Derrick Ashong on Say You're One of Them (Oprah Book Club pick)


Most times I change the channel when I see African children on my television screen. The images are formulaic—poverty stricken brown babies, bellies swollen, faces scowled in sadness—hopeless, save for the potential grace that a "dollar-a-day" might provide. I balk at the images, not because I begrudge these children those dollars for food and shelter, but because as an African it offends my sensibilities to be constantly saddled with only one side of what I know to be a complex and crucially important story.

How many of us know that for that same "dollar-a-day" you could send an African child to college, and he could someday not only feed himself and his family, but perhaps even be a part of building a society "no-longer-in-need-of-donations?" African's don't make these commercials. We're just the cast in a story someone else is telling.

I read Uwem Akpan's debut novel Say You're One of Them and was confronted with an African story told on a "channel" I could not change. Akpan writes a compelling, near-hypnotic text, introducing the lives of African children negotiating five experiences that almost defy description. Written in a seamless blending of literary English and colloquial banter, Akpan tackles both the profound and the profane through the uncensored lens of childhood innocence.

The author goes beyond the maudlin images of babies covered in flies, and does what no 60 second commercial can—he gives genuine humanity to these kids. He takes us into their hearts and allows us to peer out into the world as they see it. In so doing he makes these fictional children a part of us, and the proximity of their breath, their sense of wonder and their indomitable hope make them more than statistics. Their aspirations cause our spirits to rise, tentative with hope for resolution, but fearful of the dark realities that lie beyond the limits of a child's comprehension. And when those realities manifest, it hurts.

I'm not just posting this cause Derrick is a friend. He's sensitive to the oversaturation of one-sided media images of Africa (and black people generally) as well as the tangible effects of media imagery on people. So his review of this book comes with special weight.

I just bought the book from Amazon for my Kindle. http://bit.ly/yvZnw