22nd July, 2011
Â Uwem Akpan, a Jesuit priest, came onto the literary scene in 2007 when his debut collection of short stories, Say You’re One of Them won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book, Africa Region. Akpan, the first Nigerian to win the prestigious Oprah Winfrey Book Club endorsement, is also the winner of the PEN/Beyond Margins Award and the Houston/Wright Legacy Award. His debut collection was received with international acclaim due to the cinematic manner he portrayed the grotesque experiences children go through in war-torn African countries. Akpan, in this interview with NEHRU ODEH speaks about the book, his writing and other issues.
You are a Jesuit Priest and a writer, which one of those two vocations comes first?
I was training to be a priest when I discovered I had the gift to write, and I developed them alongside each other.
Why write such grim stories about Africa?
I write about things that bother me. I write about things that worry me. Thatâ€™s why I write. What is happening now in the Jos Plateau worries me and if I am going to write about that, is it going to be happy? If you hear that Christians are killed and their tongues are cut out, that canâ€™t be a happy picture if I am to write about that. I know Christians have also killed Moslems. So, it is the things that bother me that I write about. There is no way out for me. I say okay, what is happening here? What does it mean to be trafficked? Many of us donâ€™t even know what that experience could be like. You could be living with someone who has been trafficked before but you donâ€™t know the details. So how can we bring this into fiction. Each time we have these massacres in this country, who gives you the correct number of corpses? We donâ€™t know. And sometimes the press has to beat down the numbers so that passions are not inflamed. So fiction can come in and bring that catharsis.
How long did it take you to write those stories?
It took me eight years. But it grew organically, slowly over time. Itâ€™s not like writing an essay; you can just bind it together within a night. It has to grow slowly. I am a slow writer; I am not in a hurry. I was developing, I was experimenting, I was learning. For me the important thing is it came together. That is it for me. Eight years is a long time, but its okay.
Before the New Yorker published your stories, did you face any frustrations? Was your collection ready by then?
The New Yorker had rejected the first story two times before they accepted it. And before I started publishing in America, I was publishing in The Guardian in Nigeria. My stories were being serialised in The Guardian every Saturday in the year 2000. And it was still the same grim stuff I was dealing with then. So I developed my work; I learnt over time to write. So, rejection is a very real thing in writing.
Why did you title your book, Say You Are One of Them, instead of using one of the titles in the collection?
I first wanted to name it, Fattening For Gabon, but the publishers did not want that. So I asked them to come up with suggestions. And one of them was the current title. Say You Are One of Them. So I came to like the title, it had many other possibilities. I came to like Say You Are One of Them because it cuts through all the stories, this thing of who is your neighbour. The question is, are you really one of them? So itâ€™s a title I came to like, though it was suggested by my publisher.
How did you get to create Monique, one of the characters in the story titled My Parents Bedroom?
Slowly I was developing the character. I needed the character to tell that story, and I created one. What I do first is to say, this is what I want to write about, this is the issue that bothers me. So I look for a character that dramatises that conflict, that issue.
Since the story, My Parents Bedroom was published, have you had any reactions from the Rwandese, whether positive or negative?
I have had a lot of positive reactions. Because they say to me, Oh father when did you live in Rwanda? Youâ€™ve really captured our situation well. Now during the Oprah Show, one Rwandese, who lived through that genocide, came on air, skipped in and talked about how touching my stories had been, that he actually thought I had lived in Rwanda.
Does your vocation as a priest affect how you write?
It affect how I write. What it does is that it affects the way I write about them because I am not there like most writers, criticising, saying this should not be done. There is no reason why a father should kill a mother. Tribalism is not good, racism is not good. So it affects how I say what I say, how I put that across. You can write about anything, depending on where you stand about that thing
As a writer what do you set out to achieve when you write?
That you read stories that touch you. When a story touches you, the characters stay with you, you keep remembering some issues. We live in a world of pictures â€” billboards advertisements. So you have to get the picture into someoneâ€™s head. And people remember these characters.
As a writer that was living in Nigeria then, what frustrations did you face?
