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Say You’re One of Them by Uwem Akpan

Say You’re One of Them was one of those sleeper, slow-burn-type books that picks up steam through word of mouth. What’s sent it into the stratosphere was being chosen as an Oprah’s Book Club selection – and as anyone with even a passing interest in Oprah will know, any book that gets her stamp of approval becomes an instant bestseller (and I have to say, as an aside that she has good taste and deserves a lot of credit for re-introducing younger readers to classic writers like Pearl Buck and William Faulkner that had fallen off the radar).

Anyway, the author of Say You’re One of Them is Ukem Akpan, who has an amazing personal story – he’s a Jesuit priest from southern Nigeria who recently did a Masters in creative writing at a university in Michigan, and has gone on to publish this.

I was curious about Oprah’s reasons for picking the book so I read what she had to say, and like me she thought that My Parent’s Bedroom, which is the last of the five stories in Say You’re One of Them, is also the most heartbreaking story in the collection.

It centres on a young girl, Monique, and her baby brother, Jean, who have the misfortune to be the children of a Hutu father and Tutsi mother which, at the time of the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi, puts the family in terrible danger

It did bring me to tears, but I don’t want that to put you off – you will probably find this book confronting and challenging, particularly if you have young children, but for an insight into the lives and experiences, and extraordinary strength of children in Africa, I don’t think you could find a more comprehensive and compelling book – the stories are set in Kenya, Nigeria, Benin and Ethopia as well as Rwanda, and the variation of the settings reminded me of how diverse a continent Africa really is

There is absolutely no melodrama or sentimentality – the stories are told from the point of view of the children, and every one of them has a clear-eyed, matter-of-fact view of the world.

One example is Jubril, a young Nigerian Muslim who must pretend to be Christian in order to fend off attacks from Christians – in his story, he is facing a long bus ride in which he has to disguise the fact that he has had his right hand amputated for stealing (which is a common Islamic punishment for stealing), by keeping the stump of his hand in his pocket for hours on end so his fellow passengers won’t see it.

He also can’t speak in case the people around him identify from his accent that he is Muslim, but despite this horrific situation he finds himself in, Jubril doesn’t feel an ounce of self-pity, which is something he has in common with the other children in the book – they understand their circumstances, they accept them and they just get on with the business of surviving.

Uwem Akpan does a remarkable job of demonstrating that the differences we think are so important, whether they are cultural, ethnic or religious, are completely irrelevant.

This review previously appeared on Coast.co.nz

Reviewer: Stephanie Jones

Published by Hachette