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message 1: by Wilhelmina (last edited Aug 11, 2009 04:40PM) (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments As a result of our first runoff poll, the September Discussion book will be Say You're One of Them by Uwem Akpan. The discussion will begin on September 1.

Here's a little biographical information about next month's author:

Uwem Akpan was born in the village of Ikot Akpan Eda in southern Nigeria.

After studying philosophy and English at Creighton and Gonzaga universities, he studied theology for three years at the Catholic University of East Africa. He was ordained as a Jesuit priest in 2003 and received his MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan in 2006. “My Parents’ Bedroom,” a story from his short story collection "Say You’re One of Them", was one of five short stories by African writers chosen as finalists for The Caine Prize for African Writing.

In 2007, Akpan began a teaching assignment at a Jesuit college in Harare, Zimbabwe.

Akpan’s stories are set in Rwanda, Nigeria, Benin, and Ethiopia and tell stories about children caught in horrible situations. Two of the stories in his first collection were published in The New Yorker.

Here's what last month's author had to say about this book:

“Uwem Akpan writes with a political fierceness and a humanity so full of compassion it might just change the world. His is a burning talent.”
– Chris Abani, author of GraceLand and The Virgin of Flames

And here's a link to a very strong review of the book by author Susan Straight:

message 2: by jo (new)

jo | 1031 comments i'm inching my way through this. halve that. i'm moving half an inch at a time. other people are finding this painful?

message 3: by Mistinguette (new)

Mistinguette Smith | 191 comments jo wrote: "i'm inching my way through this. other people are finding this painful?"

YES. YES. YES. I couldn't get through the first story, An Ex-mas Feast, when it appeared in The New Yorker last year, and I am struggling to read it now.

The brutal emotional accuracy of Ex-mas Feast is hard for me: I recognize (and, frankly, identify with) Maisha's life and family, even though I did not grow up a pre-teen prostitute in a Nairobi shantytown. The rendering of the mother in all her viciousness and ambivalence, cleverness and addiction, is too true to be denied: yet Akpan is brave to break with traditional renderings of African women and women of African descent in this way.

I cannot bear to look, yet cannot look away.

message 4: by jo (new)

jo | 1031 comments lovely comment, mistinguettes. you nail the mother. i echo the last sentence. i am well into the second story, reveling in the gorgeous language... at least!

message 5: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments In anticipation of our discussion beginning on Tuesday. I just listened to an excellent interview with Uwem Akpan on NPR's show On Point with Tom Ashbrook, located at:

It's lengthy, but quite interesting. I noticed a number of good topics on that site; I'll have to go back and look more.

Don't forget - the discussion begins on Tuesday, September 1!

message 6: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments Mistinguettes wrote: I cannot bear to look, yet cannot look away...."

This comment from Mistinguettes in message 3 seems to me to be the perfect way to begin our discussion of Say You're One of Them by Uwem Akpan. Akpan tells truly painful stories set in several African countries from the point of view of children. Akpan states that he chose to write these stories after reading newspaper stories about African children in distress that would start with an introductory passage about a particular child, then go on to discuss the situation (wars, AIDS, etc.) in general, only returning to the child in the final paragraph. He wanted to stay focused on the child and tell the story from a child's perspective.

Do you think that this technique was successful? Did the child's point of view make such painful stories easier or harder to read for you?

message 7: by jo (new)

jo | 1031 comments Wilhelmina wrote: "Did the child's point of view make such painful stories easier or harder to read for you?"

the child point of view makes the stories incredibly lyrical. i love the way these kids are kids, even when their childhood has been robbed from them by brutal living conditions. i love books written in kids' voices but with deep content.

the painfulness of these stories is unbearable. i just finished (at 5 am this morning) "Fattening for Gabon" and i think i'll never forget it.

message 8: by Ksab (last edited Sep 02, 2009 01:32PM) (new)

