Teacher, priest and social advocate, Father Uwem Akpan’s stories confront the reader with the stark realities of a post-independence Africa still struggling to recover from the far-reaching effects of colonialism. His celebrated debut collection of stories, Say You’re One Of Them, delves into child trafficking, extreme poverty, religious conflict and ethnic violence with unflinching frankness. We explore the remarkable career of the African author.
Akpan was born in southeast Nigeria in 1971 in the village of Ikot Akpan Eda. Storytelling played a significant role in his childhood; he grew up being enthralled by his mother’s folktales and the traditional histories told by his village elders. At the age of 19 he joined the Jesuit order and in 1993 his superiors in the church sent him to the United States, where he studied English and Philosophy at Creighton and Gonzaga Universities. In 2006 he received his MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan.
He studied theology for three years in Kenya at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa before being ordained as a priest in 2003. During this period the first stories which would appear in Say You’re One of Them began to take shape. The seeds for An Ex-Mas Feast, a short story about8-year-old Jigana and his dysfunctional family living in poverty on the streets of Nairobi,were sown when Akpan became fascinated by the city’s street children. The story explores Jigana’s guilt at how patriarchal mores have forced his sister, 12-year-old Maisha, into prostitution in order to support the family and raise money for his education. Jigana’s matter-of-fact descriptions of his family living in squalor make An Ex-Mas Feast compelling and difficult to read. The story was included in The New Yorker’spremiere fiction issue in 2005. Itwas the first of Akpan’s works to be published in the United States.
My Parents’ Bedroom and An Ex-Mas Feast are two of five stories in Say You’re One of Them. The collection was released to critical acclaim, receiving several accolades including the Commonwealth Writers’ Book Prize For First Book (Africa Region), in 2009, and the PEN/Beyond Margins Award 2009. The locales span the African continent as Akpan sets his tales in Rwanda, Ethiopia, Gabon, Kenya and Nigeria. His protagonists endure an assortment of harrowing internal and external crises, often finding themselves in circumstances far beyond their control or understanding.
‘The world is not looking’, Akpan said in a 2005 interview while discussing the terrors that millions of children experience as a matter of course throughout Africa and around the world. ‘I want their stories heard, their faces seen’. Thus Akpan’s fiction is concerned with not only naming these horrors, but inviting the reader to share in them. Unfortunately for the faint of heart, the horrors in question frequently unfold with an unrelenting sense of inevitability and doom.
However, at no point does Akpan invite us to pity his characters. Instead their courage, resilience and desire to survive serve to ignite new hope for the future of both the African continent and its people.
Father Akpan taught and ministered at a Jesuit college in Harare, Zimbabwe in 2007. He returned to Nigeria the following year and now ministers at Christ The King Church in Lagos.