Alright, I finished “Say You’re One of Them.” Before I begin, I want to share an editorial on Amazon written about this book.
“With the intensity of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Say You’re One of Them tells of the horrors faced by young people throughout Africa. Akpan uses five short stories (though at well over 100 pages, both “Luxurious Hearses” and “Fattening for Gabon” are nearly stand-alone novels in their own right) to bring to light topics ranging from selling children in Gabon to the Muslim vs. Christian battles in Ethiopia. The characters face choices that most American high school students will never have to—whether or not to prostitute oneself to provide money for one’s homeless family, whether to save oneself, even if it means sacrificing a beloved sibling in the process. The selections are peppered with a mix of English, French, and a variety of African tongues, and some teens may find themselves reading at a slower pace than usual, but the impact of the stories is well worth the effort. The collection offers a multitude of learning opportunities and would be well suited for “Authors not born in the United States” reading and writing assignments. Teens looking for a more upbeat, but still powerful, story may prefer Bryce Courtenay’s The Power of One (Random, 1989).” —Sarah Krygier, Solano County Library, Fairfield, CA
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So, now it’s time to share my thoughts.
I did not especially like this book. It was a difficult read and, while the stories are worth sharing, it was difficult to understand with all the different languages sprinkled throughout the text. A glossary to assist in defining these foreign phrases would have been extremely helpful.
I am aware that most American highschoolers are completely oblivious to current events, especially oblivious to foreign events. In this sense, the book is excellent as a way to wake a generation up to what horrors many people have to survive. Reading this, I felt extremely blessed that I was lucky enough to be born into a world where I don’t have to pick between prostitution and starvation. As an American girl, I have been afforded everything I could ever need to thrive and survive… just because I am American. Schooling? Free. (Granted, there are some horrible schools in this nation… there are still opportunities to make something great from very little.) Starvation? We’ve got food banks and charities to help with that. (There were make shift food pantries, even in my neck of the woods, to help families through our current financial rough patch.) We can legally marry who we like without fear that one race will openly revolt against the other. (This is a relatively new development, of course.) And, as of yet, there are no silly religious rulers taking over our government.
My point is… our lives are sugar and spice and butterflies compared to what some people have to face.
In the first story, “An Ex-Mas Feast,” a young girl sells herself on the street so that her siblings can eat and go to school. Her siblings also beg for money, using Baby as a way to gain extra sympathy money. The parents (and children) huff as a way to dull the pain of hunger. They all live in a makeshift shack. Eventually, the young prostitute leaves her family to go full-time (if I remember correctly) and her young brother runs away to Nairobi.
In “Fattening for Gabon,” an uncle (who is responsible for these children because their parents developed AIDS) sells his niece and nephew into slavery. They are groomed for their new life, given new names and lied to about where they’re going. They’re told they’ll have a fabulous life full of schooling. They’re led to believe they’ll never go hungry. But when it’s too late for the uncle to change his mind, he finally decides he can’t go through with it. He tries to take the children away in the middle of the night but he is chased down by the other men involved in the slave trade business. They beat the uncle to within an inch of his life and tell the children that they must behave or their uncle will die. Later on the slave traders kill the uncle; the older child finds out as they bury him in the back yard. He tries to tell his sister that they have to leave or these slave traders will kill them. She hesitates as her brother tries to get her out the window and one of their watchers come in. He shoves his sister out of the way and climbs through the window himself. He runs for his life and escapes, but his sister is not so lucky.
“What Language is That?” was a very short story about two neighbor girls who are best friends. One is Muslim, the other is not. Eventually a war breaks out (as grown-ups tend to fight much more hatefully than children do) and the two are forced to avoid one another by their parents. The story ends right after they both defy their parents and “meet” by standing on their respective balconies. They use a sort of sign language to show their love and friendship for each other before they have to scurry away to avoid discovery by their parents.
I really wish this story would have been longer. It’s the only one in the book that felt especially intriguing. It seemed to emphasize the innocence of children much much more than any of the other stories. It also felt like I could know these girls; they were innocent bystanders in a world filled with ignorance, stupidity and hate — yet they found a way to overcome that and still be together.
“Luxurious Hearses” really just drove me nuts. I feel like it could have been SO much shorter than it was. It seemed to be a tale of contradictions… over and over and over again. A Muslim boy tries to escape violence in the north by traveling south, where his Christian father lives. He is so fanatical about his faith that he feels his own brother deserved to be stoned to death for converting to Christianity. He also allows his own hand to be cut off because he committed a sin by stealing. However, the hypocrisy is blazing when the Muslims (after killing the Christians who live in their village) loot the houses in the ensuing riots.
Like I said, I really did not like this story.
Anyway, Jubril (the Muslim boy) is beaten by his “friends” and is saved by another fellow Muslim who is also helping Christians escape the area. Jubril has to hide his identity to survive the trip and eventually, on his journey south, he sees a mosque being burnt on the TV. He cries and exposes his cut off hand, which in turn exposes him as a Muslim. He is taken off the bus (along with another passenger, a soldier who semi-valiantly stands up for th eyoung boy) and executed. Before he is executed though, he feels a deep kinship with his dead brother, who was also killed for believing in the “wrong” God.
The ending was the only thing that saved this for me.
The final story, “My Parents’ Bedroom,” is also very short. It tells the story of an interracial marriage. The village is trying to cleanse themselves of a particular tribe (Tutsi, I believe?). The main characters are a mother and father and their two children. The mother and father are hiding people in their attic, but the father is also being told he must kill his wife. They manage to dodge it one night, but their older daughter is, in the process of covering for her parents’ disappearance, sexually abused. The next night, the mob comes to the home again and they cannot avoid the confrontation; both parents are home. They take the family to the parents’ bedroom and tell the father he must either kill his wife or they will kill the entire family. While his children watch him, he beheads his wife while she sits on the bed, pleading with him to keep the others safe. The two children run out of the home after the father leaves with the mob and run out of town. As they are leaving, a group of Tutsi people run past them and set fire to the house, killing all their people who are hidden in the attic.
I don’t think I would recommend this to anyone unless they need a serious wake up call. It was extremely difficult to read due to the broken English, the sprinkling of African languages (and French), and the complete lack of a glossary or explanation of the terms. Two of the stories were long and felt long. A story shouldn’t feel long.
All in all, “Say You’re One of Them” is a worthy read. It covers a topic that is not usually discussed and it highlights the plight and horrors that many children go through. It would have been exponentially better with the addition of supplementary material to explain some of the phrases and words used in the text. (I don’t know if I can ever stress that enough.)