Oprah: Welcome to the biggest book club meeting in the world with Say You're One of Them author Uwem Akpan and special guest Anderson Cooper.
Announcer: An Oprah.com and CNN.com worldwide web event brought to you by Chase Blueprint: Manage your finances on your terms.
Oprah: Hello, book clubbers. Welcome to our live worldwide book club event.We're coming to you live from Harpo Studios in Chicago.And for the first time, Oprah.com has teamed up with CNN.com, so hello to everyone on Oprah.com and CNN.com. Anderson Cooper, hello to you.
Anderson Cooper: Hey, Oprah, how's it going?
Oprah: Hi. I can actually hear you, Anderson. Anderson will be joining us in just a bit. But here with me is author Uwem Akpan. He is the author of the most powerful collection of short stories that I believe I've ever read. Say You're One of Them, our book club selection.Father Uwem has traveled all the way from his home country of Nigeria to join us tonight. So welcome, welcome, welcome, welcome, welcome, welcome.
Uwem Akpan: Thank you. I've happy to be here.
Oprah: Well, throughout our webcast, we'll be taking your questions about this beautiful book, Say You're One of Them. Our phone lines are now open. The number to call, 866-695-9999. (Please note: the phone lines are no longer open.) And as you can see, right below this screen, you can e-mail us your questions, too.
Our book club team will be reading all of your e-mails, and they might just call you at home. And for all of you Facebookers, you can post a comment or let me know what you want to ask the author the most. What's your burning question? But before we get started, let's have a quick look at the five stories that make up this brilliant book, Say You're One of Them.
Oprah: Say You're One of Them is an extraordinary collection of short stories set on the continent of Africa. First-time author Uwem Akpan writes each story through the eyes of children and masterfully captures both the innocence and the horror of the unimaginable events these children witness.
The first story in the book, "An Ex-Mas Feast," opens with a young boy living on the streets of Nairobi whose 12-year-old sister works as a prostitute to help the family survive. In "Fattening for Gabon," a young brother and sister are held captive by an uncle who has sold them to a child trafficking ring for the price of a motorcycle. "What Language Is That?" begins with two little girls in Ethiopia, one Christian and one Muslim, best friends until religious intolerance by the adults around them threatens to tear them apart. "Luxurious Hearses" is set in Nigeria on an interminable bus ride. A Muslim teenager aboard prays to escape the deadly ethnic violence that is sweeping his city. "In My Parents' Bedroom" is a searing tale of the Rwandan genocide told in the voice of a 9-year-old girl who witnesses the terrifying insanity of her relatives, her village, her country gone mad.
Well, I picked this collection because I think that these stories allow us to move deeply into what really matters in life. The children of this book I know will do the same for so many of you as they did for me, they'll just really break your heart, but I believe in the end also spread your heart wide open. Because as soon as I finished this book, I wanted to track Father Uwem down.I didn't know he was a Father. But I just wanted to track him down because I had some questions for him. Do you remember that call?
Uwem: Yes, I do.
Oprah: Yeah.You were very happy.
Uwem: (Laughter.) I was.
Oprah: Very happy.
Uwem: I was. I was shocked. I was happy. I was, like, wow. That sort of thing.
Oprah: You know, until—as I said to you in that phone call—until I read this book, I'd never been a fan of short stories, and Anderson was here on the show the other day saying the same thing. You know, for the most part... I don't know, a lot of people perhaps love short stories, obviously, but I'm not a fan. And Anderson had said the same thing. He wasn't a fan. But you—you really appreciated this book as well, Anderson.
Anderson: Yeah.I mean, appreciated it to put it mildly. It's one of those books that you open it up and, you know, it's the kind of book maybe a lot of people wouldn't necessarily gravitate to in a book store. It's set in a foreign land, a place many people probably won't go to. There are foreign names in it. But once you make that commitment, once you open it up and start reading the first story, you get sucked into it and you see the commonality in all these people. And even people who are doing terrible things, you can kind of walk in their shoes a little bit. Even in reference to the uncle in "Fattening for Gabon," I mean, he's doing something terrible, but he's also not a completely terrible person. I found that really interesting. And just seeing all these things through the eyes of children really just got to me and just made me kind of look at the issues and the problems and the continent in a whole new way.
Uwem: Thank you, Anderson.
Oprah: Well, what's so interesting, too, is that why, for me, is why you chose the medium of short stories and not just writing a novel or writing from your first-hand experience of these children in situations. Why short stories?
Uwem: I discovered that I had the talent to write fiction 10 years ago and I just went with it and attempted to develop on my own, experimented, pushed, and then somewhere along the way I said to myself, well, it will be nice to go around the continent and write about the difficult situations. Just pick out the difficult situations and try to understand, you know, these things. And then I said to myself, I would like a collection. I would like someone to pick up one book and it's talking about these different issues set in different countries from the perspective of children.
Oprah: So obviously you wrote the book and it was your intention for us to read all of the stories. But as they're written, if you only read one story, you have the experience of that particular child or that particular family or that particular incident.
Uwem: Yes. You know, I—I've never before this—I'd never written a book before. I—I've never tried a novel before. So I tried short stories or long short stories and they came together and I'm like, oh, okay, let me make this into a book and see whether I can pull it together.
Oprah: Beautiful job.
Uwem: Thank you.
Oprah: Beautiful job.
Uwem: Thank you, Oprah.Thank you.
Oprah: Jocelyn's Skyping in from her living room. You know, I love this. Anderson Cooper, you and I both speak to people all over the world all of the time, you know, on your forum and my forum. Your forum, 360, my forum, The Oprah Show, but there's something so intimate, really.
Oprah: About being able now to go to Jocelyn's living room in Boston and talk to her. Jocelyn appeared on our show not long ago to talk about this book. She's read every book club selection from the very beginning. And I just think that's so great. What do you want to ask Father Uwem?
Jocelyn: Well, first of all, I do love this forum and I do kind of feel like we're best friends now, Oprah.
Oprah: Yeah, kind of we are. And Anderson, you know, I kind of feel like Anderson and I are really having a date. He was on the show the other day and we said we were gonna have a date Monday night.
Anderson: I feel completely overdressed.
Oprah: We're very cas. We're very cas. I should have told you it was a cas date.
Anderson: Yeah, well, you know.
Oprah: Go head, Jocelyn, what is your question for Father Uwem?
Jocelyn: My question is when you were writing these stories about poverty and prostitution and religious wars, did you have any idea that people at the other side of the world with lives so far removed from the tragedies you were writing about, that they would be able to relate to the emotional context so strongly? Was that your, was that your goal? Did you have any idea that that would happen?
Uwem: I had some problems with an audience. You know, who am I writing this for?
Oprah: Who were you writing this for?
Uwem: At first I thought I was writing for just Africans. So I did not put the energy into describing things in very minute details. But after a while, I—I said to myself, the people of Nigeria don't necessarily understand what is happening in Kenya, you know. And the people of Kenya don't understand the pidgin English spoken in Nigeria. So what is this thing of trying to write for Africans? An African is so diverse, you know. So I started saying, well, let me write these stories in such a way that whoever reads these stories will have some basic understanding. They may not understand everything, but they can feel, you know, the inside of these characters.
Oprah: But you weren't writing for Jocelyn in Boston.
Uwem: No, I did not begin writing for Jocelyn. It was only after I had said to myself, and this is something that came up when I dealt with the publishers.
Uwem: They began to say something like, okay, Americans won't understand this pidgin English. Water it, you know, down. And I said, well, it's not only Americans. A Senegalese does not understand this pidgin English in Kenya. A Nigerian doesn't understand this pidgin English in Ethiopia.
Oprah: That is such an important point because I think so many Americans and maybe people in other countries as well look at Africa and we think of Africa the continent and all Africans the same.
Oprah: In the same way that many people think of all Americans are the same.
Oprah: And not understanding that we're different regions, different accents, different backgrounds. And so it is the same with Africans.
Uwem: Yeah. Yeah. It is.
Oprah: Well, so tell me, Jocelyn, how this opened up your heart.
Jocelyn: You know, I was reading one of the stories and I—I've said before I don't typically read short stories and, you know, I started thinking I was not gonna be able to understand any of the emotions because it was so far removed from my life.And then I read "What Language Is That?" and it was about, you know, the two friends...
