Interview: Uwem Akpan
Father Uwem Akpan was born in Ikot Akpan Eda, in southern Nigeria, in 1971. The sons of teachers, he and his three brothers grew up speaking both English and Annang. When he was nineteen, Uwem joined the Jesuit order. Three years later, he was sent to Nebraska by his superiors to study the humanities at Campion House, a scholarly Jesuit community attached to Creighton University, followed by two years of philosophy at Gonzaga University in Washington State. In 2000 he moved to Nairobi, Kenya, where he studied theology for three years at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa, after which he was ordained a Jesuit priest. The following year he returned to the United States to pursue a degree in creative writing from the University of Michigan. His first story published in the United States, ‘An Ex-Mas Feast’, appeared in the 2005 debut fiction issue of The New Yorker while he was an MFA student in Ann Arbor. The following year The New Yorker published a second story, ‘My Parents’ Bedroom’, which was a finalist for the Caine Prize for African Writing. These stories are included in his first collection, Say You’re One of Them, which was published in June by Little, Brown and Company and was most recently longlisted for the Guardian First Book Prize in the United Kingdom. Akpan currently lives in Zimbabwe, where he teaches at a seminary in Harare. Jeremiah Chamberlin spoke with him for Granta.com.
JC: There are three professions we most commonly associate a person having a ‘calling’ for: religion, teaching and writing. Yet you seem to have been called by all three. Is this because you’re a man with wide interests, or do these fields naturally intersect and overlap for you?
UA: A priest is a teacher; he is supposed to teach people about God. A priest too is a poet because he must preach to people and seek to touch their hearts. He must look for a way to break the Word and share it among the faithful seated before him. It does not mean that all priests are writers. But there is no running away from the poetic and creative side of carrying the Word of God to His people. If you are asking about teaching in the classroom, I was sent by my superiors to do so. About writing, I often feel writing chose me. I just could not run away from the issues and the urge to say something about things that bother or puzzle me.
Yet considering the nature of your material — child trafficking, genocide, ethnic cleansing — some might wonder why you chose fiction to address these very real and urgent issues. Why not nonfiction?
I’m fascinated with the process of creating a character and the freedom of the creative process. I’m discovering as well, learning myself. Since I only realized I had the gift ten years ago, I felt I needed to develop this. I also like fiction because it is not doctrinaire. It is exploratory and you are invited to come and see, just like Jesus first invited would-be disciples to ‘come and see’. What you do after seeing is left to you.
Speaking of developing these skills, you’ve spent most of the last fifteen years studying or working outside your native Nigeria, both in the United States and in other countries in Africa. While it’s no doubt been difficult at times to spend such extended periods away from home, these experiences have also afforded you the rare opportunity to live among and interact with a number of different cultures. Was this explicitly the intention of your superiors when they sent you to study in the United States the first time?
It is good to expose the would-be priest. One cannot preach the Word of God without thinking seriously about culture and even seeking to use cultural elements to spread the gospel. An understanding of culture then is important. I am grateful that I have been able to live and work and study in different cultures.
That awareness and interest in different cultures certainly comes through in your writing. I also understand that Ignatian Contemplative Prayer is something that has helped guide you as both a priest and writer. Would you describe this practice?
Simply put, you are encouraged to imagine the Bible passage you are praying with. For example, if it is the Sermon on the Mount, St Ignatius says it is more beneficial for you to enter into the scene of the story and pray from there rather than just thinking about it. In this context one can now present his thanksgiving, his needs, his fears. I put some high school students through the routine the other day. At the end of the exercise, I asked them what they experienced. I was amazed. They talked about seeing Jesus. They talked about sitting on some mount overlooking the sea, the feel of the crowds, the weather. Someone said her Jesus was short and fat and had a bald head. Someone said his friends with whom he sat kept whispering into his ears because they were excited and so he himself couldn’t concentrate on what Jesus was saying. Others said they were afraid when Jesus spoke, and others said they went up to hug him. Jesuits have always prayed this way. The purpose is to foster a more intimate bond with the Lord. Jesus is not something that happened 2000 years ago. You can access him today in intimate ways. That is the purpose of this prayer form.
I think many fiction writers utilize a similar practice in their work, specifically the idea of ‘entering a scene’ to capture its essence. I imagine it must have been a fairly natural transition, then, to employ this technique in your fiction.
If I could imagine Jesus who existed 2000 years ago, imagine him walking the streets of the Middle East, imagine his world in very intimate details, it became clear to me I could imagine life during the 1994 Rwandan genocide or when the Muslim radicals killed Christians in Ethiopia some years back. I like stories that help me to see.
Was this process of inhabiting and imagining the lives of others what drew you to fiction initially?
I love stories. I am always amazed at what writers do with characters. Now, I did not know I could write fiction until 1998 or ’99. So once I discovered this, I was very excited about developing the talent. I wrote lots before I arrived at Michigan. All the time I was trying things out. I discovered I could create suspense and that is a big deal, I think. Then, of course, it was not difficult to choose my subject. I simply wrote about things that worried or puzzled me.
