“After the phone call from The New Yorker, I walked more than a mile to church to thank God. But then I told God I would talk to Him another time and darted home.”
Nigerian writer Uwem Akpan is the author of the story collection, Say You’re One of Them. He was ordained a Jesuit priest in 2003 and graduated with an MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan in 2006. Akpan’s stories are set in Rwanda, Nigeria, Benin, and Ethiopia and tell stories about children caught in horrible situations. Two of the stories in his first collection were published in The New Yorker. He was interviewed by Rumpus Books writer, Grace Talusan.
Talusan: I was not only raised Catholic, but Filipino Catholic. It was very important for my parents and relatives to have close relationships with priests. They became honorary family members and attended the important events in our lives in addition to leading us through the sacraments at birth, confirmation, and marriage. I bring this up because I’m finding it hard to address you as anything but “Father,” even though I know you only through your writing.
Akpan: Father Uwem is fine…my mom, who’s very Filipino Catholic, would love that!
Talusan: Are you “Father Uwem” only in your life as a Jesuit priest and Uwem Akpan, the short story writer, in your literary life?
Akpan: It is not possible to keep the two roles separate. I’d say my religious life has shaped my worldview; my writing, I’d say too, is an extension of the pulpit…it reaches folks who don’t care for organized religion in a different way. I also believe that Jesus was both priest and poet. Imagine those powerful parables! My experience as a priest tells me it’s not possible to reach the hearts of the congregants without a bit of poetry and storytelling. The Bible itself is full of incredible stories.
Talusan: When someone is in a coma, you’re encouraged to talk to them and should assume they can hear you. I know people who read books and talk to their pregnant bellies with the assumption that their baby can hear their voice. Many of the stories in Say You’re One of Them close with a sound. In “An Ex-mas Feast,” the narrator, a street child, leaves his family: “My last memory of my family was of the twins burping and giggling.” In “My Parents Bedroom,” where the title of the collection comes from, Monique, a nine-year old girl in Rwanda after the massacre, hears her brother “babbling Maman’s name.”
Akpan: I didn’t do this intentionally. Actually “Fattening for Gabon” also ends with that awful scream of the Yewa who couldn’t escape and “Luxurious Hearses” with the dog barking.
Akpan: As I’ve said, Grace, this wasn’t a conscious decision, and I’ve never thought of it till now.
Talusan: When I was fourteen and preparing for the sacrament of confirmation (when Catholics become adults in the church), my religious education teacher talked to us about the call to religious life. I took the idea of the call literally, and for a few months, after my bedtime prayers, I’d wait expectantly for the voice of God to leave me a voice message in my thoughts. I was afraid because I thought the call meant I’d have to join a convent, but at the same time, I knew I’d be flattered to hear it because it would mean I was special. Can you share your experience of being called to the priesthood? Were you also called to writing?
Akpan: Like you, I was born Catholic and started thinking of the priesthood quite early. Like your family, we had many priests come around our family. I was fascinated by what the priest does. And I started feeling I was called to do this. My high school was a minor seminary, and I attended a lot of ordinations. I picked the Jesuits because of their spirituality, the way I saw them relate with people and missionary spirit. For me, I say the calling became evident over time.
Regarding writing, I have always loved stories. There was a lot of storytelling in Ikot Akpan Eda, my village, where I grew up. Yet when I started to write, I wrote poetry and essays. I never knew I could write fiction till a Nigerian newspaper rejected my articles. Seeing that it also published fiction, I tried it and got serialized for many consecutive Saturdays in 2000. I was very excited and wrote lots and tried out so many things. When I got to study theology in Kenya, I came up with most of the first draft of Say You’re One of Them.
Talusan: Why did you decide to study in an MFA program?
Akpan: After ordination to priesthood in 2003, I went to work as a vice principal and English teacher in a high school in Abuja, Nigeria. That was when my superiors finally said I could apply to writing school… I always felt my writing could benefit from the attention of established writers. I knew my work could grow and be better.
So I looked up the best programs on the Internet, and Michigan was one of the places that admitted me… I did some ministry, but I didn’t teach during my MFA years. I went to Michigan with two hopes: to develop my writing and to see whether I could get a foot, as they say, in the publishing industry.
