It took me but a weekend to read Say You're One of Them, a collection of stories written by Uwem Akpan, S.J., and featured as a Oprah's Book Club selection, but much longer to process. Working with children in urban schools, who are faced with myriad difficulties, it takes a lot to unnerve me. This haunting collection, however, left me rattled.
Unlike many stories told by children, but written by adults, each of the stories in this collection feels authentic. Civil wars, child prostitution and enslavement, disease and bitter religious battles unfold before the reader. Shared from the viewpoint of children, these unspeakable realities feel at once accessible and unfathomable. "How could this be happening to a child?" I kept asking myself, and then, "How could this be happening at all?" Akpan's masterful ability to tell a story in a child's voice lends grit and gravity to storylines that are already quite gritty and grave.
His ability to shape a character so complex-sometimes in just a few pages-that I found myself feeling empathetic toward an uncle who would sell his own niece and nephew, is telling. Akpan has a gift for engaging the reader in situations we might prefer to look away from, while showing us the humanity of each player, the whole person. In doing so, the people affected-not prostitution, not war-become the center. We might be able to delay in addressing the issues, but how could we delay in addressing a child?
Uwem Akpan, and the voice he lends to his characters, elevates the reader's consciousness. He reminds us that often, the situations that need the most attention are the most difficult to look at and, by sharing the stories of children, we realize what we risk in looking away. Say You're One of Them is must read.
I encourage you to find out more, by visiting Oprah's Book Club and would love to hear your thoughts and feedback in the comment field below.
[Photo via www.Oprah.com]