Author: Uwem Akpan
Genre: Short Stories
First Published: June 2008
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Challenges: 100+ Reading Challenge, A to Z Challenge, Support your Local Library Reading Challenge, Audio Book Challenge, POC Challenge
On the flap
Uwem Akpan's first published short story, "An Ex-mas Feast," appeared in The New Yorker's Debut Fiction issue in 2005. The story's portrait of a family living together in a makeshift shanty in urban Kenya, and their attempts to find gifts of any kind for the impending Christmas holiday, gives a matter-of-fact reality to the most extreme circumstances--and signaled the arrival of a breathtakingly talented writer.
"My Parents' Bedroom" is a Rwandan girl's account of her family's struggles to maintain a facade of normality amid unspeakable acts. In "Fattening for Gabon," a brother and sister cope with their uncle's attempt to sell them into slavery. "Luxurious Hearses" creates a microcosm of Africa within a busload of refugees and introduces us to a Muslim boy who summons his faith to bear a treacherous ride through Nigeria. "What Language Is That?" reveals the emotional toll of the Christian-Muslim conflict in Ethiopia through the eyes of childhood friends. Every story is a testament to the wisdom and resilience of children, even in the face of the most agonizing situations our planet can offer.
After hearing plenty of reviews about this book, I was curious as to how this one will turn out. I don't generally read short stories, but I was all for giving this one a try!
I didn't enjoy it much. Not that the stories aren't poignant, because that would be an understatement. It is the way the stories are told that disagreed with me and my interest quotient.
I listened to the 3 short stories, An Ex-mas Feast, What Language Is That?, and My Parents' Bedroom on the audio book. It took me quite a while to get a hang of the accents, and I did have to restart once I got synced. I liked the narrators of this audio book, because I felt they captured the essence of the plot and the book theme really well with their various tones and inflections.
The first story I listened to was My Parents' Bedroom. This was my favorite story of the book, and probably the most tragic of all, if ever that could be measured. The story chronicles the thoughts of Monique, who is trying to make sense of the violence around her, why people she trusted suddenly appeared to be angry and hostile. She and her brother Jean were told to stay home by their mother, who left them home alone for a night. The terror felt by the children was very well captured in this story, as they tried to keep safe from some attackers who barged in at night. Monique's impressions of her parents and her various uncles and other relatives were well described. At the same time, I strongly felt her confusion and angst as matters go from bad to worse. Her increasing distrust in people she once connected with was very palpable and poignant. I found this a very tragic story, and the experience that Monique and Jean go through very sad.
The next was An Ex-mas Feast. This story recounts the happenings of one night, the Christmas evening, in the lives of a family of eight living in a shack. The father rarely worked and was in debt, the elder daughters made money as street girls, the infant was occasionally sent with the children to beg, and the whole family tried to save money for Jigana's school education. An impending decision by Maisha, the eldest daughter, is threatening to upset the status quo of the family. I felt this story a bit slow for my tastes, since most part of it was background build-up. It was still a good story, and the climax almost made me sad. Almost. The detached story-telling ruined that effect for me. By the time, the story started building up, I couldn't really connect with the characters. The circumstances were definitely painful, the story was definitely sad, but it was not moving enough.
The 3rd story, What Language Is That? is a very short story, only 40 minutes on audio, or 12 pages. Being very short, I identified the least with this. But I liked it for two reasons, it described the unconditional friendship between two girls in a very satisfying manner. They couldn't care less for the Muslim-Christian rivalry. But this story is written in second person, and it took me some time to get used to that. I didn't feel that this mode of story-telling worked for this story. It was very distracting to hear 'you' instead of 'she' or 'I'. I was surprised when it ended as well, I couldn't decide what to draw out of that.
The two novellas, Fattening for Gabon and Luxurious Hearses, were about 140 pages each, and definitely long. Fattening for Gabon was about the second saddest story I read in this book. The two siblings, Kotchikpa and Yewa were being taken care of by their uncle, who made a living by helping people cross the border without the needed papers. At the beginning of this novella, the uncle is getting ready to give the two kids up for adoption. Most of the story then proceeds to show their preparation, how they try to learn about their new life and their new family. Although this story was very long, it was written well, nicely showing the increasing suspicions of Kotchikpa, and focusing on his and his sister's fears. The progress of the story evoked a lot of sadness in me, considering the tragedies that befell the trio.
The last novella was Luxurious Hearses. Jubril is trying to escape to the south, to his father's place, away from all the violence in the north. He is the lone Muslim in a bus, occupied by only Christians. His arm is also amputated, after having been caught stealing by his community members, much before the incidents of this story. His deepest fear is about being found out, especially through his accent, and he tries desperately to hide it by covering his mouth. During the travel, Jubril tries to fight his various demons, such as his reluctance to watch women, or watch the TV. I felt the book did a good job capturing his change of opinions and beliefs, as he came to know his co-passengers better. It also did a good job in showing how much he was willing to let go of his faith and be the Christian he was baptized as. But I didn't enjoy the narration of this story, and regrettably, found myself losing my focus many a time.
Overall, this book was a mixed bag. The stories are all tragic and stuck a chord within me. The narration felt a bit detached in some stories, failing to make me connect with the characters. A couple of them were longer than they needed to be.
This comes from the story, My Parents' Bedroom. Monique's mother is getting ready to leave the house, leaving the two children home. At that time, she warns Monique:
“When they ask you,” she says sternly, without looking at me, “say you’re one of them, O.K.?”
Cover Art Demystified
Say You're One of Them has a beautiful cover. I loved the colors decorating the cover - the sand, the green bushes to the two sides, the running girl in the white dress, her shadow behind her.
What did you think?
Have you read this book? I'd like to know what you thought about it. Please leave your review link in the comments, or a brief opinion, if you hadn't reviewed it.
Did you like it or you didn't? If you didn't, at what point did the book turn you off.