Double Review: Say You’re One of Them and Things Fall Apart

Say You’re One of Them
Uwem Akpan
Back Bay Books, 2009 (2008)

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
Chinua Achebe
Anchor Books, 1994 (1959)

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.

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Review: Mattaponi Queen

Mattaponi Queen
Belle Boggs
Graywolf Press, 2010
Purchased new trade paperback

“There’s one lady, Nellie Wynn, you know her?” Ronnie asked one day. “Lives over near the post office?”

“Yeah,” Skinny said. “That’s my parents’ old place she lives in.”

“Oh,” Ronnie said. “It’s a nice house. Every day she offers me a cookie out of this enormous Aunt Jemima cookie jar. Blackface and everything, polka-dotted kerchief, big gummy smile. You pull her head off and there’s cookies inside.”

“She gives you cookies?”

“They’re not homemade, like yours,” Ronnie said. “It’s the Aunt Jemima jar. It’s so strange. And then she wants to talk about Pocahontas, how she was raped, and I just sit there.”

“My mom was stuck on Pocahontas too,” Skinny said. “Matoaka, she called her. She said it meant ‘naughty one.’ I guess in hindsight she probably shouldn’t have stepped in like she did. Then my mom would talk about how she broke her father’s heart, running off to England to get put on display.”

“You think she was trying to tell you something?” Ronnie said.

“What do you mean?”

“About women,” she said.

“Hell,” he said. “Where’ve you been all my life to translate this shit?”

—   from “It Won’t Be Long”

I had not intended for my next review here to have so much in common with the last one I wrote, but I could not put this off. Like The Toughest Indian in the World, Belle Boggs‘ debut is a collection of short stories, several of them about Indians. The Indians in Mattaponi Queen, however, are members of the Pamunkey and Mattaponi tribes in eastern Virginia, and they and their non-Indian neighbors, friends, and relatives live in King William and King and Queen counties, near the confluence of the Matta and Poni rivers. It’s an area I’m familiar with, having grown up in Richmond, but do not know well. It was the title that initially caught my attention while browsing at Barnes and Noble earlier this summer. After reading that it had been shortlisted for the 2010 Frank O’Connor Award (according to The Guardian, the world’s richest prize for short story collections), I moved it to the top of my TBR stack. As soon as I started reading, only the demands of nature could induce me to put it down.

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Review: The Toughest Indian in the World

The Toughest Indian in the World
Sherman Alexie
Grove Press, 2000
Purchased new trade paperback.

“Are you an Indian?” he asked me.

Of course I was. (Jesus, my black hair hung down past my ass and I was dark as a pecan!) I’d grown up on my reservation with my tribe. I understood most of the Spokane language, though I’d always spoken it like a Jesuit priest. Hell, I’d been in three car wrecks! And most important, every member of the Spokane Tribe of Indians could tell you the exact place and time where I’d lost my virginity. Why? Because I’d told each and every one of them. I mean, I knew the real names, nicknames, and secret names of every dog that had lived on my reservation during the last twenty years.

“Yeah, I’m Indian,” I said.

—   from “One Good Man”

The Toughest Indian in the World is a collection of short stories by acclaimed author Sherman Alexie. A Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian, Alexie writes almost exclusively about Indians (Indians, not Native Americans), particularly those who are also all or part Spokane or Coeur d’Alene.

The stories in The Toughest Indian in the World are about identity and how it informs and guides relationships: about what it means to be an Indian, a man, a woman, a person, a Coeur d’Alene, a Spokane, a wife, a husband, a lover, a son, and many other labels people either find themselves tagged with or claim for themselves. Continue reading