Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Through the Laughter and the Tears: Nigerian Uwem Akpan Follows a Double Calling as Priest and Writer

Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Through the Laughter and the Tears: Nigerian Uwem Akpan Follows a Double Calling as Priest and Writer

Article excerpt

God is in the details--or is it the devil? Authenticity certainly lurks there, which is abundant in the best fiction. Uwem Akpan understands this. When writing about Rwanda, he wanted to get the details right. Marriage customs, traditional dress, the color of the earth--the small, everyday matters that make a story come alive and that inhabitants of a place will spot right away if a writer gets it wrong. So Akpan attempted to travel to Rwanda for research.

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But his superiors wouldn't let him take the trip--they preferred that he remain at his seminary in Kenya. He was resigned to asking questions of his Jesuit brothers in letters and e-mails, and left to imagine Rwanda's earth.

Akpan is most likely the first Nigerian Jesuit priest to have two stories published in The New Yorker, that Holy Grail for short story writers. "An Ex-Mas Feast" and the Rwanda story "My Parents' Bedroom" are both featured in his first collection, Say You're One of Them, published last June by Little, Brown and Company. In two novellas and three stories, he juxtaposes startlingly lucid writing and imagery with nearly unspeakable situations--child trafficking, genocide, religious and tribal divisions and violence, and desperate poverty. Each of the stories takes place in a different African country, and all are told through the perspectives of children.

Here's the voice of 8-year-old Jigana at the opening of "An Ex-Mas Feast": "Now that my eldest sister, Maisha, was 12, none of us knew how to relate to her anymore. She had never forgiven our parents for not being rich enough to send her to school."

This scene could be set in a suburban Cincinnati home. Complaining little brothers and moody older sisters are not, after all, unique to Africa. The twist comes at the end of the paragraph: "Sometimes Mama went out of her way to provoke her. "Malaya! Whore! You don't even have breasts yet!' she'd say. Maisha would ignore her."

Maisha, it turns out, is the family breadwinner. She works as a prostitute to send her brother to school and to buy food for the family, including a 10-year-old sister, 2-year-old twins, and a 3-month-old called Baby. Jigana carries Baby with him when he begs on Nairobi street corners, to heighten sympathy and increase the small pile of coins. When the food runs out, Mama gives the children shoe glue to sniff to take away the pangs that convulse their stomachs.

The devil takes center stage in details like these throughout the book. Evil abounds. God is more elusive.

FOR SOMEONE DRAWN to writing about the shadow on the human soul, Akpan is an unexpectedly jolly man. He laughs easily and often until he's breathless and gasping, laughter that sometimes pitches into giggles reminiscent of a girl Maisha's age. It is not difficult to imagine him inhabiting the mind of a child.

"I started off writing about adult issues. Then I realized that nobody was writing about children in these different countries, these difficult situations. So I decided to have a go at it," Akpan said during a presentation at Calvin College's Festival of Faith & Writing in April.

Fifty years ago, Akpan's countryman Chinua Achebe published his first novel, Things Fall Apart. It is a cornerstone of modern world fiction and the most widely read novel in contemporary African literature. More than 11 million copies have been sold worldwide, and it has been translated into 50 languages. In recent years, several young Nigerian writers have gained international prominence and readers, among them Chris Abani (Graceland), Helon Habila (Waiting for an Angel), and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Half of a Yellow Sun), a 2008 MacArthur Fellow. This elevated attention can partly be attributed to the Caine Prize for African Writing (worth around $17,000 U.S.), instituted in 2000. Habila won the Caine Prize in 2001; Adichie was short-listed in 2002, as was Akpan in 2007. …

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