It isn’t often that you get the chance to help a new literary sensation. A few years ago, I got a friendly note from Uwem Akpan, a Nigerian Jesuit who was studying theology in Kenya. Uwem had written an article for America in November 1996 with the felicitous title “Nigerian Roman Catholic Something.” It was a model of good writing. Along with his letter he included a packet of a few short stories, which he asked me to read and, if I felt they were good enough, suggest a few places for possible publication.
The stories, which focused on children in Africa, were dazzling: full of energy and color and humanity. But I sheepishly told Uwem that I knew little about short stories. I enjoy reading them, particularly those by Ernest Hemingway and Andre Dubus; but I don’t have any advanced degree in writing (or any advanced degree at all), so I couldn’t say anything more constructive than that I had enjoyed his writing immensely. As for places to send them, I suggested a few publications that I knew regularly feature short fiction—The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s—and wished Uwem well in his writings. I felt bad that I wasn’t able to recommend more magazines.
Roughly a year later, I received the most surprising message I’ve ever read. It was from Uwem. “Dear Jim,” he wrote, “thanks very much for your advice. The New Yorker has accepted my short story and will soon be publishing it.”
I had to read the message twice. Surely he couldn’t mean The New Yorker, the Holy Grail of writers. Not that Father Akpan’s fiction wasn’t superlative, but an acceptance in The New Yorker is considered nearly impossible even by authors who are household names. Maybe Uwem meant another magazine with a similar name, I thought.
A few months later, in The New Yorker’s 2005 summer “Debut Fiction” issue, there appeared one of Uwem’s stories, “An Ex-Mas Feast,” along with a photo of the Jesuit standing alongside the other debut authors.
In a recent visit to America House, in between visits with his new agent, his editor at The New Yorker and the staff of Little, Brown, which will be publishing his first collection of stories, Uwem filled me in on the rest of his tale, which is almost as colorful as his short stories.
After accepting his story, for example, The New Yorker had asked him to prune it from 24 pages to a more modest 14 pages. But Uwem replied that in the four months between his last submission and their response, the story had in fact grown to 30 pages, and he hoped to keep it at that length. His professors and friends at the University of Michigan, where he was completing his master’s degree in writing, were horrified. “You said that you didn’t want them to edit it?” they said. “You can’t say that to The New Yorker!” Fortunately, his editor came around to his point of view, and the story appeared more or less whole.
I was also delighted to learn that the famous New Yorker fact checkers live up to their reputation for precision. Was Uwem, they wondered, certain about some unusual Swahili words he used in his story about Kenyan children? (Local Kenyan children often use a slangy mixture of Swahili and English, called shengi.) The magazine had a hard time verifying some of the words and questioned their provenance. Uwem noted that the shengi had been vetted by an editor of a Kenyan Internet magazine, which had published an earlier version of the story. The fact checkers contacted the man at his post in Nairobi. Yes, he said, these are the correct words.
The second of Uwem’s pieces, on Rwandan children caught in the 1994 genocide, appeared a few months ago in the magazine. When I asked how he could write so convincingly about Africans from such varied parts of the continent, he said that he began with the story itself, then carefully added specifics from the region, always checking with experts about local facts. “One of my writing professors said that you can write anything you want about a character,” he said, “but if you get a street name wrong, and someone knows it’s wrong, it will destroy the story for that person.”
Uwem Akpan, I hope, will soon be a name you will search for in your local bookstore. The New Yorker is already helping with that. In early October, Father Akpan participated in a New Yorker “festival” of writers. His brother Jesuits, especially in the North-West Africa Province (where his royalty checks will be put to good use) are thrilled by his accomplishments. As for me, I am delighted with his sudden success and happy to have had a minuscule part in his astonishing story.
Shortly after reading his e-mail indicating that The New Yorker had accepted his piece, I sent Uwem my congratulations and said that things would have to change. From now on, I would be coming to him for advice about publishing.