Ksab Ok-I'm trying to read this book -so far I've read "An Ex-mas Feast" and "What Language Is This?" I was trying to make my way-through"Fattening for Gabon" but found it kind of tedious-difficult subject matter which due to writing style cannot be read-at least by me-quickly-which how i usually read. all I can say is that-with most short story collections I think I prefer to read stories of more varied subject matter-So I'll have to see how I feel when/dare I say if-I finish the book-Good Luck and Happy Reading-K

message 9: by jo (last edited Sep 02, 2009 02:03PM) (new)

jo | 1031 comments ksab, i *suspect* (but i don't know you, do i?) that you might find "Fattening" rather gripping if you stay with it. but then what rocks one's person's boat doesn't rock another's! there is in it a tone of menace that you can't quite pin down except for what the first paragraph says -- about children's being sold by parents or uncles/aunts. at least the first part of the story is quite nice. and yet this menace hovers and thickens, and you feel it under your skin. i actually found myself willing to FORGET the first paragraph, telling myself that OF COURSE it was going to end well! i think akpan lays it all out for you, then brings you back back back to the child's point of view and shows you how a child comes to realize the happening of tragedy -- slowly, and with a lot of denial, and with a lot of betrayed trust, but also, once the tragedy's outlines become clearer, with unforgiving acumen.

message 10: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments Gripping, to say the least. The innocence and vulnerability of the children, their willingness to trust adults who are kind to them, had me on the edge of my seat. Like jo, I kept hoping that somehow the children would be all right, although I knew that it was a foolish hope. Akpan is able to pull this off so skillfully that I am amazed that this was his first collection. This story left me completely drained.

message 11: by Janice (new)

Janice (janiceredhead67) | 1 comments I had to put the book down and I hadn't even finished the first story! I can't believe people live that way.....I have been kept from the truth of the matter that in foreign countries this could be their daily life. It appears there is no hope.

message 12: by jo (new)

jo | 1031 comments oh, but of course there is hope! akpan wrote this book not to get us all down and despairing, but to open our eyes to the reality of other people's pain. at the same time, he also abundantly shows us the beautiful nuggets of joy hidden in their lives. the pain of others (not just other individuals, but also people whose reality is different from ours) is often unbearable because we mostly focus on their misery rather than on the overall complexity of their lives.

dunno how many people have read "Fattening for Gabon;" if you haven't read it but plan to, don't continue because there are spoilers ahead, but: in the scene in which the uncle goes crazy with grief and scares his niece and nephew with his nudity, we get some precious drops of life-affirming, good information. first, these two kids, as hard as they've had it, are innocent to sexual or other betrayal. they trust their uncle. they trust his love implicitly. they have been brought up in love. (the scenes in which they cuddle or laugh together are lovely and not few). this is why they are strong, generous, life-loving, joyous children. second: the uncle, even while in the process of betraying his kids for money, experiences such tremendous torture that he goes crazy. there's a strong moral fabric there. the uncle and the kids do live in great poverty, but their family ties and the strength of their moral lives sustain them in ways that are precious and valid. eventually, the uncle literally dies for the children he allegedly wanted to betray, and the boy, at least, is strong enough to leave (can you imagine his strength and resolve? those last pages made my heart race and, also, made me think, "i could not have done it").

i was telling the story to my husband and he said, "boy do we have it good." and, yes, we do. at the same time, though, we are broken in all sorts of ways. the rates of child neglect and child poverty in this country are abysmal. families don't manage to stay together and love each other enough -- and i'm talking about nuclear families, not even going anywhere near extended families. we suffer from depression and all sorts of awful malaise. we have high rates of suicide. i could continue.

these children are strong. we can learn something from their suffering -- maybe, among other things, to understand ours.

in other words, i know that the automatic response to the reading of these stories is, "how can i ever complain again when i have it so much better?" but i think this would be the very wrong reaction. pain comes in all sorts of stripes. some of us suffer more than these kids, even if we have food and shelter and all sorts of other conveniences and luxuries. all pain is real. this pain is just different, and we can embrace it with humility rather than feeling overwhelmed and cowed and, yes, embarrassed by it.

