One on one with Festival writers

2010-03-17 00:00

FATHER Uwem Akpan is a Nigerian- born Jesuit priest who has lived and studied theology and creative writing in the United States. He has taught in Zimbabwe and now works in a parish in his home country.

His debut collection of stories, Say You’re One of Them, which deals powerfully and movingly with the plight of children all over Africa, was published by Abacus in 2008 and was selected by Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club last September. It was reviewed in The Witness in January by Moira Lovell,. The review can be read at www.wit

Mvk: In your book you deal with current issues such as child trafficking, genocide and inter-religious conflict and explore their effects on Africa’s children. Why did you write this as fiction rather than deal with it factually?

UA: It was what I thought I could do. I haven’t been to all the countries that I am writing about — Rwanda for instance — and it is easier for me to imagine than to report. I tend to write first and then research after I have made a first draft. The story is how characters relate to each other and their circumstances. I’m not a journalist, and I feel I have a gift to write fiction. It’s a case of what I can do with the gifts that I have been given.


MvK: Several of the stories are written in the first person. Did you do this to increase a feeling of hopefulness by showing readers that the characters have gone on to survive?

UA: I like that idea, but for me it was a way of trying to write from the perspective of children because they can go through a lot without being able to see it clearly. Journalists usually write from the perspective of adults. For a child, seeing is shallow, on the surface. How can I as an artist step into that experience? The first person is a way to get the reader to feel with the child, and to let the narrator own the story.

Part of trying to write credibly from the perspective of children is to see that the reader is a step ahead. They need to be aware of things that the child has not yet worked out. In Fattening for Gabon (a story set in Benin about two children who are being prepared by their uncle to be sold over the border to Gabon as child slaves), the child sees what is going on around him, but doesn’t have the necessary knowledge to understand it.


MvK: Even if the children in your stories­ survive, are they not going to be damaged adults?

UA: We need to be careful here. Western psychology seems to me to have foreclosed on the idea that there is no redemption from childhood trauma. After all, not all of those who went through the slaughter of the Jews became nonfunctioning adults — there are some wonderful people with those memories. There is nothing to say that because someone has had a difficult childhood they cannot not make something of their lives. I am suspicious of psychology that makes too much of childhood experience.

Some people have wonderful childhoods in advanced countries and then can’t cope when things go wrong. Teen suicides are very high in New Zealand, for example, but not so high in Bangladesh, or in my own country, Nigeria. These children are resilient. For people who live outside Africa, often­ war and tragedy is all there is. It is important for people outside the continent to be able to connect because these children remind them of their own children in their resilience, innocence and sweetness. Someone in Russia could read this and be moved to tears — and connect.


MvK: You are a Jesuit priest, and I was struck by the way you treated religious­ intolerance in the stories, never showing prejudice.

UA: Some of us in the church are very worried about what we have done in some circumstances. We have done what we said we would not do: we have done things contrary to what God said we should do. Religion is not a fixed thing — we need to grow.

My Muslin and Pentecostal friends wanted to see their opinions represented in the stories, so I have tried to make them as diverse as possible. If I need to challenge my dear church, I challenge my dear church. This is how we can grow.


MvK: When Say You’re One of Them was chosen by Oprah for her book club, how was your interaction with her? UA: She said that she was stunned, profoundly moved by the book. She wanted to have a deep conversation with me, with no breaks. So we did it — 90 minutes — on a webcast that was streamed on CNN, Facebook and on Oprah’s show. People Skyped in to us to ask questions and join in. It’s still available on the web.

Generally, the book has had an incredible reception. I haven’t had much chance to write more. I think I will, but even if I don’t write another, this was worth it. I worked hard, and it came together.

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