Table of Contents
2. Say You’re One of Them in the Media
2.1 Publication and Prizes
2.2 Say You ’ re One of Them in Reviews
2.3 Reception in Oprah’s Book Club
3. Case Study: Reader Responses Concerning Say You’re One of Them on Oprah.com
3.1 Oprah’s Message Board
3.2 Say You ’ re One of Them on Oprah’s Message Board
3.3 The Webcast about Say You ’ re one of Them
4. Problem areas
4.1 The Western World and Africa
4.2 Self- Transformation or Political Change?
4.3 The Danger of Recolonization
6. Works Cited
“Gives voice to Africa’s children in beautifully crafted prose and stunning detail”: This is one example of the praising words on the back cover of Uwem Akpan’s collection of short stories Say You ’ re One of Them (Akpan 2008). In 2009, the debut book by the Nigerian writer Akpan became a bestseller after being chosen by the American TV star Oprah Winfrey for her popular Book Club. The five short stories in the book are set in different African countries and describe horrible events such as child abuse, prostitution and religious wars. Akpan writes his fictional stories through the eyes of children and claims to be speaking for African children in general.
The phrases “give a voice to” and “speaking for” are important catchwords in the field of postcolonial studies. In “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Gayatri Spivak (1995) exposes the process of giving a voice to the subaltern as a process of colonial domination. By trying to speak for those who do not or cannot speak for themselves - in Akpan’s case the African children - writers tend to ignore the heterogeneity of the subaltern and take an essentialist point of view. This problem has been discussed in connection with various pieces of postcolonial writing, and plays a role in the interpretation of Akpan’s Say You ’ re One of Them as well. By now, postcolonial literature has quite a long history, so the field of postcolonial studies has undergone several changes and has been subject to a lot of criticism in recent years.1
Yet, Chinua Achebe’s book Things Fall Apart, which was published in 1958, is still considered one of the most popular and influential works of postcolonial literature. The novel deals with the decline of an Igbo community in Nigeria during the late 19th century. Exactly 50 years later, Achebe’s compatriot Uwem Akpan published his book Say You ’ re One of Them, which contains stories with settings in different African countries in the 21st century. In this thesis, it is not my intention to compare Achebe’s and Akpan’s works. Instead, I will show that western readers of African literature still face and cause certain problems that are deeply embedded in postcolonial studies. In addition, the text will show that the practices of reading and talking about books have changed radically from Achebe to Akpan.
While Achebe’s book Things Fall Apart was published at a time when TV and the internet did not play a role in the reception of books, the popularity of Say You ’ re One of Them is closely linked to these new media. The book has received a lot of attention since it featured on Oprah’s Book Club in 2009. After being presented on the Oprah Winfrey Show and on Oprah’s website Oprah.com, Akpan’s book became very popular, especially in the US. Literary scholars have not published any studies about Akpan’s stories yet, so there is no scientific work about the book. However, the short stories were discussed intensely by the members of Oprah’s Book Club, who read the book on Oprah’s advice and exchanged their ideas about the stories on message boards2 on the internet. In the past few years, scholars of literary and cultural studies have given more and more attention to Oprah’s Book Club and its effect on the practices of reading and talking about books. Several writers have also focused on the internet as a setting for discussions about books.
In 2003, Eva Illouz was among the first scholars to publish a rather critical book about Oprah Winfrey and her media empire, including Oprah’s Book Club. Illouz describes the way Oprah discusses her book selections with her TV audience and examines how the TV star influences American culture. Cecilia Konchar Farr and Kathleen Rooney both published books in 2005 explaining how Oprah’s Book Club changed American readers. These works were followed by various essays published by Oprah’s critics and defenders. While authors like Kimberly Chabot Davis and Edith Frampton point out the positive effects of Oprah’s book discussions, Janice Peck, Heather L. Talley and Monica J. Casper (to name only a few) criticize different aspects of her Book Club and TV show.
This thesis deals with the reception of Oprah’s 63rd Book Club selection Say You ’ re One of Them on Oprah.com. Part of this work is a case study examining the reader responses on Oprah’s online message board and a webcast, which aims at investigating the effects of Oprah’s way of presenting and talking about Akpan’s book and literature in general. The publications mentioned above and other essays, studies and books will serve as a framework for this case study.