Jocelyn: ...Who have discovered this recent language they had and I recently lost a very close friend of mine and I realized I read actually the story the night of her memorial and I started crying because we did have a secret language. And it was something I didn't realize and I couldn't believe I was having this emotional connection to these stories about, you know, something so far removed from my life. But it was really so close.
Oprah: Well, I thank you for honoring the book club and our selections over these years by being one of those people, one of those—I don't know how many other people are like you who have read every single book. But that's really outstanding. And also to take a chance on short stories, to take a chance on an African author whose name, you know, we could barely pronounce. We could barely pronounce his name.And the names of all the characters and to go to this foreign place, you know, within the pages of the book and also inside yourself. Thank you so much for that. Thank you, Jocelyn.
Jocelyn: Oh, you're welcome. You're welcome. I love it. And I love—the book club has changed my life and I thank you so much for this selection. This was absolutely wonderful.
Oprah: Thank you. I want to say that CNN mobilized their correspondents all over Africa to cover some of the real-life issues. One of the reasons I love the book so much is because having done this show for years and just being a citizen of the world, I understood that the book was written as fiction, but that the stories were real. And CNN is here to show us some of the real-life issues from Say You're One of Them. We'll be seeing their reports throughout this webcast. Anderson, why don't you introduce this first piece.
Anderson: Yeah, in this webcast we're gonna show you three pieces in all from various places in Africa. We're gonna show you a case of child trafficking. You're actually gonna meet a young woman, you're also gonna meet a young woman living on the streets of Nairobi. It really could be ripped right out of the pages of "An Ex-Mas Feast." But we wanted to see where Father Uwem's home village is, what his life was like there, so our correspondent Christian Purefoy went back to the Nigeria to talk to the Father at his original home.
Oprah: Wow. Great. Let's see that.
Anderson: Uwem Akpan is a local hero who's now become a worldwide sensation. He's a Jesuit priest in his native Nigeria, a man of God, and also of the word, the written word. Our reporter, Christian Purefoy, asked him how it feels to be a best-selling author.
Uwem: It's still unreal at this point. I keep pinching myself. I'm still trying to take in that whole experience. I—I don't know. I don't know. I'm just grateful to God.
Anderson: Purefoy traveled to Akpan's home village in southeast Nigeria, far from the dizzying world of agents and publishers.
Uwem: So this is my family house.
Anderson: His mother says he loved storytelling from the time he was young.
Margaret: When Uwem was a young boy, along with his brothers, he would want me to tell him stories every evening. Even in the afternoon. So some evenings I would be very tired, and he would say, "Ahh, is that what my grandfather used to do to you? He always told you stories, so tell me stories."
Anderson: Akpan began telling his own stories, however, and his first big break came in 2005 when The New Yorker Magazine published one of his short stories.
Uwem: You see, I started off going into the priesthood, you know, and then writing came, you know, later. For me, the two are very intertwined right now and, you know, connected. I probably don't have to choose.
Anderson: The stories he chose to tell in his book are heartbreaking works of fiction that parallel real life for many children in Africa. He has a degree in creative writing from the University of Michigan, but can't really explain how he does it.
Uwem: I don't understand fully what happens in the process of creative -- in the process of creative writing. The thing is a gift. It's difficult to, you know, to really explain. Otherwise I could have bottled it and sold.
Anderson: His writing is raw and real but it's suffused with hope.
Uwem: We see that these children are more, you know, they're like our children. They're innocent. Where the adults have failed, the children seem to triumph in their love and support of each other.
Oprah: Thank you, Anderson, for that. We're gonna move on now to the first story in Say You're One of Them. It's called "An Ex-Mas Feast " and it's about a young boy living on the streets of Nairobi with his family. Tell us about where that story came from, Father.
Uwem: I went to Nairobi to study theology in the year 2000. The year before I'd just discovered the gift of, you know, fiction. And I went to there and I saw lots of street...
Oprah: How did you discover the gift of fiction? Can you tell me?
Uwem: Yes. I—I used to write poems and essays. I tried to get them into the newspaper. I had published some of them, you know, before. And they rejected, they rejected my stuff.
Uwem: And I was heart broken. I was pissed off. I...
Oprah: A Father gets pissed off. Very nice to know.
Uwem: We are human beings. We are human beings.
Oprah: They even say I was pissed off. Very good.
Uwem: I was very depressed about it. And a few months later I discovered that the same newspaper, the Nigerian Guardian, was publishing short stories. So I'm like, well, why don't I try? So I attempted. And I was very energized. I was very excited. I worked all day but I wrote at night and I was just very taken by the experience of trying to...
Oprah: So you wouldn't—you wouldn't let go of this dream of becoming a writer.
Uwem: No, no, I wouldn't. And I'm, like, oh, I might have a gift of, the gift of writing fiction. So I pursued. After six months, the first story came together. That story...
Oprah: Was this the first story?
Uwem: No, no, no. It wasn't this. It was "Baptizing the Gun." I sent that to, you know, the Nigerian newspaper on a Wednesday. Three days later, Saturday, they published it. They serialized it. And I was, like, "Wow,..."
Uwem: "...I'm going to fly with this." So every so often I worked all night to write. And what was growing within me was so strong and yet fragile. I knew nothing about how difficult it is to publish. Or even to publish short stories. I just felt excited.
Oprah: Because you had the Nigerian Star that printed it three days after you sent it. I guess not.
Uwem: So when I got to Nairobi and saw these street kids, I did not know I could write their story immediately because I was afraid of making mistakes about a foreign culture. It's easier for me to make a mistake about my culture, my situation, than going to some other person's country and messing it up. So I was very afraid. But every Saturday I would go to this city center and walk around, from a distance, observe what the street kids were doing. The lives they were living. How the Kenyans were reacting to them. They live, you know, in gangs. There was one gang near a school and that gang was still friendly because they were close to home, close to home. So I would talk with them. I would talk with them. And these are...
Oprah: These are street kids.
Uwem: Street kids.
Uwem: And it was one of them, you know, who was very humane. I don't know how he managed to maintain his humanity.
Oprah: When you say "gang," you know in our country when we say gang, we mean thugs, we mean groups of kids who commit violent acts against other people. They rob and they steal and do things like that. Is that what you mean, too?
Uwem: These kids can do that. They were doing that. That's why, you know, the Kenyans were not very excited about them. So they, you know, you would walk past them without... I noticed that people were no longer seeing them because they were capable of violence. They were capable of really hurting you.
Oprah: They were capable of violence and people were afraid of them and would try to avoid them. Yeah. It's what we do in this country to the homeless I think to describe it.
Uwem: It's true.
Oprah: You cross the street or you ignore them.
Uwem: That's true.Yes.
Oprah: You pretend that they're not there. You want to avoid them.
Uwem: Yes. But I observed them for a while and I noticed that they had some tenderness towards each other. And they were also defending themselves against, you know, the ordinary person. So for me there was a story there. Do these people love each other? How do they survive? How come we, the normal people, don't see this. We think they're hardened. There must be something we can touch, press a finger on here, to ignite this humanity.
Uwem: So I started thinking of how can I write this story to, to reveal...
Oprah: So was there one boy in particular that this story, "An Ex-Mas Feast," came from?
Uwem: My experience with that boy, because he was very decent and nice. If I traveled away, if I went away for holidays and came back, when he saw me, he would not say, "What did you bring for me?" He would say, "How are you? Where did you go? I missed you. Did you see your parents?" Others would constantly, and understandably, say "give us food" or "give us money," but not this guy. And now if I wanted to give money to the group, all of them would point to this guy. "Give to him. He will share equally." So it...
Oprah: So did the Christmas feast, "An Ex-Mas Feast," the story started to evolve around what would happen when that boy went home? Is that how you evolved this story?
Uwem: No, I, one time I came back from holidays and the guy had disappeared. They said he had gone to the city center to become a more serious street kid. And I spent my time walking around Nairobi...
Oprah: To become a more serious street kid.
Uwem: Yeah, meaning the ones at the city center were really rough. So he had moved there. I spent my time in Kenya sometimes looking around trying to see whether I could spot him.