Talusan: Can you tell us about the process of publishing your first story in The New Yorker? Did an agent submit your story for you?
Akpan: I had no agent. The New Yorker had rejected “An Ex-Mas Feast” twice before I got to Michigan. So when my teacher, Eileen Pollack, told me to resubmit it after one semester at Michigan, I was reluctant. By this time, though, I’d rewritten it over and over again. She gave me the name of an assistant editor to whom I submitted it. After four months or so, one afternoon, I got a call from Cressida Leyshon, the assistant editor.
For a long while I was confused with happiness, because we’d been told in writing school that if they called you it meant you stood a big chance of your work being published. She was very nice on the phone, but then when we came around to the issue of my submission she said they’d cut my work to fourteen pages from twenty-four. I wasn’t amused and started arguing with her, telling her my work had now grown to more than thirty pages in the four intervening months because I’d been rewriting the story. (Each time I learnt something new in the workshop, I would go back and apply this to all my stories.) So I told Cressida that my classmates and teachers liked the latest version of my story and that that was the version I was comfortable publishing. She emailed her critique. At the end she asked me to resubmit the story in a month’s time, taking her suggestions and those of the workshop into consideration.
After the phone call, I walked more than a mile to church to thank God. But on getting there, I couldn’t sit or kneel or pray, out of excitement. I ended up hurrying around the outer aisles as if I was doing a fast-motion Stations of the Cross. Then I told God I would talk to Him another time and darted home. I was lucky no car hit me on the road.
When I told Eileen later on about the argument with Cressida, she rebuked me. “You don’t argue with The New Yorker!” She explained that I should allow them to publish whatever they wanted and then I could change the story once I got a publisher, which would happen easily only if I got into The New Yorker. I thought I’d lost my golden opportunity, for I didn’t know The New Yorker was that big an entity on the American literary scene. I was mortified…well, within four days, I’d rewritten the story as best as I could. Cressida sent me an email two weeks later, not one month as she had initially said, asking me whether I could send in the story. I did and they accepted thirty or so pages.
Four publishers did come forward as soon as “An Ex-Mas Feast” appeared in the fiction edition of 2005. It was just as Eileen had said about The New Yorker! But I refrained from getting contracts because I felt I wasn’t ready yet. I still had one year of writing school to go. I was in dreamland…
Talusan: Father Akpan, why didn’t you want a publishing contract?
Akpan: Grace, I wanted to work some more on the collection before I committed myself. My classmates had a big party for me. To cut a long story short, my editor at The New Yorker helped me a lot. I had walked into something I knew nothing about. She and Eileen helped me find an agent, who had to contend with twelve publishers the following year when “My Parents’ Bedroom” came out and I was finally ready.
Talusan: Reviewing Say You’re One of Them in Time, Lev Grossman wrote, “It is a stunning book by a writer of immense gifts, and I couldn’t in good conscience recommend it to anybody. . . You could read it, but why? Kiss your family, enjoy a hot shower, and donate the price of a hardcover book to charity instead.” The New York Times criticized that the characters in your collection, children in the most abject conditions, “remain little more than stand-ins for the suffering millions.” How do you respond to these reviews?
Akpan: Actually, I’m lucky my book has received a lot of positive reviews, much more than I’d thought. Whatever the case, I don’t think it’s useful to bask too much in good reviews or even to pick a fight with negative ones.
But, hey, I’m happy if my book makes you want to kiss your family… if we can reconcile with each other no matter where we are on the globe because of a book about how some children are struggling with the conflicts in Africa, how is that a bad thing? I’ve encountered many people during my book tour telling me they could relate to the family dynamics in my stories, though the living conditions of my characters are completely different from theirs. Maybe if we can find time to hug and cherish our families and the people around us, child suicide or college suicide wouldn’t be rampant.
For me, I don’t believe in the art-for-art’s-sake philosophy. With the raw material before me and the gifts within me, I did my best to celebrate the voices and intelligence and sweetness and dreams of the children in spite of their chaotic, outer worlds… there’s something then missing if, with the endless opportunities and beauty and riches of this great America, the inner life of many a young American is so messed up and chaotic that suicide becomes an option. In my travels in some places in the developing world, where things are really bad, the youths are resilient; suicide is not even in the cards… And about whether we should send money to the poor or not—which is also what some people ask me on tours—as our elders say, “Sometimes a leper may appreciate a handshake from the healthy more than gifts left at the leper’s doorsteps at night.”