Electricity is not there, the roads are not good, and you have no one to show your work to. Things are terrible in the country. How do you make a living? Though I never had to worry about that because I was in a system that took care of me. Catholic priests, and seminarians are well taken care of. Why canâ€™t we have electricity in this country? Why canâ€™t we have good roads?
As somebody who once lived in the United States, how do you feel coming back home to work?
Nigeria is my country. When I am with Nigerians, I am with my people, our people. You know what I mean? This is home. When there was no dentistry back then in ancient time, there was a proverb that said, whether the tooth is good or bad, it is in the mouth. So this is my country. But having said that, this country is very frustrating. People are struggling. Why canâ€™t the government build hospitals? The issue of hospitals has become an issue of national security. If we had our hospitals, would Umaru Yarâ€™Adua had been rushed to Saudi Arabia? Itâ€™s a shame. And we have these politicians. We are rich in this country, but where is the money. The roads are not working. When you travel out and you come in, the changes are very dramatic. Why canâ€™t we have electricity? Why canâ€™t we have roads, good schools, hospitals, employment? We have the money. Itâ€™s a question of organisation. We seem to thrive on putting rogues in power, electing the leaders for some reasons other than merit. So why canâ€™t we change the way elections are conducted in this country? Why did someone need to be a governor for three years before the Supreme Court says, you did not win the election. But he has already been there for three years.
You write with such grim details. Could you speak about your writing process? What is the process?
When I read, I know the kind of passage that grips me. I am interested in a writer making me feel he knows what he is talking about . If I am going to write a story about street people, I must convince you that I have lived that experience, even though I have not. I must convince you that this character actually knows what he is talking about. So for me, the starting point is the simple fact that it is a gift. So I developed it. God has given this to me, and I work with it. And I like my writing to be very vivid, have a visual effect. People really see. Because what we see, what we hear, really touches us. I pay a lot of attention to details. I go back to the passages again and again and again. I want the passages to be alive. I want the short story to be alive. Another thing is I have studied some photography, so I zoom into the face of my child, you will see what the bleaching has deal to her face. Then I zoom out and sweep the whole neighbourhood. So I am using my skills as a photographer there. Another thing is, the Jesuits have a way of praying. It is called the Ignatian Contemplation. If you are going to deal with the Christmas scene in the Bible â€” Mary going to Bethlehem with Joseph, being dejected here and there. After reading that passage, you sit down and try to visualize Mary and Joseph making this trip. The Bible doesnâ€™t say that; but weâ€™ve seen pregnant woman before. And so you know that instinctively, this is how it should have been for her. So you try to accompany her on that journey. And then if you are there in that place where Christ was born and you are even able to carry Christ, now what would you ask God for your thanksgiving, your needs. if you are carrying Christ, what would you say. So you now pray in a very vivid way to the child Jesus. This is how Jesuits have been praying. And itâ€™s a very engaging way of praying. So people wonder how could you write about Rwanda, when you have not been to Rwanda? Because I have never visited Rwanda even up till now. But I have written My Parentsâ€™ Bedroom, and people seem to say what you are saying now, its so vivid, how did you do this? If I could visualise Jesus who lived two thousand years ago, why canâ€™t I visualise Rwanda, what people must have been through and all that.
Your stories are incredibly convincing. Do you consciously reinhabit your own childhood when you write. Isn’t that process draining?
Writing itself is very draining. And again it became more draining for me because of the subject matter, the difficult things I was trying to write about. In terms of that, I donâ€™t have to go back to that childhood to write about the pain. What I do after a while is to say to myself: ‘If I was 10 years old, how would I have been this?’ I would have seen the picture, but maybe I would not have had the depth of understanding it, of analysis. And I would say a 10-year-old would not talk about the politics of Lagos but would see the bad roads in todayâ€™s Lagos. The child might even say: ‘Okay this road was bad yesterday, and now this road is good and we have heard about Fashola.’ But he will never understand the politics. So I concentrated on pictures â€”what can children see? You, the reader is always a step or two ahead of the child-narrator.