Uwem: I couldn't. And I, I began to say to myself, "I'm going to write a story but it's not going to be the story of that boy." You know. I know that street families, you know, people—there are just street families. I want to write about that. What does it mean to have a child on the street, live on the street, you know, how does this work?
Oprah: You know what's interesting is that when people first started e-mailing us, having not seen the children living on the street, and I think, Anderson, when you were here you had said you would experience being in Nairobi and seeing some of these street kids also, correct?
Anderson: Yeah.In fact, it was one of the first stories I worked on when I was living if Africa. I went out and spent a lot of time with street kids in slums at Nairobi. And one of the things that so jumps out of you and it's a central part of this story is how they get through the day sniffing glue.
Anderson: It kills their hunger pangs and also, obviously, makes them sort of high. It's highly addictive. It's highly destructive to their brains. But you see little, little children under the age of with a bottle of glue underneath their nose and a kind of—they put it in their teeth and hold onto it and kind of breathe in the fumes and it's so disturbing to see.
Oprah: But what's interesting is that people were e-mailing us saying they couldn't believe that the mother in the story was passing the glue to her children because I don't think people—and even I had friends that say, "Well, I don't understand the whole glue sniffing thing"—that they didn't understand that the reason why they were sniffing the glue is so that they wouldn't have the hunger.
Anderson: Right. And with the mom, I think in the story it's to, you know, cure her kids' hunger pangs and so they're not crying, they're not complaining, they're able to get through the night, they're able to sleep through the night.
Oprah: So you had, you had obviously witnessed that, too. I'm sorry, Anderson.
Uwem: Yes, I had seen street kids, you know, sniffing glue. And when I was...
Oprah: Had you seen families sniffing glue?
Uwem: Did I? I did not spend a lot of time with street families.
Oprah: With families.
Uwem: I constantly looked at street kids. That was, that's why it was easier for me to write about families, so that I can, I could imagine, you know.
Uwem: That was important to me. Because I'm not writing biographies or autobiographies. I'm just writing and imagining and bringing the story together. But it's not, for me, it's not so far off that a mother could, you know, could give to, you know, the...
Oprah: The children.
Uwem: The children.
Oprah: Yeah, the children.
Uwem: Hunger does a lot of things to, you know, to us. And when we are in a difficult situation, for example, the Katrina experience in this country, as rich as it is, once those parents had their backs against the wall, they were ready to do anything to get those kids on the buses to Houston.
Oprah: Well, Anderson knows quite a bit about Katrina because I think he's a reporter who has probably spent more time in New Orleans helping the Katrina victims than anybody else in this country.
Winnie is Skyping in along with her Appleton Wisconsin Book Club and has...Hello, Appleton Wisconsin Book Club! You didn't know you were writing for the Appleton Wisconsin Book Club.
Uwem: (Laughter) I did not know.
Oprah: Winnie has a question about "An Ex-Mas Feast." Okay, Winnie, what's your question?
Winnie: Well, first of all, on behalf of all of us, thank you for allowing us to have this privilege to participate in this worldwide event. It's very amazing. And my question is, as a Christian, the contrast between our celebration of Christmas in the U.S. and the celebration in "An Ex-Mas Feast" is so ironic and so dreadful. When you were writing it, did you plan that? Or did it just happen that way? It's just so horrible and not the way Christmas is supposed to be...
Uwem: ...Celebrated. Thank you very much for reading my book. When I was writing, I wasn't—as I said in, in my, you know, in my profile—there are many things that happen in fiction and I just don't understand. In Africa, Christmas is supposed to be a nice celebration. And in many places in Africa, many homes, it's, you know, just the kind of experience as you have here celebrating Christmas. But for some poor people, it can be a very terrible experience.
Uwem: And for a poor family like this, that depends on, say, their daughter or their children, what is she going to bring home, okay? They will celebrate, they will find a way to celebrate. But what are they celebrating, you know? These children in my stories, they have a lot of hope. Their external worlds have collapsed, but their internal worlds are very resilient, which is the reverse of, you know, sometimes American children or Western children. The additional opportunities are there, things are working fine, and yet, you know, you have teenage suicide. Someone has given up. Someone is not feeling loved enough. And my... What I would like to say to you, my dear American brothers and sisters, is why is this happening? You have all these opportunities any yet many a times some child gives up here. Some university student commits suicide. The opportunities are there. But yet you go to these suffering countries and everybody's rooting for life. We will make it. We will believe.
Uwem: What is lacking? You know. So when you see children struggling like this and still being hopeful, Maisha in that story hopes she will come back from prostitution and do something with her life.
Uwem: Jigana hopes he can be, you know, he can't stand the, the sister getting into prostitution. What gives these people in struggling countries this hope. And sometimes in our society where things are working very fine, working very well, it's not there. For me, that's a puzzle.
Oprah: That is a puzzle. And, and Anderson, I bet you can address that because as you travel around the world, I think that is what happens when...that is so fascinating when you go particularly to African countries. You see people who have so little.
Oprah: I mean, people who have absolutely nothing. And within themselves they maintain this sense of joy and well being and...
Oprah: ...And the, and the desire to want to keep, keep moving forward.
Oprah: I mean, I've seen that many times. I see it with my own children at my school. And Appleton, Winnie, I would say to you and the book club, I mean, what he describes in "An Ex-Mas Feast" is very, very common in many Third World countries around the world where it's Christmas Day. Everybody, you know, people who celebrate the Christian faith and would want to have a Christmas tree, you know, don't. Would want to have a Christmas meal, don't. Would want to be able to celebrate with gifts and sharing with their children, but they don't. I mean, I go through that right now with all the girls, the girls at my school. Every year there's a question of whether I give them presents because they're gonna go home to people who have no presents. There's a question of whether I provide food for them to take home to their families or try to find some social service agency who can at least get them, you know, food for Christmas Day. So I think that what you described here is, is really very common.
Uwem: It is. It's painful.
Uwem: The situation of our continent, as rich as it is, and what has been done with the, with the wealth of our continent and where that wealth is in this world is very frightening.
Oprah: Yeah. Anderson, I was saying that about going around the world. When you go around the world, what the Father, what Father Uwem was talking about. You see these children in particular in, you know, in dirt floor schools with no walls who are, you know, dying, literally, to get an education.
Anderson: Yeah. Yeah, I mean it's one of the things that is so—has fascinated me from the beginning is why some people survive and others don't.
Oprah: Yeah. Yeah.
Anderson: What separates those who have some sort of inner drive to make it? The Father talked about people in the United States who committed suicide. As you know, my brother committed suicide right after college. Graduated Princeton University. And that death motivated me to look at that whole issue of survival. What was it that allowed me to survive and didn't allow him to? And what is it when you go to these countries and by all rights these kids could give up very easily and of course some do and some end up in war and end up, you know, fighting and doing all sorts of things.But so many that you meet have literally nothing. Literally nothing.
No photographs of their loved ones. No books to study out of. No pencils to write. And yet they get up every day, they clean up as best they can, and they are looking, they're trying to make it. And they're able to forge out a life for themselves. And that is such an inspirational thing. You know, one of the things in this book that's so powerful and such a commonality that all of us who read it can understand is that sense of powerlessness as a child, you know. That so many of the kids in this book, and it's one of the things that scared me when I was a kid, that all these things happening around you. Bad things happen to you. People, loved ones get lost. And yet you have no control over it. And how these kids in these stories are trying to kind of get power over their own lives and figure out how to survive I just found, I mean, just so, so eye opening and so heart opening as well.
Oprah: Well, tonight CNN, their reporters and Anderson are helping us bring to life the themes of Say You're One of Them. As I said at the beginning of this webcast and have been saying since I chose this book, one of the reasons I loved it is because the stories, even though they are fiction, are based in reality. We all may see these real life stories very differently after today. Anderson, tell us about this next report from Nairobi.
Anderson: Yeah, our reporter, David McKenzie in Nairobi, went to talk to street kids and he found a young woman on the streets who really, there's so much in her life that is in the story "An Ex-Mas Feast," a look in particular at how she makes a living and also some of the, the sexual abuse which she herself faces. Take a look.
