Say You're One of Them by Uwem Akpan

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Uwem Akpan

Jesuit priest and author of the critically acclaimed book of stories
Say You're One of Them

Interviewed by Jon M. Sweeney

Uwem AkpanExplorefaith caught up recently with Uwem Akpan, the Nigerian-born author and Jesuit priest whose first book of stories has just been published, Say You’re One of Them (Little Brown, 2008). He was recently on tour in America to promote his book, before returning to his current home in Zimbabwe.

Father Uwem, which came first in your life—wanting to be a priest or wanting to write stories?

I joined the Jesuits in 1990, and started writing fiction eight or nine years later. But I have always liked stories and loved writing articles.

You write from the perspective of children—children living in various countries in Africa who are often experiencing harrowing things that kids in North America rarely even hear about. Kids living on the street in Nairobi. A young girl witnessing the murder of her mother by the hand of her father. Are there things you can say from a child’s point of view that you couldn’t from an adult’s?

No, that’s not it. There is nothing I can say from the child’s point of view that I would not say from an adult’s. The thing is: I chose to use children’s perspectives because I thought the children needed to be seen, felt, heard processing these conflicts. From the evidence I could gather, nobody was writing about these children, their stories set in different countries. Besides, I thought it would be more challenging getting into the minds of children. And it was.

Your stories are frightening and sometimes brutal. But I remember reading a comment that you made in The New Yorker magazine a few years ago that every crime was already committed in the book of Genesis. Do you take some of your inspiration from the Old Testament?

Yes, I like Bible stories. I go back to them again and again. And in many ways they are always fresh. Now these stories have shaped us and whole civilizations. God is so close to people in the Old Testament, for good or for ill. He looms large. You can’t escape him.

The themes of your stories, not the settings, remind me just a bit of the American Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor. Do you think that’s true? Do you think that, like O’Connor, you are writing about sin and evil in ways that might shock people into actually recognizing them?

It’s not a good thing to compare me with O’Connor. The lady was a genius. I like her stories a lot. But you cannot talk of grace without talking of evil and vice versa. These are twin concepts. How do you show how grace is present in the world? Who are the courageous ones among us? The loving ones? What odds do we overcome to remain faithful, loving? Yes, I agree with O’Connor that sometimes you need to shock people into seeing these things. Sometimes gentle reminders would not do.

I know that your Jesuit superiors sent you to America for college, and that you also studied at the University of Michigan’s graduate writing program, after you were already ordained a priest. But now you are back in Zimbabwe working as a priest. Do you find that your spiritual life changes, or is differently challenged, whether you are in America, or Africa?

The difference in terms of spiritual life, the way I feel my humanity before this great God, is not much. I come to America with all my vulnerabilities and grace and all, and I go to Zimbabwe with the same needs and sins and graces. I also return to Nigeria with the same things. I am no less a sinner when I am in Nigeria or Zimbabwe than when I am in America.

Would you mind telling us a little bit about your own, personal, spiritual practices? What do you do each day, or week, or month, to keep yourself grounded spiritually?

I try to pray every day. I try to attend mass or say mass every day. There is also the daily examen. I read the Bible often. And I am always touched by the faith of others in the face of very difficult circumstances.

What images for God make the most sense in your life and work?

That we are co-workers with the Lord baffles me. His humility baffles me. He allows us to be, to try out the power of our free will. And then I love the idea of how God can be so strong and decisive and then so tender and hesitant.  

Are there any subtle ways that your two vocations—priest and fiction writer—aim at the same thing?

Christ was both priest and poet. Imagine him coming up with all those powerful miracles. Imagine how he interpreted the law to include the outsider. Imagine how he, knowing the hearts of his apostles, was able to love them and allow them to be human beings. How does a God who understands everything allow you to keep your horrible thoughts? It would be too easy for him to control them and make them feel uncomfortable with their humanity, but he did not. How Christ was able to be priest and poet was quite a grace.

I hope my writing carries the gospel message beyond the walls of the church. Preaching on the podium is one medium, writing fiction is another medium. My concern is what can I say to you so that you remember and see and feel God’s presence in life? How are people actually living out their faith? What needs to change, even in the church? I hope I am able to do this as a priest and poet.

Copyright ©2008 Jon Sweeney