You’ve used this phrase before. What do you mean by ‘puzzled you’?
For example, when I read in newspapers that one million Rwandese were killed by their compatriots, it makes no sense to me. I have not seen a million people before. For me to even begin to understand, I may have to see how one person was killed and how much propaganda went into such an act. And if I hear someone sacrificed her life for another person, I try to work out in my mind how this was possible.
Is that how the stories in Say You’re One of Them began for you — an attempt to understand the unthinkable?
I first listed the issues I wanted to write about. Thank God these issues are not located in one country. It was both exciting and challenging to seek to write convincingly about these unique places and terrains.
Considering how important language and culture are in your work, you must have had to do a lot of research during the process of writing this book.
For me, research is very important. But I do not begin with research. I begin with writing the story, which for me is the relationship between the characters. It is after I have written or pretty much have a sense of the story that I go and do research. I am conscious that I am writing about poor people for the most part. They don’t have much other than their space or dirt. I want to do my best to represent that well. I am also conscious that I am writing about other countries. I want to make sure I understand those cultures as best as possible and represent them well. My teachers at Michigan made me understand it was important to get the research right for the sake of the poor children. My editor at The New Yorker kept telling me if you must invoke a real place in your stories, then let the reader have a bit of that place. Otherwise, you can invent your town or city or village and do as you wish, like Faulkner. If you set a second story in your fictional city, it might be worthwhile remembering the streets and layout of the city.
The British novelist John Fowles believed that all great writers must have a philosophy, a world view, something greater than themselves that drives their work. He once told an interviewer, ‘I soon lose interest in novelists who do not show their prejudices and opinions, who do not try to sell me something beyond entertainment, wit, clever technique, exquisite prose… not that those aren’t added pleasure’. It seems clear from your work that your stories have a purpose. One might even go so far as to say a moral one. Is this correct?
My goal is to get the reader to sit with the characters for a while — to see, to feel, to hear, to smell and to touch his world. I love what Jesus says to would-be apostles: ‘come and see.’ After you have seen, then you can decide on what to do. So I want my stories first to work as stories. If you are moved to act, then act. I write about things that puzzle me. If the reader buys into my puzzlement then let him act accordingly.
Yet you said earlier that before you even began your stories you made a list of the issues you wanted to write on. So obviously the topics themselves mattered to you.
Of course the subject matters, though a lot of what I do is a mystery to me. I do not claim to understand the whole process. All I can say is that in my own case, I try to let you see people dealing with conflicts the best way they can. I try to make my characters complex as they deal with the important issues.
Did you ever hesitate in tackling some of this subject matter? Were you ever worried that in the process of trying to capture these events you might accidentally oversimplify a complex issue? Or not get it quite right?
I was afraid I might get things wrong. I was afraid it might not work out, that the stories might not come together. I was helped by the idea that human beings are complex and that we move about in the presence of grace and sin. So I tried to complicate each of my major characters. I toyed with so many volatile issues. It was a playful thing at the beginning but then the stories began to take root. I spent a lot of time trying to get it right. And now it seems the risk was worth it.
In addition to exploring these broader social conflicts, the characters in your stories have very personal struggles as well. In particular, many seem to grapple with notions of faith and freedom and free will. Were these themes you consciously tried to address in your work, or do you think questions like this inevitably arise when individuals find themselves in such impoverished and difficult circumstances?
I just wanted to say something about how decent people struggle in difficult situations. What do you do, when you have your back pressed against the wall? In writing about difficult situations, you cannot avoid themes of grace and sin or good and evil.
Last winter, I attended a reading given by the American writer Nathan Englander, who has spent most of the last ten years living in Jerusalem. He said the most difficult aspect of adjusting to a life in Israel has been coming to terms with the fact that you live your day to day life with the understanding that you aren’t safe. Here in America, when parents send their children to school, they rarely worry that they won’t come home at the end of the day. We have our share of violence in this country, of course, but few of us spend our days fearing for our safety, or for the safety of our loved ones. This, however, is a very real concern for the people who live in the places you write about. Yet in the midst of this chaos the children who populate your stories laugh and sing and horse around. In fact, most of your stories are narrated by children. By highlighting this aspect of their play and innocence, was it your hope to draw an even starker contrast to the events surrounding them?
It was important for me to have children be children. Children play and sing and horse around. Nothing defines childhood more than play and freedom and absolute trust in adults. How did children behave in New Orleans during Katrina? Children face crisis the way they are; they don’t fully grasp the import of the tragedy util maybe they get to adolescence. So it was important to me to have the children tell their stories, even without fully understanding what was happening to them.
Yet the reader understands. In fact, one of the most powerful aspects of your work for me is the dramatic tension created by the fact that we know what’s taking place but the children do not. Is this a difficult balance to achieve?