David McKenzie: A steaming cup of tea with friends on this cold and wet Nairobi morning is one of the few things Joann can look forward to today. At 15, she worked as a maid. But Joann says her boss raped her. She fled to Nairobi pregnant and scared. Now she is part of Kenya's forgotten youth. The street is her home. Street kids, her family.
Joann: We see that the rest of the community hates us and we ask ourselves if the community's not taking care of us, we should remain as a family. We live as brothers and sisters in the streets.
David: But her real family doesn't know about her secret life.
Joann: Though I'm in the streets, I still feel that this is not my place and I don't belong here and maybe it's shameful, everybody knowing that you're living in the street.
David: The day we met Joann, we found her bruised and in pain on the street corner she calls home. She tells me a man tried to rape her the night before, that she resisted and he beat and kicked her mercilessly.
Joann: Living in the streets, especially to a girl, is very risky. You are so much exposed to the world such that you have no protection. In the streets you can be raped any day, any time by anyone who wants to do it.
David: Joann's friends rush her to the nearest charity hospital for emergency care. The doctor carefully examines her for injuries, finds no serious damage, gives her pain pills, and sends her home—home to this muddy street in Nairobi. But Joann doesn't see herself as a victim. To make money for her son who she left in the care of a mother, she sells highly addictive sniffing glue to other street kids looking to get high. On a good day, she makes a couple of dollars. While it may not be the best way to earn a living, she says it's better than prostitution or begging.
Joann: I'm a parent and I feel this. I hate seeing a child being, maybe sniffing glue becoming like drunk. I'm sinning to God and I'm sinning to even me, myself. I feel so guilty.
David: In harsh urban Africa, this community of street people care and watch out for each other the best way they can. With little help and hardly noticed, Joann, who dreams of being an actress or musician, says all she wants is to be seen as a person.
Joann: We are the same people created by the same God thinking with the same thoughts they are thinking with. The only thing that we are different from them is that we are living in the streets.
David: David McKenzie, CNN, Nairobi, Kenya.
Oprah: Wow. It feels like it's taken right out of your book. Right out of your book. Anderson has got to get going in a minute because he's about to go on the air for his CNN prime time show AC 360. Any final thoughts before we lose you?
Anderson: Well, thank you for letting me participate in this and Father Uwem, thank you for writing this book. It was really, it's eye opening and, as I said, heart opening. I guess my question is, how did you capture the voices of children? So many times when one tries to write in the voice of a child, it comes off as sounding fake or phony or almost kind of writing down to, to the audience. These voices are so authentic, they're so different, and yet they're just so real you really believe it's the inner life of that child.
Uwem: Thank you, Anderson, for asking that question. First of all, I want to say thank you for your work. Many of my friends said I should thank you for them when I'm talking with you. I play a lot with kids. I'm always, you know, I see kids, I want to talk with them. I play with them. I wrestle with them. So I like to think that some of that has rubbed off, you know, in the way I, I write. I've spent a lot of time writing these stories, reshaping these stories, and at some point, showing them to my students who are like, and saying to them, you know, how would they sound? No, Father, this is not it. A eight-year-old, we wouldn't think this way. So the book took me eight years. I was experimenting. I never knew I could do it. I never knew I could do it. So to an extent, this book has come together. I'm very thankful to God, to my friends, and to all the people who have helped, helped me. I can't sit here and say to you I have, you know, a sure way to do it, you know. I just experimented, I played a lot with kids, thought a lot about my childhood in terms of how I would see things, you know. When I was eight years—eight-years-old—how would I have seen this event? I would understand the pictures. But I wouldn't understand the deeper meaning. And if a child is raped at age 8 or age 6, that child knows something terrible has happened but will never be able to say it. Or will hide this experience.
Oprah: Doesn't have the language to explain what it is.
Uwem: Doesn't have the language. And also afraid that this will make dad unhappy with this person. So I thought a lot about how I grew up and the things I understood at that age. And then playing with kids, see, every mother and every father knows that a kid is capable of saying the most profound thing without knowing. So I tried to deal with that. And, of course, a kid would see. They'll see the pictures.
Oprah: So it's your relationship with children that you have yourself.
Oprah: That you talk with children, communicate with children, play with children. And also used children sort of as your critics for your stories.
Uwem: Yeah, sometimes.Yeah, sometimes.
Oprah: Anderson, I thank you so much. You and CNN for bringing these stories to life for us and for being a part of our webcast. I know you've got to go do your night job so...
Anderson: Okay. Well, it was a fun first date. I hope we'll have a second one.
Oprah: Okay. And next time don't wear a tie.
Anderson: I won't. I'll dress down.
Oprah: Okay. The second story in Say You're One of Them is the reason why I chose this book. But before I go to the second story, I want to go back to the book club in Appleton, Wisconsin, because I thought there was a woman there, Shari, wanted to say something and we didn't finish talking to those lovely ladies there who were, based on your question, ladies, I got the impression that what you read in the "Ex-Mas" story was pretty shocking for you, correct?
Group: Very shocking.
Oprah: Very shocking. So nobody in this group has been to Africa.
Book Club Member: I have.
Oprah: Oh, sorry. But you got to go through your imagination through this book.
Oprah: So Shari there? Was it Shari there who had a question?
Oprah: Go ahead.
Shari: My question was, what was the reference to the monkey? It seemed like it was possibly something, a sexual reference, or a person, and we weren't clear on that. It didn't seem like it was good. It seemed like maybe we don't want to know the answer, but it never was really clear what the monkey, or a monkey, is or was.
Uwem: Yeah. Sometimes tourists in developing countries, they can do very crazy things. So it's not beyond them sometimes to, you know, pay a child prostitute, pay a prostitute, you know, to have sex with their dogs, you know. So that was a reference, you know, there. So that's, that's what it was. That's what I put in there.
I also want to say that I was shocked to come to Ann Arbor and discover that there was a sociology teacher at the University of Michigan doing a research on American kids sniffing glue in this country, in Canada, in Mexico. You know, at some point the National Institute, you know, for Health in D.C., they invited me. And these experts come from all over the world. And this was a problem. They were like, "Thank you, Father, for bringing this out. We've never been successful. We go to the press, the press say, 'Aren't you happy they're just sniffing glue? It could be worse.'" The police say, "Well, you can't arrest anybody in Canada, in the U.S., for sniffing glue. Cocaine, yes, we will come with, you know, we will come with you." There was this story in Canada where, you know, a child was sniffing petrol and the police came, they couldn't stop the child until the child, you know, caught fire. And now the police could intervene. And so they call it gateway, a gateway drug. So glue sniffing is very widespread. It's not only glue. Polish. Petrol.
Oprah: Petrol meaning gasoline.
Uwem: Yeah, gasoline. Anything that has the ability to get people high.And the law does not forbid. Some people, you know, some people happen to go for it. The difference I noticed when I was in Washington, D.C., with that group of experts was that in developing countries, children sniff this because of hunger mainly. But in developed countries, it's just to get high.
Oprah: To get high, yeah. Well, I can see that the book expanded you all because...
Book Club: Yeah.
Uwem: Thank you.
Oprah: That was a collective sigh. Thanks. Thanks, Appleton, Wisconsin. The second story was called "Fattening for Gabon." The first line of the story lets us know that we're in for some true heartbreak. The first line reads, "Selling your child or nephew could be more difficult than selling other kids." Well, this story, when I finished reading this story, I... This is the story that made me find your number and call you up. And the reason is is because at the end of this story, as all of you who have read the book already know, at the end of the story, the way the story ends, I'm gonna go to the very last page of the story, is what made me make that phone call. Yeah. It was, it was unbelievable to me that you ended the story that way.
"I ran into the bush, blades of elephant grass slashing my body. Thorns and rough earth piercing my feet.I took the key and padlock from my pocket and flung them into the bush. I ran and I ran, though I knew I would never outrun my sister's wailing."
I could not get the vision of, of the sister's wailing out of my mind. And I thought, well, okay, he ran. He got, he was freed. But he'd never, was he ever really free? In your mind, was he ever really free? Did that resolve itself?
Uwem: No, it did not.It was a painful ending for me. I remember once I knew—because I knew how I would end that, like, like eight pages from the end of that story.
Oprah: You knew. You knew how you were gonna end it.
Uwem: Yeah, like eight pages. At the beginning I didn't know.