hope this makes sense. this is something i've been thinking about a lot and if it outrages you in any way i ask that you be kind. we can and i hope will have a conversation about this, but these are sensitive issues, so let's be considerate of each other, okay?

message 13: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments Oh, jo what a great comment. You really got to the heart of this book. I'll say more later, but isn't Akpan brilliant to be able to convey all of this in his stories?

message 14: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments jo wrote: "these children are strong. we can learn something from their suffering -- maybe, among other things, to understand ours.... "

These children really are strong and intelligent. One of the things that kept me reading these stories was that these children were in terrible peril, but they were constantly thinking, trying to understand their situations and make the best of them. Often they come to erroneous conclusions, particularly about whom they should trust, but they are children, after all.

Reading "Fattening for Gabon", I kept thinking about the millions of African children who would have lived normal lives had AIDS not taken over the continent, leaving so many orphans. The phrase that kept coming to mind was the ancient saying, popularized by JFK, that having children was giving hostages to fate. We have to do better by the world's children. There is always hope when there is sufficient resolve.

message 15: by Ksab (new)

Ksab Thanks Jo- and Mina-I did finish "Fattening for Gabon" and have lots of thoughts-which I'll share when I finish the book-I'm now reading my l"last" story-"Beautiful Hearses". I found "My Parent's Bedroom" particularly disturbing and wanted to know more..-K

message 16: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments What did everyone think about the first story, "An Ex-Mas Feast"? Why do you think that he gave the story that title? Did you find Maisha to be a positive character or a negative one?

message 17: by ColumbusReads (new)

ColumbusReads (coltrane01) | 3700 comments Mod
Just finished "An Ex-Mas Feast" the introductory story to this collection and found it disturbing, heartbreaking, but fascinating. I'll reserve a full review when I complete the book, but I dare anyone to read it and not be moved by some of the images in this story.

As for Maisha, the idea of a twelve year old prostituting regardless of the circumstances is not A wise vocation. That said, she was the primary breadwinner in the family and they had to depend on her for food and other necessities; and snorting glue is not a substitute for a good meal. In addition, it was through her that Jigana was to receive his education.

Excellent story by another wonderful Nigerian writer. Looking forward to the others.

message 18: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments Two of the stories in this collection are long enough to be considered novellas. Did you find those pieces to be too long or did they benefit by taking more time to develop the story?

message 19: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments I have the feeling that this book was overwhelming for some of us. I would hate to say the discussion was over so quickly. Whenever anyone would like to make a comment, even after the end of the month, just post. Some of us will be sure to respond.

message 20: by Rashida (new)

Rashida | 264 comments Look at that, y'all were ahead of the game. The novel is about to get the star of approval from the O.

message 21: by Wilhelmina (last edited Sep 18, 2009 05:04PM) (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments Fantastic! I'm really pleased for Akpan and I'm happy that more readers will be giving some thought to Africa. I think that I'll put this up top where more people can see it, Rashida. Thanks!

For those who have read or are still reading this book, there's lots of good info on Oprah's website:

message 22: by Mistinguette (new)

Mistinguette Smith | 191 comments It has been more than a month and I was able to read only 3 of the 4 stories in 'Say You're One of Them'. I am textually monogamous (I finish what I start), but this book was simply too painful for me read all at once. I have never had this response to such beautiful, well crafted literature before. I need much more than a month to parse through the many layers of pain, denial, culpability, and shattered illusions these stories bring up for me.

