Say You’re One of Them, Uwem Akpan, Little Brown & Co.
Tragic, frustrating, majestic, bewildering can all describe Say You’re One of Them, a Uwem Akpan’s short story collection. I have never read so many sad tales that did not come out of Russian literature. A Jesuit priest, Uwem Akpan is an obvious observer of the conflicts that ensnare his country (Nigeria) and continent. Akpan is a true artist painting with words a world so tragic it shakes you to your core leaving you ashamed to know that such a world may exist. Yet the stories of Say You’re One of Them are filled with many deeply good characters allowing a reader to come away from the collection with hope and the desire Akpan writes even more such tales.
What Language is That demonstrates the depth of this collection opening with two little girls in Ethiopia, best friends that argue a lot as small children seem to do. Their differences are those of children, yet we learn that faith separates their families with one being Christian, the other Muslim. The faiths of the elders are what tear these two girls from one another, and this tale acts as a microcosm of our larger world. What begins as a small disagreement between the children over outside friends is soon smoothed over by the pleading of parents. Their relationship is strong, but there are definite areas of trouble. If left alone, the narrative suggests, it seems the children will have a life-long friendship to enrich their lives and as the two fall asleep all is well between the young girls. The world is far different the next morning, and the young girls pay the price for the actions of others in their town. We learn that some violence and destruction has occurred in the night and the buildings of both girls have been damaged. The parents tell the girls that she is no longer able to play with her best friend; their faith differences have put an end to their relationship. They will no longer be best friends nor are they allowed to speak to each other ever again. Their only time together now will be in the glances on their respective balconies.
This story and the rest of the collection are windows to our world. The overall tone is light, but belied by the subject matter hidden in each story. Uwem Akpan has created art out of the misery that surrounds everyday life in modern Africa. The abject poverty, the lack of future, and the evil of man is all found in Say You’re One of Them, the best written collection to come around in quite a while. Although the subjects appear off-putting at first blush, the finished tales just leave you in wonder.
Jeffrey Weaver is a graduate of the University of Georgia with a BA in English Lit and History. He resides in the Atlanta area.