Oprah: Eight pages before you ended, you knew how you were gonna end it.
Uwem: Yeah, yeah.
Oprah: Oh, boy.
Uwem: So I stopped writing the story for like a month. I couldn't... I couldn't go on with it and I couldn't write anymore. I, I was already in pain over Yewa. And then after a while I gathered myself. Each time I... There were times writing these stories I, I just would go away in pain. Because I have to sift through these scenes many times. You'll have to read it maybe once or twice. And sometimes it got too much and I would have to run away.
Oprah: Walk away from it.
Uwem: Walk away from it. And then you'd see something in the world, in the real world, like you'd see Mexicans doing everything to come into the U.S. They come in these lorries all locked up. Someone could die in that, you know, closed space. And you see the, you know, the struggle, you know, to get to a place where things are working. You also notice it in Eastern Europe. Child trafficking. You even notice it among adults who have been deceived that they're going to Western countries to get better jobs and then they arrive there and they're stock in brothels. And then I, I saw that France, some people from France came to Africa. You know, this Darfur crisis, they went to Chad, they deceived some children and their parents and were about to herd them onto the plane to Europe when they were caught. Now I would...
Oprah: Herd them onto the plane for sexual trafficking?
Uwem: I don't know what they wanted to use them for. They were being taken to France. And they were caught at the airport. BBC reported that story. For a moment there France was like, okay, this is a terrible thing, a terrible thing, and yet France, you know, negotiated with the Chadian government and those people were released. I don't know what they did with them in France.
Oprah: So let's go to Jennifer from Concord, North Carolina, with a question about the ending, go ahead. The ending of Fattening for Gabon. Go ahead, Jennifer.
Jennifer: Thank you so much, Oprah. Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it. I want to say when I read that last sentence of that story, I just felt like my brain was numb and my heart was aching. And I had to close the book and put it down and just had so many thoughts running through my head about what happened to Yewa. Was her life destined to be a horrible, traumatic existence? Or in my mind I wanted to believe is it possible that she could have gone to a family that would love her? Was that even an option for her?
Oprah: I didn't think that at all.I thought horror.I mean, I've done on this show with many different people, I mean, Ricky Martin was on here a while back and I remember Ricky doing some stories and working towards getting money, earning money for, against child trafficking. And I remember at the time thinking, gee, that's a good cause but not really feeling what the children felt. It wasn't until I read this story that I was able to feel what the children feel. And so, no, I didn't, at the end of the story, think that she was going to go to a good family or have a decent life at all. I just thought it was going to be horrible. What did you think? You wrote it.
Jennifer: Except in my heart I wanted to believe that she would because it was so hard to deal with that ending for myself personally.
Oprah: Well, that's the reality of child sexual slavery, child, you know, prostitution, child trafficking. That's the reality of it. That's really why you wrote it, isn't it?
Uwem: Yeah. I wanted, you know, I... Many times we hear these reports and stories from the adult perspective.
Uwem: You know.What about the child? How is this child processing this?
Uwem: You know, these things. Daily. And what level of manipulation, you know, makes it possible for these children, you know, how are they being prepared?
Oprah: See, now what I think you said earlier, Father, is so valuable in so many areas. Because when you were saying you look through the eyes of an 8-year-old because when something is happening to an 8-year-old, they don't have the words to explain it. Particularly when it comes to sexual behavior, sexual violence. That's why children don't tell.
Oprah: You know, in any situation.
Oprah: Because they don't have the words or the, the language to even express what it is that is happening to them.
Uwem: That's true.
Oprah: They just feel instinctively that maybe this is wrong, or this is our secret, or all of that confusion that the perpetrators want you to feel, actually.
Oprah: That's a part of the act of violence against the children.
Uwem: It is. It is.
Oprah: Thank you so much for your call, North Carolina. So the reality for these children, had you seen other stories or experienced other children who had been trafficked?
Uwem: No. No, no, I did not. I write the stories first and then I go to research and research, by research, sometimes I mean going to get the language, the pattern, right, you know. So for me, imagination is very important in the writing of stories.
Oprah: This was so powerful because, as is true for even slavery, if, you know, when the slave trade first started and the slaves were first stolen from Africa, there were other people who participated in Africa in the slave trade, in the selling of their brothers and sisters. And the fact that the uncle was getting the children ready, fattening them up for Gabon, I thought was particularly compelling. And horror, horror filled but...
Uwem: Yeah. It took me a while.I tried to work it out in my head. How do you prepare children, you know, how do you get them to accept this dream and agenda and go along with, you know, with it. You know, those guys, that family that tried to, you know, the balloon thing in Denver?
Uwem: You know, they did not prepare their children well. So the child came on TV and said this was supposed to be a show, you know?
Uwem: So it takes real manipulation. And sometimes it's not only children that are manipulated. We were manipulated to accept the Iraq War, and we are adults. We are an educated country. Germany was manipulated to kill the Jews. And Germany has very wonderful literature. So you can imagine this then with children.
Oprah: How easy it is to manipulate children.
Uwem: Yes. Yes.
Oprah: That's why I called, you know, in this country where people called it child molestation, I say first it's child seduction. It's so easy to seduce and manipulate a child to think and do whatever you want them to do.
Oprah: Yeah. And that's the point of that story. CNN filed this next report for our book club from Lesotho where thousands of children are allegedly trafficked every year. It's the truth.
Nkepile Mabuse: Every day they cross the tracks into South Africa looking for work, food, money. They are Lesotho's poorest. Some are adults. Many are children. They are desperate and vulnerable.
Girl: My siblings and I were no longer attending school. We had no clothes, no food, we would get help from neighbors, but they grew too tired of helping and told me I was old enough to go find a job.
Nkepile: This girl is one of some 15,000 children in Lesotho who have been orphaned by AIDS. She says her parents died when she was 12, so she came to the capital, Maseru, to look for work. A white man promised her and a friend domestic work in South Africa. They crossed the border with him illegally.
Girl: When we arrived at this man's house, we were hoping to start working. But that didn't happen. Two more men arrived to pick up my friend saying she is going to work for them, and I had to stay with the man who had picked us up.
Nkepile: For the next three days she says the man repeatedly raped her at night and locked her in the house during the day.
Girl: I tried to stop him, but he overpowered me. He would lift my legs and even strangle me while he was raping me.
Nkepile: She managed to escape on the third day when the door was left unlocked. And as for her friend?
Girl: I never saw my friend again. I don't know whether she is dead or alive.
Nkepile: When she returned, she lived in this refuge for a while, but her attackers, thought still to be at large, perhaps preying on other children from Lesotho. The UN says Lesotho has no anti-trafficking law and prosecutions are rare. Traffickers from as far away as China and Nigeria come to Lesotho because their victims are cheap. This girl is speaking out to try to protect others.
Girl: I really don't want other children to go through what I've been through because really it was painful. I even thought of killing myself. I just didn't know how.
Nkepile: Nkepile Mabuse, CNN, Maseru Lesotho.
Oprah: Thanks again, CNN. All too real.
Uwem: Yeah. I did not even know this was happening in Lesotho when I wrote this. So I can only imagine what those children must be going through.
Oprah: We have 15-year-old Sam from Washington State on Skype. Sam, thanks for joining us. Hi.
Uwem: Hello, Sam.
Oprah: Sam, you read the book?
Sam: Yes. And I have some, I have a question.
Oprah: Okay, go ahead.
Sam: So when I was reading these stories, I could not believe that these kids were only a few years younger than me. And as a 15-year-old, it's quite a shame that teens my age don't read these kind of stories. So what kind of message were you trying to convey to kids of my age with these stories?
Uwem: What I would say to you is forgive the people of your family. People in your family. Your friends. Make peace with your neighbors. Study very hard. The opportunities you have in this country, make use of them. Try and be a good person. And be concerned about what is happening in other parts of the world. Because, you know, globalization, worlds without borders. But it's very important, you know, that you love the people you live with and forgive them many times a day. Be there for them. It's not always, let's go and help the African, you know?
Many kids are hurting in these United States of America. Look at your classmates. Some of them have a lot of issues at home and they are bitter. Though the opportunities are there, you know, they can't forgive. They don't feel connected, you know? So look around you and see what you can do, you know, in your neighborhood. That's what I would say to you, Sam. And thank you very much for reading my book.
