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Uwem Akpan

Uwem Akpan567n
Date of Birth:
Place of Birth:
Akwa Ibom, Nigeria

Born in 1971, Uwem Akpan hails from Ikot Akpan Eda in southern Nigeria, a center of the West African raffia trade. Both of his parents were teachers, and he was one of four sons who grew up speaking both English and Annang, the tongue of his family's ethnic affiliation.

Like many households in the southern region of Nigeria, Akpan's household was a Christian one, and his own grandfather had been an influential figure whose conversion to Roman Catholicism decades earlier had prompted many others in their community to follow suit.

Ordained Jesuit Priest

In 1990, at the age of nineteen, Akpan entered a Jesuit seminary in preparation to become a priest. (The Jesuits, more formally known as the Society of Jesus, are a Roman Catholic order founded by St. Ignatius of Loyola in 1534.) Over the next several years Akpan trained for the priesthood and studied theology in both Nairobi, Kenya, and at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. He also spent time at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, where he studied philosophy. He was ordained a

Jesuit priest in 2003.

Akpan's career as a writer was also well under way by that point. While still in college he had written some nonfiction pieces for the Guardian, a Nigerian newspaper. In 1998, when he submitted an article once again, it was rejected.

He noticed, however, that the paper's Saturday section offered some fiction for readers. "So I decided to give it a try," he recalled in an interview with Cressida Leyshon that appeared in the online edition of the New Yorker. "It worked. So I started writing furiously for them. The quality of my stories was not very good, but I could raise the readers' adrenaline."

Akpan began to consider working toward a graduate degree in creative writing. As he told Charles McGrath in the New York Times, "I understood the major part of the puzzle—that there had to be suspense in a story. But pacing, dialogue, characterization—I still had a lot to learn about fiction. But I kept pushing. I would go away from a story and then come back again."

He applied to, and was accepted by, the respected writing program at the University of Michigan. As the program's director, Eileen Pollack, told McGrath, admissions personnel were initially wary about his background as a Roman Catholic cleric—after all, students in creative-writing seminars often debate topics ranging from illicit drug use to alternative sexual relationships.

But as Pollack and others soon discovered, "It turned out he had had more experience of the dark side of the world than all the other students put together.

Amazed at Endurance of Forsaken Children

One of the dozens of stories that Akpan worked on simultaneously was "An Ex-Mas Feast," which won a terrific honor in 2005 when the New Yorker included it in its annual debut-fiction issue. Akpan's story is set in Nairobi and follows a day or two in the lives of a family whose "home" is a makeshift shanty covered by a piece of tarpaulin.

The narrator is Jigana, the family's eight-year-old son, whose prized possession is a school uniform still in its package. His older sister, Maisha, is twelve and already a prostitute whose earnings have paid for the uniform and also support the family. Their mother quiets Jigana, his ten-year-old sister Naema, and a set of two-year-old twins by offering them tubes of toxic glue to sniff to quell their hunger.

Jigana takes the family's youngest, an infant, with him to beg on the streets; Baba, his father, is a pickpocket. The family's hopes are pinned on Maisha earning enough to pay Jigana's school fees for the coming session. "This Ex-mas we were not too desperate for food," Jigana relates in the tale.

"In addition to the money that begging with Baby had brought us, Baba had managed to steal some wrapped gifts from a party given … by an N.G.O. [nongovernmental organization], whose organizers were so stingy that they served fruit juice like shots of hard liquor. He had dashed to another charity party and traded in the useless gifts—plastic cutlery, picture frames, paperweights, insecticides—for three cups of rice and zebra intestines, which a tourist hotel had donated."

Asked about the inspiration for "An Ex-Mas Feast," Akpan recounted that he first encountered youth like Jigana and Maisha when he moved to Nairobi, whose streets teemed with homeless adolescents and children begging, stealing, and prostituting themselves. "I'd never seen anything like it before," he told Leyshon in the New Yorker interview.

He recounted that he would sometimes follow them, but from a safe distance, his interactions with them initially were limited because he was not fluent in Kiswahili. "I wasn't thinking of writing then. I was just fascinated and amazed at the endurance I saw in them—how they moved as a group, how they sniffed glue, how they robbed people, how the rest of society regarded them."

Akpan earned his master of fine arts in creative writing from the University of Michigan in 2006, and moved to Zimbabwe to teach languages at a Jesuit seminary there. He completed four more short stories, each set in a different African nation, for his debut collection, Say You're One of Them, which was published by Little, Brown, in 2008. "An Ex-Mas Feast," the New Yorker story, was also included.

In "Fattening for Gabon," a brother and sister from Benin are being raised by their uncle and enjoy rich meals in his household, but only to ensure a good price on the auction block, for he plans to sell them into a sex-slavery ring. The title of Akpan's collection is taken from the story "My Parents' Bedroom," in which nine-year-old Monique, who is the child of an affluent interethnic marriage in Rwanda, witnesses the brutal death of her mother at the hands of her father during that country's horrific 1994 genocidal war. "Say you're one of them" are her mother's last words to her.

Commended for Humanizing the Poor Akpan's debut earned a slew of accolades. "Akpan never lets us forget that the resilient youngsters caught up in these extraordinary circumstances are filled with their own hopes and dreams," wrote Patrik Henry Bass in Essence. Reviewing Say You're One of Them in the Sunday Times, David Grylls recalled that the author was also a priest and asserted that "it is scarcely surprising that religious imagery pervades these stories, which interweave themes of martyrdom, betrayal and the threat to innocence. But they are never dogmatic or didactic.

On the contrary they indict blind partisanship, whether racial, religious or political." Tremendously difficult emotional terrain is the landscape in which Akpan writes, noted Reese in Entertainment Weekly, "but the blazing humanity of the characters and the brilliance of Akpan's artistry make this one of the year's most exhilarating reads."

Selected writings

Say You're One of Them (short stories), Little, Brown, 2008.


Akpan, Uwem, Say You're One of Them, Little, Brown, 2008.