Sunday, March 21, 2010

Say You're One of Them

Author: Uwem Akpan
Publisher: Back Bay Books, Little Brown and Company (Hachette Book Group)
Copyright: 2008

Short stories (two not-so-short) set in Africa

I had to ration these stories so I wouldn't gobble them up all at once! These are stories made to be read slowly, so as to savor each gem.

The author describes horrible, terrible situations and makes them real and relatable. We hear stories like these on the news, but Uwem Akpan brings them to life, partly by creating real, believable characters that the reader can empathize with. Each character is unique, and not a single one is stereotyped, which could easily happen in stories with sweeping themes such as these. Instead, every character, not only the main characters, has an individual personality, so that in addition to becoming aware of the conditions in these African countries, the reader connects to a single story in each country.

Each story focuses on a different country, and the different points of view help give each one a different feel. I especially liked how Akpan used second-person point of view in "What Language Is That?" It's a great technique for pulling the reader right into the middle of the story, and he does it beautifully.

He also balances individual voices with the practical need for clarity, so that somehow - I wish I knew how! - the language reflects the individual voice without becoming slow, laborious reading. I also love how he inserts bits of other languages into the stories. Sometimes they're translated - naturally, without sounding like a translation - and sometimes they're left untranslated, just a bit of the culture of the country thrown into the story.

What I love most about these stories is that amidst all the horror of what is going on in these countries, you get a feel for human character, and not all of it is bad! You get to see how "life goes on" and how people care for each other even in the craziness going on around them. So for all that this is a book describing horrific events, I keep thinking of it as heart-warming.

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