Sam: Thank you very much.
Oprah: Thank you, Sam. I think that's so great that he's read the book. Every story. You know what is interesting about what you said, because I know there are so many people who read, and I think it's wonderful that you read these stories or you hear a story about what's going on in a developing country, Africa in particular, huge continent where there is a lot of beauty and a lot of wonderful things, but also a lot of challenges.And people want to know, what can I do? What can I do? But what you just said is the real deal. Is, you know, these stories should open up a space in your heart so that with your neighbor, with
your friend, with your child, with your boss, with your sister-in-law, with your cousin you can find a place for forgiveness, find a way to peace, find a way to be more gracious and give more of your heart to the people in your life.
Oprah: That's really what the stories are about, right?
Uwem: It is. Because my stories are about families.
Uwem: And groups. And how we negotiate, you know, who is inside? Who is outside? It's very painful in a family if you don't feel you belong. If you don't connect with your mom and you are a teenager, it's very painful, you know? And it's almost—there's no where to go. Teachers know this very well because they see this daily in high schools.
Uwem: Yeah. So for me it's very important. But also after a while I'll say what I think adults should do for their families.
Oprah: Well, the third story in this book is "What Language Is That?" Jocelyn mentioned this earlier. It's about two little girls from different faiths who are best friends and they don't understand why their parents suddenly decide to keep them apart. So how did this story come to you?
Uwem: (Laughter.) It's funny because this story I...
Oprah: You have a very funny laugh.
Uwem: I had promised Little, Brown five stories.
Oprah: Your publisher.
Uwem: My publisher.
Uwem: And now I had four.
Uwem: And I was like how do I write a fifth story, you know. I'm going to attempt to write something very short and I'm, like, I'm going to attempt to make it very different from the others in terms of who is speaking. Ultimately I can't figure out who the narrator is. I don't know. So that's how that story came together. The second person narrator. And then I worked on it, it came together, my, my teacher tried to say, you know, make it into a first person, you know, narrator. I said, "No, I think it makes this story stand out." But other than the format of the structure, I'm always very concerned about, you know, friendships. What happens when we come together as friends? What breaks, you know, this friendship?
Oprah: Yeah. It's what Jocelyn was saying earlier that really friends have their own language. What is the language we speak.
Oprah: We have two best friends who are Skyping in from New York City. They're Carolyn and Patrick. Hi, guys.
Patrick: Hi, Oprah.
Oprah: You want to talk about this story?
Patrick: Yeah, we, like you said, we're best friends. We lived together, actually, for about four years and just recently a couple months ago moved out into our, went our own ways. And we see each other a little bit less and it's pretty tough and I can't imagine anyone telling us that we weren't allowed to see each other at all because our friendship is so tight.
Carolyn: Yeah, we really, we really related to this story and one of the things we wanted to know was why the two girls? Why did you feel like they were the best to illustrate sort of these different religious groups and this friendship?
Uwem: Yeah, I...
Oprah: Good question, guys.
Uwem: Yeah. I don't know. It could have been a boy and a girl. But it was the last story I had written, and I had done a lot of boy/girl, you know, stuff with other stories. So now I was, like, let me try girl/girl. And, you know, these two girls, you know, best friends, you know, you're my best friend. I don't sit down and work out these things very clearly and then, you know, execute. I kind of experiment and go along. If it works, it works. If it doesn't, I, you know, I leave the story and go do something else and come back. So I don't have a very clear question to—clear answer, you know, to why I picked two girls. It could have been a boy and girl.
Oprah: But it's interesting, you're boy and girl friends and yet read the story about the two girl friends and the energy and spirit of their friendship you related to. So the gender isn't as important as the, the spirit of the friendship.
Carolyn: Well, it was the language, right? Like, I mean, something about best friends, you know, when you're best friends, you can understand each other without sort of speaking. And I think that's what we related to was just this connection that they had.
Patrick: That's why it was so heartbreaking, too, when they were...
Patrick: You know, forbidden to see each other, but they still, they caught those glimpses of each other across the street.
Patrick: And, I don't know, it just gave you a little bit of hope. Like most of the stories, we don't really know how it ends, so this one hopefully had a good ending.
Oprah: Had a good ending. Well, thank you, too. Thank you, you two. You guys are so cute together. Best friends. Thank you.Now we have Ernestine from Cordova, Tennessee, on the phone. Hey, Ernestine.
Ernestine: Hi, how are you doing, Oprah?
Oprah: Hi. I'm good.We're both good here.
Ernestine: Thank you. My question was, I really enjoyed the book. I ended up caring so much about the characters in the book that I wondered, has there been any plans to do a follow-up book to talk about what happens to those characters now?
Oprah: Not on my part.
Oprah: I'm just trying to, no. No, because that's the thing about the short stories. They leave you with this, this space where you think, well, the person went off into their life and whatever happened, happened. So I think to do a follow-up would sort of not do it justice. What do you think? I don't know.
Ernestine: I know.That's the only thing I hated so bad that it was a short story because I shared the perspective with my grandsons, my teenage grandsons and told them how blessed they are.
Ernestine: To live in this country. And all the things that can go on in Africa. So you do end up caring a lot about the characters and you wonder what has happened to them or is there a way to, you know, to follow like a family and just find out exactly what happens.
Uwem: No, I don't know whether I will do a follow-up or whether I can do a follow-up. You know, some people tell me, you know, what happened to Yewa, you know, the young girl in "Fattening for Gabon." What happened to her? We want to know. We want to know. I don't know. That's where the story stopped in my, you know, in my mind. I would have to sit down and create, you know, the story for the... It's not as if I know everything about these characters or their lives and then start writing. So I, I don't know. Maybe...
Oprah: No, I say don't. I say don't.
Ernestine: It would be great if you would.
Oprah: I say no.
Uwem: I don't know whether I can...
Oprah: I say no.
Uwem: I don't know if it's possible.
Oprah: It's much better for you to think now whatever happened to her? Whatever happened to her? Than to than to have it all wrapped up in a pretty little package for you. That's the, that's the mystery of it. But you know..
Ernestine: I guess that's true.
Oprah: Okay. Okay. That's why we have different opinions. Thank you so much. Thank you.
Ernestine: Thank you.
Oprah: Our next story is called "Luxurious Hearses." It's about a teenage Muslim boy trying to flee the ethnic violence sweeping his city, but he has to hide who he really is in order to survive an interminable bus ride to safety. That was the longest bus ride. I mean, at one point, I guess you did this on purpose because I know you all probably felt the same way. I was, like, when is this bus ride going to end? And there was one crazy person after another on this bus. I guess that was, was that the point?
Uwem: (Laughter.) I... I know sometimes in my country, you know, they say to you this bus will leave at this time, you know?
Oprah: Oh, my goodness.
Uwem: And it doesn't happen. It's like, you know, you get to an airport, you know, to the airport from the time you get on the plane and they say to you, well, we've got a problem. They don't let you out and you are in the plane. So I, I thought about bringing that into...
Oprah: "Luxurious Hearses."
Uwem: Yeah, into the story.
Oprah: Yes. And you chose a Muslim boy.
Oprah: First I thought, reading this story, that that's why the book was called Say You're One of Them because he was going to have to say he was one of them or was pretending to be a Christian, even though and hiding the fact that he was Muslim on the bus. And then you read the last story and you know that that is also the case, that that's why the book is called Say You're One of Them. Okay, let's go out to talk to our viewers. Let's go to Raymond. Raymond, New Hampshire, where LeeAnn is—Raymond, New Hampshire, not Raymond the person—Raymond, New Hampshire, where LeeAnn is Skyping in from her kitchen. Your question about the... Do you have a question?
LeeAnn: Hi, Oprah. Hi, Father Akpan. How are you?
Uwem: Thank you.
LeeAnn: So for Luxurious Horses... I'm sorry, "Luxurious Hearses."
LeeAnn: I did have a question about that story. I was wondering, religious conflict seems to be such an insurmountable problem. Do you think, is it realistic to think that we can bring an end to religious conflicts?
