instructs her younger sister to avoid what she is doing. Her siblings depend on her, particularly her brother who is excited to go to school.
In “Fattening for Gabon” Yewa and Kotchikpa are taken in by their uncle while their parents are battling AIDS. This is an interesting story because the children are aware that their uncle is attempting to sale them for money and thus status in the community. They play this strange and involved sort of game or series of lessons in attempts to prepare them for their travels with their new and generous ‘godparents’. Their uncle teaches them what to say, they assume new names, they practice drinking salt water all in attempts to be able to endure their trip to Gabon. The children only want to see their uncle happy, they love and respect him and will do anything that he asks including helping him take care of his new motorcycle while ignoring their nagging hunger.
“What Language is That?” is the story of two young girls who are the very best of friends, always playing together and visiting each others’ homes. One morning they are told that they can no longer play together. There are religious conflicts-one child belongs to the Muslim faith and the other Christian.
“Luxurious Hearses” is a story about a young boy named Jubril who has bought a ticket on what people call a Luxurious Bus headed to the south to escape religious persecution. He was baptized in his mother’s faith but brought as a Muslim. His brother converted to Christianity and was stoned to death. Before leaving, Jubril was confronted by his Muslim friends who found out that he was baptized. He is Muslim and the bus is full of Christians. He knows that he must hide his religion from the other passengers if he is to make it to his destination. He wears a Christian symbol around his neck and has assumed the name Gabriel, the Christian version of his name. He can ignore the women on the bus and the televisions playing but what he cannot change is the stub of his right hand which was cut off after he was caught stealing. If anyone sees his hand they will immediately know that he is Muslim. What ensues is a blend of all sorts of people, all with different stories to tell about their experiences during the religious conflict, where they come from, and their hope at a better life. Even more important in this book I think is the power of fear and its implications for people’s actions individually and in groups where fear can escalate instantly.
“My Parent’s Bedroom” has to be the most moving story in the collection. In Rwanda, a little girl and her brother know that something is amiss because people are never allowed into their parent’s bedroom but yet people have been invited in. And why is the ceiling talking? Their mother is Tutsi and their father Hutu. The children’s mother is trying to escape genocide waged against Tutsi and any liberal Hutu. Her mother tells the little girl that if they ask her she is to say she is one of them.
A bit of knowledge about African history would help to make these stories resonate more clearly with the reader. Without it, it might be difficult to fully understand the conflicts and the stage in which the stories are set. Even without the background, the stories can be appreciated by people who are reading with an open mind. That said, I think the stories go beyond Africa and expand to reflect what is possible when there are misunderstandings in our world. These stories are happening and can happen anywhere. The effects are tremendous and should not be overlooked. The children lose their innocence, they have to grow up quickly and make hard decisions but they never lose their light. There is still some hope to be found. After reading I wondered how other people would be affected by the stories. Would they dislike them because of their tough subject matter, would they shrug it off as something that only happens in Africa, would they realize their potential for helping others? Akpan is helping us to step away from comfort, to uncover our eyes and look closely at what happens around us.