Talusan: Being a Catholic was a big part of my identity, but after the Boston sex abuse scandal broke, I could not continue my relationship with the Church. I stopped pursuing anything to do with religion, God, or spirituality. But recently, after reading your stories and hearing you speak about your role as a priest, I’ve reconsidered that the Church might be more dynamic than I thought. How did you react to the Church sex abuse scandal?
Akpan: Thanks for sharing your hurts about the sins of the Fathers.
Actually, I’ve been bracing myself for this question, as I travel around America talking about the wellbeing of children… The child abuse scandal was a big blow, and many people were and are wounded in the wake of it. I remember I was in the seminary when the scandal broke, very close to ordination. I remember the shame and worry and discouragement. I mentioned this in “Communion,” an essay I wrote for The New Yorker‘s “Faith and Doubt” edition last June.
How did we allow so many sick people to be priests and to get away with hurting the weakest, most innocent among us? And for so long? Our crimes and wickedness cry out to heaven for vengeance. To be frank with you, I’m amazed that many people still come to church. Yet, what has touched me the most, I have to say, is how so many lay Catholics still reach out to support the clergy. I ask myself: How can these lay people who have been hurt and scandalized by us, priests, still reach out to console us?
I say this because many of us, priests, were and are still broken by the scandal. We are not that many anymore, and most of us are old in this country. Ashamed and afraid and demoralized, it is sometimes difficult to minister to people. And yet for ministry to be effective, one doesn’t need fear and shame. Sadly but understandably today, many a good priest has withdrawn into his shell, for fear. And once warmth is out, there isn’t much left in ministry.
Personally, without the support and encouragement of my lay friends and family, I don’t know how I would have had the courage to step forward for ordination or how I would have coped with the aftermath of the scandal. These people have represented for me the grace of God in a huge way… So for me in all this, the lay folks have been the heroes. Where they get that added grace to reach out, in spite of the pain, to heal their priests beats me.
I’m glad too that the American courts forced the Church to open up, to own up…without this, we would have lived in denial and kept hurting the young. Now that is a secular structure helping the Church to grow!… However, the money angle worries me, too, and I have questions. Why didn’t the American Church give all these large sums of money it is now being forced to give to child abuse victims to the Church in developing countries long before the scandal? Who knew we had that much money? Is there a connection between the Church being too rich, strong, and not being attentive to the care of the weak and vulnerable, say, these child victims?
Again, though people are more important than money, I’m not convinced these large sums of money paid out to victims is the best. Listening to the some of the victims, I think we could have avoided a lot of this if the Church had humbly apologized to them, but we tried to bully some of them. I pray the victims are healed.
Talusan: You’re an African writing stories about Africa, but in Say You’re One of Them you also write about characters and situations outside of your home country and experience. What did you do to prepare in terms of research and observation?
Akpan: I have been very afraid of writing about other cultures and countries. I’ve been worried about getting the research wrong. I ask a lot of questions. I try to visit the area. If I’m not able to do that, as in the case of “My Parents’ Bedroom,” which is set in Rwanda, I search out people from that country who live elsewhere and ask questions.
So I try to put a lot of work into research, but I only do this when I have finished writing the first draft of the story, when I think I’ve figured out the human drama in the story, as it concerns the issues I want to dramatize. For me, as I’ve said many times, the story is not research. The story is how the characters relate with each other and with the environment… I try to apply my imagination to what could have happened and how a little child could have viewed and processed the event… So, yes, I believe artists should be able to step into other people’s situations, contexts and cultures and work from there. If artists don’t have that freedom, then, as someone has said, are we all writing our autobiographies? Why shouldn’t a man write about a woman or a black man a white character?
You see even if I wrote my autobiography, my siblings could still disagree with how I represented them. So where do you draw the line? And remember that you can know all there is to know about your culture or background but cannot still write a story about it.