Uwem: I think it's realistic to think that we can reduce, you know, incidents of religious conflict, especially the violence that, you know, come with religious conflicts. As you can see, people are being manipulated, and religion is very important, and politicians really know how to do this. People in Nigeria are always, you know, they have a political agenda. They tap on religion and they use that as a vehicle to destroy. So these things, you know, many times it begins in northern Nigeria and the southerners who live there are killed and people in the south become very angry, you know, and start killing northerners there out of revenge. And the government has refused, you know, to tackle who sponsors these riots.
Oprah: Now what's interesting about this story is as long as everybody thought that he was one of them on the bus they treated him as one of them and, you know, respected his humanity and it was fine. And it was only when they recognized, you know, that he wasn't...
Oprah: ...Because of his hand, that they then decided to immediately destroy him which, you know, speaks to me to the -- not just the irrationality but to the craziness of...
Oprah: ...Judging people because of their religious beliefs.
Uwem: Yes. Lack of forgiveness is right in there. And Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, who is your neighbor, you know. And it's sort of like I tried to say, who is your neighbor on this bus, you know, who will save your life? Who will die for you? And it ends up being this crazy, you know, soldier who has fought in a foreign country and has been cheated back home and I want people to look at this question. Even in your country, you know, who is your neighbor? It may not come down to, to tribalism but sometimes it comes down to race. You know, we still have issues around this. When that person stands before you, what are you seeing? Are you seeing his color? His religion? You know, what are you seeing? You know, can you say this is a human being?
Oprah: We do it in different, you know, all kinds of prejudices. Not just race or religion but, you know, how much money you have. How much square footage you have. What kind of car you drive. Where your kids go to school. Is it private school or not? What kind of pocketbook you carry. You know, how high are your high heels? Are they Manolo Blahniks? Where do you shop? You know, many, many, many, many ways to divide ourselves from our united humanity.
Oprah: That's what this story is about.
Oprah: Yeah. You got that, right, LeeAnn?
LeeAnn: Yes, I did. And thank you very much. The book is just so realistic, it's chilling. It's an incredible piece of work. It's amazing.
Oprah: Yeah. It's like being able to go to Africa and not leaving Appleton, Wisconsin.
Oprah: We have Ann on the line. Thank you so much for joining us. Ann on the line from Portland, Oregon. Hi, Ann.
Ann: Hello. I'm so thrilled to be here with you. For me, "Luxurious Hearses" was just so haunting in its portrayal of how easily manipulated and the relatively shifting allegiances of the crowd.
Ann: And how quickly and easily their fear was herded towards violence.
Oprah: Could you believe the ending? Ann, could you believe that ending?
Ann: No. No.
Oprah: Weren't you stunned? Weren't you stunned by the ending?
Ann: Absolutely. Absolutely. You know, the dog and the twitching of the nerve. It was just, just overwhelming.
Oprah: I could not believe after, after that long a ride, because I was exhausted. I was literally exhausted on that bus. I could not believe it ended that way.
Ann: Well, one of to me, Father's masterful strokes is how he rachets and rachets and rachets the tension and the multi-dimensional paradoxes and ironies throughout the story that heighten your experience as a reader. And for me, that is so true in terms of how you read it and experience it. But I also wonder how much us in the West will think this is just Africa? And I would love to hear both of you speak about how you see the relevance of the manipulation of the crowd by leaders with an agenda and how that is relevant to us in the West and in the larger world.
Oprah: Good point. Good point. I'll let you answer that. Go ahead.
Uwem: Yes. I think that's a very good question.
Oprah: Very good, Ann.
Uwem: If we must go back to my country where this story is set, a lot of past leaders and politicians have stolen a lot of money from the country. Billions. And they use this money, you know, to stir up religious violence, you know, to get reelection in that country, you know, to force their candidate who should be the Attorney General of the Federation. Who should hold the petroleum ministry.
Okay, they have a lot of money. And as long as these people keep this money, it's very difficult, you know, to get the country to work towards justice. If it, if it means stirring up religious conflict to get the agenda, they will do it. The problem is the bulk of this money is in the West. It's in the U.S. It's in Europe. It's in the West. The children of Africa and the conflicts I've tried to drama ties, they're like our children. You know, they're innocent. They're promising. They're resilient. They're one of the good things of this life. Where is the fairness if the West has allowed these thieves to keep this money in the West? Where is the fairness if the G8 keeps meeting and this issue is not resolved? Where is the fairness if all these powerful men in the world, the presidents, keep meeting... The World Bank knows where this money is in the West and who has what.
What will it take for the World Bank to come out and say this man has this money and has stolen this money? After all, we know what a military general earns. If I have a check and I send it to you across state lines in the U.S., that check stays in your bank for five days and they're looking at that check. Who has this money? Money coming into this bank account, this money has come from where? So how come someone brings billions from Africa and we take this and keep in our banks? And this money helps to turn the children of the West. And Africa is constantly standing there asking for aids, okay?
We may not be asking for aids anymore. Our money in the West, can this money be frozen because this money is used for the conflict, you know, to stir up these conflicts in Africa. The children in my stories, they are poor, they lack food, they lack shelter, they are reacting like this because of the poverty. But the money is in the West. Many of us don't know about this. Our politicians have a lot of mansions all over this country. Okay? Where did they get the money from, okay? Who is going to stand up and say because we share a common humanity and the children of Africa are like our children, who is going to stand there and say, let our, let us put a stop to this. Okay? So, you know, people keep asking, what can we do in the West? Okay?
The World Bank is in the West. The World Bank can track down this money and make everybody account for how did you get a billion dollars in your bank account? This money you are using to destroy the world. We have, you know, Genocide Tribunal. Why can't we have a tribunal in the UN to take care of this. As long as our brothers and sisters have this money in the banks and they use this money...
Oprah: You're talking about people in your country having money in the West.
Uwem: Yes. Yes.
Uwem: People in our country...
Oprah: Having stolen it from the people and placed it in the West.
Uwem: This money is in Western banks. Until this money is frozen...
Oprah: Well, we are not going to resolve that problem tonight.
Uwem: We are not going to resolve that problem tonight or anywhere until that issue, you know, is looked at, you know.
Oprah: Thank you for your question, Ann.
Ann: Thank you.
Oprah: Let's discuss this last story of this collection in Say You're One of Them. This is probably my favorite story. "In My Parents' Bedroom." It is set during the '94 Rwandan genocide and I think it is one of the most powerful and devastating stories in the book. Father Uwem, talk about why you wrote this story.
Uwem: When the genocide in Rwanda happened, I was in the U.S. I was studying in Nebraska. Creighton University.
Oprah: Everybody, where were you in '94? Think of that.
Oprah: The Spring of '94 from April to June when the Rwandan genocide, over a period of 100 days. I think it started April 4, wasn't it? It was April 4 or April 8. Started, and in 100 days, 800,000 people had been slaughtered.
Uwem: Yeah. I was very ashamed, excuse me, because this issue of who should go and help these Africans.
Uwem: Who should stop the violence? And to many people in the West it was, you know, it's not our problem.
Uwem: We may have the best military in the world...
Oprah: But we didn't know. I'm telling you, I often, when I, you know, I think if you want to know about the genocide, the Frontline did the best piece on the Rwandan genocide I've actually ever seen where you literally see the bodies stacked up and you hear how the people who were there talk about one day you're barbecuing with your neighbor in the backyard.
Uwem: Yeah. Mm-hmm.
Oprah: And the next day, that same neighbor comes across the street to slash your throat and kill your children.
Oprah: It's just, it's just it's impossible to even understand.
Uwem: It's... It's very painful. It was very painful for me to sit down... So I was saying to myself, you know, how could this have happened?
Oprah: How did this happen?
Uwem: You know, it happened in a Sarajevo, Kosovo.
Uwem: They had the same situation. How could this have happened?
Oprah: And what were we doing when this was happening?
Uwem: Yeah. Yeah. So I tried to explore. For me, this was a very difficult story to write because I never went to Rwanda, you know. I've never visited Rwanda, even up to now. So I have to depend on my imagination to say, okay, what would a child have gone through in this and trying to understand as a child, you know. So I started exploring, you know, that. And I got a lot of, you know, energy.
Oprah: The 20-year-olds who survived this genocide would have been five-years-old at the time. The 20-year-old's. Because this was 15 years ago. Our next Skyper is a survivor of the Rwandan genocide. Corneille, tell us how to pronounce...
