Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Uwem Akpan: A Jesuit story teller

Uwem Akpan, S.J. Heard of Uwem Akpan? Perhaps not, but soon you will, not only here from me, but also from the general media. He is one of the brilliant young English writers from Nigeria, having already won many awards for his writing. As he has published at least two stories and a column on “Faith and Doubt” in The New Yorker, he is well-known to literary buffs of contemporary fiction. Since mid-September, when Oprah Winfrey, the undisputed Queen of talk-shows, announced that she has selected his book Say You're One of Them as Oprah’s Book Club Selection, Americans and many English-speakers around the world have come to notice him. Oprah’s Book Club is said to be the largest in the world, and her selection is guaranteed to boost any book’s sale to millions.

One of Uwem’s stories, “An Ex-Mas Feast,” was published in The New Yorker on June 13, 2005. "Ex-mas"-->"X-mas," as you can guess, is Christmas. After getting to know that Uwem was a Jesuit priest from Nigeria, I read it two days ago with great interest. The story is quite touching, and Uwem’s deliberate use of Africanisms interesting. The story, narrated by a young boy, is about his extremely poor family and his 12-year old elder sister, Maisha, who is the main money maker. How she earns her money, what she does with it, and how the whole family is affected by her form the meat of the story.

Uwem was born in Ikot Akpan Eda in Nigeria, and was educated in Nigeria, United States, Kenya, Benin, and Tanzania. He is fluent in his own mother tongue Annang, English, and several other language varieties. He was set on becoming a Jesuit even as a high school student, and he is currently working as a Parish Priest in Africa, spending most of his time in pastoral duties and writing usually at night.

In USA, he studied philosophy and English with the Jesuits at Creighton and Gonzaga universities. After studying theology for three years at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa and receiving ordination to the priesthood in 2003, he pursued his English studies at the University of Michigan and received his MFA in creative writing.

Cover_Go to Official Site
Some of the awards that Uwem has won are:
Finalist for the Los Angeles Times Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction
Nominated for the Guardian First Book Award
Nominated for the Caine Prize for African Writing
Nominated for the Story Prize
Nominated for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award
Selected for Oprah's 2009 Book Club
Winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book, African Region

As you can see from the video clip below, he is a very cheerful and easy-going person—clearly reaching for the stars (and the Divine) while solidly keeping his feet on the ground. As he himself says, he is not too fond of abstract theologizing but likes to communicate his core beliefs in an intelligible language. No wonder he follows in the footsteps of the great story tellers: the Buddha and Jesus. Uwem seems most concerned in his fiction to give voice to the children of Africa and thus let the world know of their day-to-day concerns.

Here is an interesting interview with Uwem, which will make you laugh with him:

Here are some links for you to discover more about Uwem.

Read Uwem’s "An Ex-Mas Feast" in The New Yorker
Watch Oprah Winfrey, the talk-show Queen, comment on "An Ex-Mas Feast," the first story in Uwem Akpan's Say You're One of Them. "This little family not just broke my heart, but opened my heart."
Watch Oprah explain why she chose Uwem's book.
Visit the official site to read more about Uwem and buy his great book of stories!

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