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Bookmarks Issue: 
36-Sept-Oct-2008
By: 
Uwem Akpan
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Award Year: 
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A-Say Youre One of ThemNigerian-born Uwem Akpan studied philosophy and English at Creighton and Gonzaga universities, and theology in Kenya. In 2006, he received his MFA from the University of Michigan. A Jesuit priest, he currently teaches at a seminary in Zimbabwe.

The Story: Children narrate this debut story collection, which shines light on the worst hardships children and their families experience in all parts of Africa. In "An Ex-Mas Feast," a boy in Nairobi sniffs glue with his parents while the family waits for his 12-year-old sister to return with earnings from prostitution. In "Fattening for Gabon," an uncle sells his niece and nephew into sexual slavery. In "My Parents’ Bedroom," a Rwandan girl of mixed Hutu/Tutsi heritage is given the command that gives the book its title ("Say you’re one of them") when Hutus come to massacre Tutsis. Throughout the stories, children run, hide, and struggle to survive in a world where ethnic and religious violence collides with poverty, hunger, and hopelessness.
Little, Brown. 359 pages. $23.99. ISBN: 0316113786

Chicago Tribune 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Juxtaposed against the clarity and revelation in Akpan’s prose—as 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." Alan Cheuse

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Akpan is such a clever, instinctual writer, that even when his characters are providing testimony, it can feel like art. … These stories are complex, full of respect for the characters facing depravity, free of sensationalizing or glib judgments." John Freeman

USA Today 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Uwem Akpan’s brilliant Say You’re One of Them proves that great fiction often can reveal more truth than a whole shelf of memoirs and histories. … ‘Luxurious Hearses’ is a tour-de-force that explains Nigeria’s Muslim-Christian tensions and the role played by oil multinationals." Deirdre Donahue

Washington Post 4.5 of 5 Stars
"It is not merely the subject that makes Akpan’s story or his writing so astonishing, translucent and horrifying all at once; it is his talent with metaphor and imagery, his immersion into character and place. … Akpan’s incredible talent as a writer prevents the story from becoming a polemic, diatribe or object lesson." Susan Straight

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 4 of 5 Stars
"He has a real gift for bringing the day-to-day living of the downtrodden of Africa to life. … Akpan has a sound ear for dialogue, and his use of the local dialect lends authenticity to the stories, even if it takes effort to absorb the full meaning of what is being said." Vikram Johri

San Diego Union-Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"Uwem Akpan casts a stark, yet loving eye on contemporary Africa. … Despite the intensity of subject and its focus on children, Say You’re One of Them resolutely avoids both cynicism and sentimentality. Akpan’s clear, stirring prose serves the children’s perspective with remarkable verisimilitude." Gregory Leon Miller

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"[S]earing. … These are stories of survival at its most basic. … [The] longing for and dreaming of things that are forever out of reach … leave[s] a bitter aftertaste in all of the stories." June Sawyers

New York Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"With his trajectory always a fait accompli, Mr. Akpan fares better with small, evocative details than with broad strokes. … Throughout this collection he succeeds far better in summoning individual voices than in capturing more generalized conflict." Janet Maslin

Critical Summary

Hailed as "a major literary debut" (San Diego Union-Tribune) and "brilliant" (USA Today), Uwem Akpan’s collection Say You’re One of Them fulfills the promise of his 2005 short story, "An Ex-Mas Feast," in the New Yorker. Without flinching or lecturing, Akpan shares the almost unimaginable horrors that threaten Africa’s most vulnerable children. A Jesuit priest, he also evokes the love, grace, and other spiritual values that can emerge from the fight for survival. Critics universally praised Akpan’s writing, although the New York Times found Akpan’s use of details and individual characters more convincing than his attempts to describe larger issues. This collection will undoubtedly be widely read—not only for its literary merit but also so that readers may better understand a large, complex, and often faceless continent.