Since there are no publications about Say You ’ re One of Them yet, the first chapter of this thesis will give a short overview of the publication history of the book and its general reception in the academic world. This overview will be followed by a presentation of different reviews of Akpan’s Say You ’ re One of Them in certain newspapers and magazines. Reviews function as guides for readers, who want to get the opinions of expert journalists before buying and reading a book. This way they form an intermediate stage between the works of experts and the opinions of the general readership on the internet. After analyzing the general handling of Akpan’s book in Oprah’s Book Club, and describing the format of the message board, I will conduct the case study mentioned above by analyzing the postings on Oprah’s message board and looking at a webcast. Following this analysis of reader responses on Oprah.com, I will point out certain problems that arise from these responses and Oprah’s general approach to literature. In the discussion of these problematic issues, it will become obvious that among scholars several debates are going on about the advantages and disadvantages of Oprah’s Book Club. The issues raised in these debates are linked to topics which have been discussed in postcolonial studies for many years.
2. Say You’re One of Them in the Media
2.1 Publication and Prizes
The Nigerian writer Uwem Akpan managed to become a celebrated and successful author through the publication of his first book Say You ’ re One of Them. Uwem Akpan studied philosophy, English and theology at the Jesuit universities of Creighton and Gonzaga in the US and at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa in Nairobi. In January 2000, the Nigerian Guardian published his first short story, which he had written during the preparation for his priesthood. In 2003, he became a Jesuit priest, and in 2006 he finished his studies in creative writing at the University of Michigan. Akpan has served as a priest in different African countries such as Zimbabwe and Nigeria (“The Author: Bio”). On his website, Akpan introduces himself as follows: “I was inspired to write by the people who sit around my village church to share palm wine after Sunday Mass, by the Bible, and by the humour and endurance of the poor” (“Welcome”).
Say You ’ re One of Them was published by the British publishing company Little, Brown in 2008. Before the collection of short stories was published as a whole, some of the individual stories had already been appreciated and praised by the book market. The story “An Ex-Mas Feast” was published in 2005 in The New
Yorker ’ s Début Fiction issue. “My Parents’ Bedroom” was chosen as a finalist for The Caine Prize for African Writing in 2007. After its publication in 2008, the book Say You ’ re One of Them was nominated for a number of awards and won several prizes, among them the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book (Africa Region) and PEN/Beyond Margins Award in 2009 (“The Author”). These nominations and awards show that Akpan’s writing debut immediately enjoyed popularity among experts of literature. The publisher’s official website about Say You ’ re One of Them and the cover of Little, Brown’s edition of the book3 quote many words of praise by different journalists and authors. In addition, the website showcases Angélique Kidjo's song “Agbalagba,” which was inspired by Uwem Akpan’s stories (“Uwem Akpan Inspires”). Thus, the publisher’s and Uwem Akpan’s personal websites and the book cover convey the impression that Say You ’ re One of Them was welcomed by the press, the academic world and other artists as a remarkable piece of literature.
2.2 Say You’re One of Them in Reviews
To gain a more independent and objective insight into the reception of Say You ’ re One of Them, the following paragraphs will outline the way different newspapers judged Akpan’s book right after its publication in 2008. Certainly, the collection of short stories received considerably more media attention after being praised and recommended by Oprah Winfrey in September 2009. However, the book was already reviewed in newspapers and magazines right after its original release.
Analyzing the contents of a wide range of online newspaper and magazine reviews would exceed the scope of this work. That is, why the following considerations are based on five reviews that have been chosen from an abundance of material. The following analysis examines the reviews of Akpan’s book in the online editions of the following newspapers and journals: The New York Times, which published three articles about Akpan’s book in the months of June and July in 2008, The Chicago Tribune, a daily newspaper based in Chicago, The Guardian, a daily British national newspaper with a large online readership, Thinking Faith, the online journal of British Jesuits and the website afriprov.org, an online platform of African sayings. These media - two major American and an important British newspaper, a Jesuit journal and a database of African stories - have been chosen, because they represent different social and ethnic groups. There are a few aspects of praise and of criticism which most of these sources mention. One of these common topics is the aspect of style and dialect. The Chicago Tribune praises Akpan’s “translucent style” (Cheuse). The New York Times and Thinking Faith applaud the clever use of different African dialects, which according to New York Times ’ columnist Charles McGrath “result i[n] an immensely pleasing cacophony” (McGrath). According to the Guardian, Akpan manages to mix Pidgin English, patois and local dialects without confusing the reader. This way, he succeeds in giving individual voices to the different characters (Bonabom).
