Thursday, November 19, 2009

Say You're One of Them (Uwem Akpan)

It's probably fairly safe to say my impression of this book is somewhat biased. About halfway through reading it, I glanced in the back and read the "About the Author" blurb and found out that Uwem Akpan, a Jesuit priest from Nigeria, studied English at Creighton University (my Alma Mater!), which led me to look through his acknowledgments in the slim chance that he would not only have known some of my English professors, but actually thanked them - lo and behold, I saw one of my absolute favorite (and most influential) professors names. Needless to say, this small connection with the author made me feel a deeper closeness with his words - we both know, and are grateful to, the same man.

In general, I'd say this book is depressing, at best. Though, I don't know what other outcome I could have expected from a book about children in Africa. The book contains five short stories, each about different children, in different circumstances, in different countries, but the unifying ties are that of poverty, war, genocide, and the basic evils of human nature. I found it hard not to be overwhelmed by a sense of desperation while reading this book, although I can admit, I didn't actually cry. While I think Akpan did an excellent job of portraying the reality of the various horrible (and unimaginable) circumstances of these children, he didn't do it in an overly sympathetic way. The book didn't seem to be designed to just pull at the reader's heartstrings, but rather to convey these terrible realities in a way that makes them much more real than a more emotional writer could have done. The straight-forward honesty of his writing forces the reader to accept that these are not stories of fiction, but the actual mind-numbing reality of children in Africa - in today's world.

I liked the structure of the book, being divided into five shorter stories, but I think Akpan easily could have expanded any one of the five into its own novel, and I would gladly have read all five. I think this segmentation of the stories actually aids his purpose of portraying the reality, though, as many of the stories seemed to just pick up and end without ceremony - no introductions or farewells, just brief glimpses into the struggles with open beginnings and endings that make the reader's mind reel with wonder, worry, agony, etc. over the circumstances of these children. Since I finished the novel a few hours ago, I've found myself returning to it at least half a dozen times to pick up where I left off, only to realize I didn't have any more.

The blurb on the back states that this book "pays tribute to the wisdom and resilience of children, even in the face of the most agonizing circumstances," and I think that best captures the essence of Akpan's work. I can tell already that these stories will haunt me for years to come, and my heart will continue to ache for the real children who have survived such dire experiences as those depicted here. I can also admit that, upon finishing this book, I went and held my own little boy for as long as he'd let me - the idea that these children are somebody's babies - that they could be so strong and capable in light of such horrific situations - that they have to be - is painful for anyone to read, but manages to be hopeful, in a way, simply because of their survival. In one way, the open-endedness could be reflective of the children's survival and ability to continue on. We, the readers, don't know what happens to them, but there is a small hope - at least the story is left with room to continue.

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