Once I choose the narrator, I have sort of restricted myself. So I owe it to the character to be as natural as possible. At first it was difficult to make my child characters not speak or see like adults. But with time, I became convinced that my stories would work better if they spoke and laughed like children. In real life children are capable of saying profound things without being aware of it. If you are a father or mother or spend a lot of time around children, you will know this. I tried to replicate this in my stories.
Another striking characteristic of your work is the way it so often resists standard story structure. With the exception of ‘My Parents’ Bedroom’, which is somewhat more traditional, the pieces in this collection don’t follow the normal conflict-crisis-resolution mode. Does this stylistic choice have anything to do with African storytelling as a tradition? Or holy texts?
I believe a story should have suspense and central conflict. I write until I have exhausted that suspense and conflict or till I have figured out how to end the piece with some dignity. I want to engage my reader. I want him to sit with the characters until the end. It is possible that I have been influenced by the Bible or African story tradition — I don’t know.
What do you mean by ‘dignity’? For the characters? For the situation?
When I read I like endings that surprise me but are also consistent with the story. Midway into the story, I usually feel things are set. The more I write, the more limited my choices are. What some people are saying is that my endings are sad, but no one is saying my endings are not in line with the personalities of the characters as I have revealed them to the reader earlier.
So what would you say you want your stories to do? How do you envision a successful story?
I don’t really know. When I pick up a story to read, I want to learn something about humanity. I want to see. I want to live in the world the writer has created. I want to enjoy the poetry. I want to be drawn into the characters. I want to feel for them.
So is empathy at the heart of it all? Is that the most important thing there is in writing? Is that why we read and tell stories in the first place?
I feel if the stories don't work first as stories, they may not be worth much. You have lost your readers. I think it is Flannery O’Connor who said, ‘Before a chair works at the level of symbolism in stories, it has to exist first as a chair in the story’. If a story is fighting very hard to deliver messages, then maybe the writer should change it into an article or essay, you know. People already know what the ten commandments are and have an idea where to find them.
Let me ask you now about the kind of reception the book has received so far. In particular, from Africans.
I’m amazed at the many reviews, just as I was amazed that twelve American publishers bid for a contract. I have not recovered yet from the whole process and how people are reading the stories and commenting on them. Of course Africans who live in the West, say, America and the UK, who have read the book are part of these reviews. But since the book has not been published yet in Africa, I have no way of telling how Africans, as it were, would react. All I can say is that I would only think of success when the book gets there and the people I write about get to see themselves in the book. Hopefully, it will soon be published back there.
Speaking of Africa, you’ve been posted in Zimbabwe for the last year, teaching and ministering at a seminary in Harare. Considering the state of that country right now, what is day-to-day life like for you?
My life is better than that of most of the citizens of Zimbabwe. Things are very difficult in that country. My students, young Jesuits from different parts of Africa, are very motivated. They are Anglophone, Francophone, and Luxophone; they all work very hard. I live with eleven of them in a small community. There are eight or so small communities. There are a hundred seminarians in all. So it is difficult to provide for these in the situation Zimbabwe has found itself. And Father Minister has to worry about where to get food to feed all of us. But as I said we are doing better than others.
So is most of your time spent teaching these young students? Or are you also involved with the outside community?
Right now my mission is to teach the Jesuit seminarians and live with them. So I minister to them too. Being a seminary formator is a full-time job. You need to be there with the seminarians. We all come to school in one place. I have no mission outside of this, except to go say Mass at some parishes on Sundays. The intellectual life is part of Jesuit life, and I think it is challenging to be a writer, priesthood or no priesthood.
You’re very humble about the challenges you face, to say the least. For anyone who’s ever met you, one of the most striking aspects of your personality is your great joyfulness and your enthusiasm for life. This might surprise some of your readers considering the material in your book. Where does this great wellspring of joy come from?
People often come up to me to say they thought I was a sad soul until they met me or heard my laugh over the radio. I don’t know where the joy comes from, but thank God it is there. Many of the children I write about laugh and crack jokes and carry on as best as they can. While writing it was important for me to make sure they were not just standing around and begging the reader for alms. It was important to show them living their normal lives.
What do you hope for your future?
If you mean in terms of writing, I don’t really know yet what I want to do. You pray to God to write a book and work hard till a book comes out. And then you don’t really remember how you did it — the mystery of it! There is something both frightening and exciting about this — to live that mystery again. If I never write anything else, I shall always be grateful to all those who helped me in the process—my family, friends, teachers, and so many faceless people who helped me with research and prayers.
What do you hope for Africa?
I would love to see changes in the situations I talk about in my stories. For example, how do we get the West to stop allowing African dictators and politicians, whose actions they claim to hate, to stash their loot in western banks or buy property in America? If we now have the will to scrutinize all monies coming into our countries, to check terrorism after 9/11, then certainly we have the ability to track down these loots and nail the thieves. But we do not have the political will yet.
It’s been the greatest pleasure to speak to you, Uwem. Thank you for your time and your graciousness.
Thank you, my friend.