Get to Know Uwem Akpan

In November 2006, in our "Of Many Things" column I wrote a short column on the remarkable success of Uwem Akpan, a Nigerian Jesuit and astonishingly gifted writer who had been included in The New Yorker’s "Debut Fiction" issue in the summer of 2005. Part of my delight in Uwem’s success was that, early on, Uwem had asked me for a few suggestions about where to send his fiction, and, a few months later, I received what is still the most surprising email I’ve ever received, in which he said, calmly, that he was happy to tell me that The New Yorker had accepted his piece. From now on, I told him, I would be coming to him for advice! At the end of the piece I said that I hoped that Uwem Akpan, who had just had his first book accepted by Little, Brown, would be a name that you would soon be searching for in your local bookstore. Well, you probably won’t have to search very hard, because his glorious book, "Say That You’re One of Them" has just received some ecstatic reviews. There is, for example, a full-page review in this week’s Entertainment Weekly which begins, "Awe is the only appropriate response to Uwem Akpan’s stunning debut, Say You’re One of Them, a collection of five stories so ravishing and sad that I regret ever wasting superlatives on fiction that was merely very good." Having spent a few years in Africa in the 1990s, I can say that while Uwem’s stories are fictional but what he writes is true. Frankly, I don’t think I’ve never read any writing--anywhere--that has so well communicated the continent’s astonishing blend of hope and tragedy, love and hatred, wealth and poverty, and, yes, faith and doubt. Reading his fiction is like being there again and hearing the voices of the people and seeing their faces. And this week in The New Yorker, along with James Woods’ lengthy article on the theodicy (which Tim Reidy discusses in a blogpost below) is a collection of short pieces under the general rubric "Faith and Doubt." (God forbid The New Yorker calls them simply "Faith," huh?) Uwem’s piece, "Communion" is among them. It’s a luminous account of his interaction with two young street boys at the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Nairobi one Sunday morning. Like the reviewer at EW, I am in awe of my friend’s talents. Fiction writing has always been a mystery to me. How do they do it? How do they come up with their stories? How do they create such characters? Reading Ron Hansen’s books, especially "Mariette in Ecstasy" and "Atticus," and Andre Dubus’s stories, like "Sacraments" always prompt me to ask similar questions. In the end, I’ve concluded, it must simply be a gift. Like Ron Hansen and Andre Dubus, Uwem Akpan has that gift. And like those two authors he also has the gift of showing how, no matter who they are or where they live, everyone’s life is a sacrament. James Martin, SJ
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