Say You’re One of Them is a collection of five stories by Nigerian author Uwem Akpan, each of them about the lives and experiences of children in Africa (Nigeria, Kenya, Rwanda, among others).
The stories are not easy to read. Despite (or perhaps because of) the youth and innocence of their central characters, they harshly illuminate the conflicts that have inflicted such terrible and frequently violent suffering on Africa in recent decades. In “My Parents’ Bedroom,” for example, nine-year-old Monique witnesses first-hand the genocidal war that seemed to erupt overnight in Rwanda, a war that literally enters her home when her Hutu father butchers her Tutsi mother before her. “Luxurious Hearses” tells of Jubril’s efforts to flee to his father’s homeland in southern Nigeria – a flight that requires the teenager to conceal his Muslim faith, including the stump of an arm that marks him as a thief convicted under sharia, on a bus overcrowded with Christians driven from the north by sectarian violence. “Fattening for Gabon” is a story about a brother and sister sold by their uncle into slavery for a motorbike, while “What Language Is That?” shows two Ethiopian girls perplexed to learn one morning that they can never play together again because one is Muslim and the other Christian. Lastly, “An Ex-Mas Feast” depicts one Christmas celebration for a family living in a shack in Nairobi, their most precious gift a can of shoe glue they take turns sniffing at to stave off hunger pangs.
Things Fall Apart was the debut novel of Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, winner of the Man Booker International Prize in 2007 and hailed as the father of modern African literature. It tells the story of prosperous Ibo yam farmer Okonkwo’s fall from grace. Exiled for seven years for an inadvertent violation of one of his village’s sacred laws, humiliated by his son’s behavior, Okonkwo’s longed-for return to glory fails to materialize, and he is driven to commit one final desperate act.
It had not been my original intention to combine my reviews for Say You’re One of Them and Things Fall Apart into a single post. I hadn’t even meant to read them almost back-to-back – I prefer to mix things up between genre and literary fiction, and Euro-American writers and authors from outside the West – but my summer reading schedule got shifted around a bit, and then, as I was reading Things Fall Apart, I couldn’t help seeing a connection between the two books.
There are the obvious parallels in that both authors are Nigerian and both choose to write in English (for which Achebe has been criticized). Both authors strive to “decolonialize” their use of English, however. Akpan’s prose in particular has conspicuous West African inflections (especially “Fattening for Gabon”), and both writers employ a distinctive style that not only distinguishes one from the other, but also indicates the presence of an “African style” that is markedly different from literature written elsewhere in the English-speaking world, thereby rendering it both familiar and foreign.
More importantly, however, is that both works address, each in their own way, the devastating impact of colonialism on the peoples of Africa. In Things Fall Apart it is more subtle; Okonkwo’s decline is already in progress when the white missionaries arrive on the scene, but there is no question their presence, and the changes they bring – some unconscious, others enforced – hasten the disintegration of Umuofia’s society, including the traditions that helped maintain a stable community, and lead to Okonkwo’s tragic death.
Akpan’s choice of children as his point-of-view characters was a risky one. Children are difficult to write realistically, and I was wary of cloying voices and over-precious scenes intruding on the deeply unsettling narratives, but her never succumbed to the temptation. His children are clearly children, but their voices ring true and clear. The sympathy and horror one feels for their plight emerges organically.
Akpan also doesn’t sugarcoat the conclusions to his stories. Happy endings are not guaranteed. Poverty remains, the slave trade persists, and sectarian violence does not stop to consider the age of its potential victims before slaughtering them. Nonetheless, hope endures, and despite the grim outcome of some of these stories, others show that Africa’s future resides in the resilience of its children.
Slowly, Selam lifted her hand and waved to you as if the hand belonged to another person. You waved back slowly too. She opened her mouth slowly and mimed to you, and you mimed back, “I can’t hear you.” She waved with two hands, and you waved with two hands. She smiled at you. Her dimples were perfect, little dark cups in her cheeks. You opened your mouth and smiled, flashing all your teeth. “Hugzee, hugzee,” you mimed to her. There was a puzzled look on her face. You embraced the wind with both hands and gave an imaginary friend a peck. She immediately hugged herself, blowing you a kiss.
— from “What Language Is That?”