Some of the reviews emphasize the fact that Akpan writes what he has seen in his home continent to call for social justice and inter-ethnic peace. The New York Times states that Akpan writes about the real miseries in Africa (Taylor and Maslin). Joseph Ngala, the author of the review on Afriprov.org, is convinced that the author’s stories “come to us from the direct eye of the mad Africa [sic] continent” and that Akpan “offers an eloquent voice to African children to tell the stories of contemporary Africa” (Ngala). The Guardian also praises the fact that Akpan writes directly from the African continent as opposed to other African writers, who live in diaspora (Forna).
The New York Times ’ columnist Charles Taylor is convinced that Akpan’s book makes an appeal to its western readers who tend to see Africa as a “fashionable cause” (Taylor). According to Taylor, The Chicago Tribune and The Guardian, the horrors that Akpan mentions in his stories raise awareness in the readers of the western world. The journalists suggest that Akpan’s book opposes the sentimentalist and stereotypical portrayal of Africa by western media, because his writing “comes closer to the truth about modern Africa than the entire outpourings of the western mass media” (Forna).
On July 27, 2008, however, the New York Times published a more critical review about Akpan’s short stories. Charles Taylor states that Akpan’s book is “an attempt to give witness” in order to make the world look at the miseries of the African continent. The reviewer calls Akpan a talented writer, but he is not sure whether the fact that the book’s “grisliness repulsed [him]” (Taylor) is proof of the power of the short stories. He is convinced that writing about human tragedies and catastrophes does not make aesthetic judgements about a text less important. In the case of Akpan’s writing, Taylor feels that the author puts so much emphasis on the characters’ plight that “they are nothing more than their suffering, and therefore on some basic level they are faceless” (Taylor). He ends his review with the following statement: “Humanist empathy devoid of the distinctly human is finally not art but merely grim reportage” (Taylor).
Other aspects of criticism concern the denseness of Akpan’s short stories. The Chicago Tribune ’ s reviewer Alan Cheuse thinks that Uwem Akpan “wants to cram everything into a story rather than leave things out” (Cheuse). The Guardian calls the story “Luxurious Hearses” “a touch overwritten in parts” (Forna). Overall, the reviewers praise Akpan’s realistic way of writing from the point of view of individual children from different African countries. Most columnists mention the fact that Akpan takes into consideration various ethnic and religious groups and mentions a wide range of serious political and social problems like prostitution and child abuse. However, some of the reviewers think that this abundance of information makes the reader feel overwhelmed. Maybe this is exactly what the writer wants to achieve with his stories, so The Chicago Tribune puts it this way: “The reader discovers that no hiding place is good enough with these stories battering at your mind and heart” (Cheuse).
All in all, it becomes clear that the three national newspapers seem to take a more critical point of view by mentioning positive as well as negative features of Akpan’s book while the religious websites only praise the Jesuit priest’s book. In general, one can see that there are certain common topics which are either praised or criticized by the reviewers of the different print media. The reviewers seem to approve of Akpan’s use of African dialects and his realistic way of writing while they disagree regarding the book’s quality on the level of content. Later in the text, some of these opinions expressed by columnists of different media will play an important role in connection with the positions of experts of cultural and literary studies about African writing and the western world.
2.3 Reception in Oprah’s Book Club
As previously mentioned, Say You ’ re One of Them became a bestseller after being chosen by Oprah Winfrey for her popular Book Club. Oprah’s Book Club started in 1996 on The Oprah Winfrey Show, which has been the most successful American talk show since its debut in 1986. The show is produced in Chicago by Oprah’s own company Harpo Productions, Inc. and syndicated to 215 domestic stations and to 147 countries (“Oprah Chooses”). In the first years after starting the Book Club, Oprah used to announce one Book Club selection per month, which was then discussed with the author and a few selected readers in an episode of her show. The largely female middle- and working-class readership turned most of Oprah’s choices into successful bestsellers. Edith Frampton calls this phenomenon “an astonishing display of market force by a community of female readers” (2010: 146). According to Cecilia Konchar Farr, Oprah’s selections sold 1.4 million copies each in the first three years of the Book Club and stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for an average of 17 weeks (2005: 2). In 2002, Oprah brought the Book Club in its original format to an end. From 2003, she continued the club, but presented only three or four books a year.