Corneille Nyungura: Hi, Oprah.
Oprah: Hi. Hi, Corneille is a musician and was a teenager when the genocide took place. He lost his entire family in just one deadly night, a night that, very much like the one you describe in "My Parents' Bedroom." He also wrote an essay for Oprah.com about his experiences in Rwanda. As someone who witnessed the horror first hand, what did you think of this story, "My Parents' Bedroom," Corneille?
Corneille: I was... I couldn't even find the words when I was trying to explain to one of your producers what I, what I felt. And I did not... I was sure that Father Uwem had gone to Rwanda. I was sure of it. Because as someone who spent hours in Rwanda for the entire duration of the genocide from April 6 until July 5, 1994, and the first thing that I thought was striking was the...
Oprah: How old were you? Corneille, how old were you?
Corneille: I was 17-years-old. And the first thing that I thought was striking is how he managed to make the physical, the order, the scenery, the landscapes, and everything that's physical about Rwanda and the genocide during those three months so real and so vivid, I was... I was... I was completely... I was very disturbed by it, actually, because it really took me, it physically transported me back to that moment.
Oprah: Can you, can you tell us briefly where you were when the genocide started? Where you were physically?
Corneille: I was in Kigali, Rwanda, and in the night of April 15, 1994, some armed men came to our house. It was about 2:00 in the morning and my mother woke us up and told us all to go to the living room and sit down and these people walked in and after maybe five minutes of talking and arguing, they were speaking in Swahili which is a language that I don't really understand, at one point our cook who was sitting there started telling me that they were saying that they were going to shoot all of us. And being the very naive, optimistic person that I am, that I still am that, I was, I said, no, it's not possible.They're not gonna shoot. And they did.
And so they shot everyone. And by some weird reflex, I jumped behind a couch. And I guess they thought me for dead and just left. But what I wanted to say about this story is how Father Akpan somehow managed to—and it's probably because you used the language of a child and the view of a child—he managed to talk about my experience being a child with a Tutsi, a father who was a Tutsi and a mother who was Hutu. So it was kind of the reverse ethnic situation than what's told in the book. But still he managed to really portray the absurdity of this genocide, which is not something that was talked about.
People have politicized it and said, "Well, Hutus killed Tutsis," and oversimplified the whole thing. And there's the last page, the ending of this book, that really talked to me because I was fortunate enough to be a very successful musician, especially in Europe, and there's been a great deal of pressure on me to want to pick sides and say, well, I'm, you know, I want to talk in the name of all the Tutsis and really basically say that Hutus were the wrongdoers, and not put any context around it, or just say, "Well, Hutus were kicked out of the country after '94 so they're the victims now" and that pressure wore down on me because I could never, because my mother was a Tutsi and my father was a Hutu.
And the last page of this book—and I don't even know how you can write something so true when you haven't gone through the genocide in Rwanda or been there to understand the absurdity, and only an eye of a child can process that that way—the part where the little girl, Monique, is running away and she's thinking (this was really special for me to read this) and she says, well, if Papa was able to kill, to take Mama's life, how am I sure that Mama's people are gonna spare my life? And this was my story. Because there is a thing about the genocide in Rwanda where people started, there was probably some sort of planning ahead but at one point people just went crazy and nuts. And one of the criteria to kill people was how you, what your physiology was. How you fit into a clan or another, an ethnic group or another, based on how you looked physically.
And I... I'm physically a mix of both my parents and that was a problem because I physically look like/could have come off like a Tutsi. That was debatable, but I could have. I didn't have that, the I.D. card. Father Akpan, when you're talking about the I.D. card, anyone who's gone through the genocide, knows what that means. You had to have that paper because Rwanda was one of the rare countries where you had an I.D. card that used to say whether you were a Hutu or a Tutsi or a Twa, which was the third ethnic group. And during the genocide that, was your, basically that was your, you know...
Oprah: That was your live or die card. Your live or die card.
Corneille: It was your live or die card.
Oprah: So I'm sure this took you to a place... Well, I don't know how if you survive a genocide and all of your family members... How many of your family members were killed, Corneille?
Corneille: All of them. So my father and mother and my two brothers and my little sister.
Oprah: That night when they came to the house?
Corneille: Yes, that very night.
Oprah: And you were the only one that survived in the house?
Corneille: I've the only one that survived in the house. And I can't rationalize it. I've tried to. I've stayed in a great deal of denial until three years ago. I could not... I had pictures of my family stacked up somewhere in a box and my wife got mad and she took 'em out and she put them in frames and forced me to look at them. And that was the first time that I actually reconnected with my family. I had completely shut them out of my reality today because it was too painful, I guess.
Oprah: So how were you able to read this story? How were you able to read "My Parents' Bedroom?"
Corneille: You know what? This is... I would not have been able to read it... I probably would have been able to read it three years ago. But there's something that happens when you go through something so traumatic where you get out of your body because no human being is equipped to stand that kind of psychological shock. So you get out of your body and I could recount those events and be completely detached. So I could have read this book three years ago and been like, and commented and commentated on it the way people are doing during this webcast.
But I've done some work and I've started going through therapy and with the help of my wife, I've started really grieving. I hadn't grieved. I couldn't grieve. It was too painful. And I've come now, I'm starting to come to terms with certain things. I had a phase where I hated Rwanda. I did not want to hear anything about it. I wrote a song on my latest album called, "I'll Never Call You Home Again." And I call it my angry song. I have to say I was angry.
And the people of Rwanda have been told that they were not allowed to be angry because it's not the right thing to do. You're not supposed to be angry. You're supposed to think in terms of reconciliation. Reconcile. Forgive and forget. And that was just simply not realistic. And so I was...
Oprah: You've got to be angry first. You've got to allow yourself.
Corneille: You've got to be angry first.
Oprah: Then you can make peace with it. But you've got to be able to express that. I wish we had more time to talk to you. I'm really glad that out of the horrors that you have been through that you were able to read this little story, because that's—it really is one of the shorter of the short stories in this book—and allow that to touch a space in your heart and to perhaps be cathartic for you. I wish you continued healing. It's a long process. I can't even, you know, imagine or fathom what it's like to be able to come back to yourself or what it would be like after...
Corneille: It's a long process.
Oprah: Yeah. To create a new self. Yeah.
Corneille: It's a long process. But I'm, I'm in a good way. I'm on a good path. And the one thing that I wanted to tell Father Akpan, if I may, is that I support him in what seems to be sort of a mission to come to the West and tell people Africa is not doomed and things that are happening here in the U.S., all over Europe, could be interpreted and looked at as just as bad. It's just that they're different things and the genius of this book is to have used children and the voices of children because the children are just pretty much psychologically set up the same way anywhere you go.
Oprah: Thank you, Corneille.
Uwem: Thank you.
Oprah: Thank you.
Uwem: Thank you.
Oprah: Powerful. Very powerful. Thank you, thank you, thank you. That's a powerful testimony. So where has the night gone? If you want to watch this book discussion again or tell a friend who missed it, our webcast will be available on demand tomorrow for free here at Oprah.com. You'll also be able to download the podcast tomorrow at Oprah.com and on iTunes. I just want to thank you so much, Father Uwem Akpan.
Uwem: Thank you very much for giving our children a voice.
Oprah: Thank you.
Uwem: Thank you very much. I'm grateful.
Oprah: Thank you. It was a pleasure. Thanks, everybody.And thanks to CNN.com, CNN International, and Anderson Cooper for showing us the real life issues behind Say You're One of Them.
And, of course, thanks to all of you for watching. I just want to say, really, to those of you who are on the webcast with me right now and those of you who, you know, have read this book, it's really outstanding because you know particularly as Americans, I know that you'reatching from all over the country, but particularly as Americans, when I've chosen other books that are set in foreign places and have foreign characters and foreign names, all the publishers in the world says that Americans aren't gonna read stories like that. And you all proved them wrong.
So I thank you for that. Thank you for that. Here's to books.
Uwem: Thank you.
Oprah: Thank you.
Uwem: Thank you.
Oprah: Thanks, Corneille.
Corneille: Thank you, Oprah. Thank you, Father Akpan.