I am struck by Akpan's religious vocation, and the frame it provided for my reading of his stories. The Roman Catholic sacrament of reconciliation to one's community involves confessing the story of one's shame to one's self, to God, and to receive forgiveness from another living person. Reading Akpan's stories requires me to listen to shame-filled stories with compassion for my own suffering, and to offer forgivenss and compassion for the human weakness that causes suffering for the children whose stories he narrates. I am privileged and somehow redeemed by reading these stories, however slowly. Something about them brings me to my knees.

message 23: by Bibliomantic (last edited Nov 24, 2009 08:29AM) (new)

Bibliomantic | 6 comments I just came across this page and I am surprised to see the low number of posts in a discussion of a book as good as this one. I only have one story left to read, so I should finish the book later today, but I can safely say that Say You're One of Them is one of the best things I've read all year. I will probably end up giving it 4 out of 5 stars due to Akpan's odd penchant for wrapping things up a bit too fast--his endings close and shut the stories within a sentence to a paragraph-length snippets that take away from his otherwise slowly and deliberately developed stories, two of which are over 100 pages long--but otherwise I would give it the perfect 5. I look forward to reading more of this author.

message 24: by Rebecca (last edited Nov 25, 2009 12:02PM) (new)

Rebecca | 386 comments Does anyone know if it was Akapan's intention to make the stories in Say You're One of Them so we would need to take some time to get through them?

message 25: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments I haven't heard him say so, Rebecca, but he does say that, looking at newspaper articles about Africa's children where a child may be described briefly in the first paragraph, then left out of the story until the concluding words of the last paragraph, he wanted to fully tell the stories that had not been told. I think that this intention necessarily leads to stories that take time to read and digest.

Bibliomantic, I think that the low number of posts was due to the overwhelming nature of the material for many readers. They just couldn't continue reading all the way through, even though the book was so beautifully done.

message 26: by Rebecca (new)

Rebecca | 386 comments I agree with your latter comment Wilhelmina but to me that was all the more reason for me to keep at it, and make myself stare at all of it in the face.

message 27: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments Agreed!

message 28: by Rebecca (new)

Rebecca | 386 comments I think its all to easy for people including myself to just sit back because its not happening in our own backyard. I have seen many make the comment about just couldn't read it and frankly to me it's a lame excuse.

message 29: by Janet (new)

Janet | 224 comments it's good to see people talking about this again (I wasn't able to read it til after the 'official' discussion month) -- these points all make sense. Not sure what his intentions are/were, but as a reader I felt that I was meant to take time, to be on the bus, especially (and I was reading the bus story as I was traveling across country) - to know the agonizing terrifying every moment, up, down, rest, pause, panic, terror - all of it. With people whose names and lives all mattered. It's a stunning piece of work. I'm grateful, again/still to this group for making us aware of this - and many other - important pieces of writing.

message 30: by Rebecca (new)

Rebecca | 386 comments Well said Janet.

message 31: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments Glad you were able to read it, Janet, and, just to remind everyone, if you read a book after the "official" month, please feel free to add comments at any time, even many months later. If you add comments, the discussion thread will pop up near the top of the list so that others can read them and respond.

message 32: by Bibliomantic (last edited Dec 03, 2009 03:04PM) (new)

Bibliomantic | 6 comments Wilhelmina, indeed, the book was beautifully written, even if often in the form of (what I can best describe as) rough beauty. I think that the pidgin added authenticity to the voices, even though it might make for difficult reading for those who are unfamiliar with it. Nevertheless, a few frenchiefied words and a handful of transposed consonanants shouldn't be a big deal. After all, it's not 'Finnegan's Wake' by any means.
However, I was impressed by the fact that the pidgin of the dialogues did not clash with the non-pidgin narrative, and it is to Akpan's credit that he made them work well together.

One issue I do have with the collection. And that is, as I mentioned above, the abrupt ending of each of the stories/novellas. I felt a little cheated each time even though I technically couldn't find fault with any of them. Since each tale was concluded in like manner, there must have been an intent in that. I am still mulling over that, and I am starting to be ok with it, but I do wish Akpan gave us more substantial resolutions to each story. The closest to it that he got was with the final tale.

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