The statistics show that Oprah exerts an enormous influence on the book market, because a lot of American readers choose the books they read according to Oprah’s recommendations. As will be seen later in this work, Oprah’s Book Club has been subject to criticism, but one can be sure that it is an institution that many readers follow. Since Uwem Akpan’s Say You ’ re One of Them was chosen to be part of this institution in 2009, it is important to find out how Oprah presented the book on her show and on her website. Oprah announced her 63rd Book Club choice on September 18, 2009 on The Oprah Winfrey Show and remarked that it was the first time for her to choose a collection of short stories for her Book Club. After being presented on Oprah’s show, Uwem Akpan’s collection of short stories sold more than 700,000 copies4 and stayed in USA Today ’ s top 150 best-selling books list for 15 weeks from September 24, 2009 until December 31, 2009 with a peak position of 9.5 When presenting her latest Book Club selection, Oprah also announced a time schedule for the readers to read along with the Book Club chapter by chapter. On November 9, 2009 she discussed Say You ’ re One of Them with the author Uwem Akpan and CNN anchorman Anderson Cooper in a webcast, which will be discussed in the following chapter.
Next to the episodes about the Book Club choices on the Oprah Winfrey Show, Oprah’s website Oprah.com is a very important part of the Book Club. In the case of Uwem Akpan’s Say You ’ re One of Them the website Oprah.com contains a lot of material, so users can spend hours navigating through all the information. This abundance of material can easily be confusing and overwhelming for users of the website, but at least the information is divided into five different categories called “About the book”, “Meet the author”, “How you can help”, “Web Cast Videos” and “Stories of Africa.”6 These categories feature reviews, reading questions, autobiographical information about and interviews with the author and interviews with Uwem Akpan, video blogs, resources about aid organizations, and stories about people who are in some way connected to the content of Akpan’s stories. It seems as if the majority of this abundance of information aims at raising the readers’ awareness for the problems in Africa.
The website also contains a short review of Say You ’ re One of Them by Vince Passaro who reviewed the book for O, The Oprah Magazine in June 2008. Like the journalists mentioned above, Passaro praises Akpan’s use of African dialects and his detailed stories. He does not mention any points of criticism and states: “Akpan wants you to see and feel Africa, its glory and its pain. And you do, which makes this an extraordinary book” (Passaro).
Oprah’s video blogs are also an important feature of Oprah.com. In different videos, which apparently show the superstar at her home, Oprah shares her thoughts about the different short stories with her audience. In one of the videos she calls the story “My Parents’ Bedroom” “heartbreaking” and “shocking” and declares that this story is the reason why she chose Say You ’ re One of Them for her Book Club.7 In another blog she assures that the last sentence of “Fattening for Gabon” made her choose the book,8 and in yet another video about “An Ex-Mas Feast” Oprah declares: “It opened a space in my heart”9.
1 See for example: Frank Schulze- Engler. “From Postcolonialism to Transcultural World Literature.” 2007.
2 In the following, all references to Oprah’s message board about Say You ’ re One of Them refer to this website: “’Say You’re One of Them’ by Uwem Akpan.” Message Boards. Oprah ’ s Book Club. Oprah.com. Web. 12 Feb. 2011.
3 Uwem Akpan. Say You ’ re One of Them. London: Little, 2008.
4 Publisher ’ s Weekly ’ s list of Trade Paperbacks Sales for the year 2009 states that Uwem Akpan’s Say You`re One of Them sold 708,033 copies. The book competed against well- known bestsellers like Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (777,382 copies) and Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler's Wife (1,456,771 copies). See: “Paperback Bestsellers 2009.” Publisher ’ s Weekly. PWxyz, 22 Mar. 2010. Web. 15 Mar. 2011.
5 “Results from USA TODAY's Top 150 Best-Selling Books database: Say You’re One of Them.” Best- Selling Books Database, USATODAY.com, n.d. Web. 15 Mar. 2011.
6 Say You ’ re One of Them. Oprah.com, n.d. Web. 10 Mar. 2011.
7 “Oprah's Video Blog on ‘My Parents' Bedroom’.” Say You ’ re One of Them. Uwem Akpan. Oprah.com, 22 Oct. 2009. Web. 9 Mar. 2011.
8 “Watch Oprah's Video Blog on ‘Fattening for Gabon.’” Say You ’ re One of Them. Uwem Akpan. Oprah.com, 21 Sep. 2009. Web. 09 Mar. 2011.
9 “Watch Oprah's Video Blog on ‘An Ex-Mas Feast.’” Say You ’ re One of Them. Uwem Akpan. Oprah.com, 21 Sep. 2009. Web. 09 Mar. 2011.