Uwem Akpan: The spirituality, the world view...striving to see God in everything, the openness toward people. I had never seen priests like that.
ES: Can you tell us what part your faith played in the creation of your book?
UA: In many ways, this was a painful book to write. In many ways, it was also an enjoyable thing to do. Either way, I needed balance to get through with it. And so my prayers before the Blessed Sacrament were, "Lord, do not allow this mad pain or crazy joy to destroy me." I'm only a storyteller. The children caught in these situations have humor, are hopeful and resilient and humane.
Second, it took me eight years to write the book; I began when I was preparing for the priesthood and had to pace myself carefully, writing nights, being a seminarian in the day. I believe my faith gave me the freedom to enter into the complex process of writing this book. Since I didn't know whether I would succeed—and I can't put my faith aside—my faith was important. I was basically telling God: "I will give my right hand to develop this talent you have given me. Whether I succeed or not is your call."
You know, sometimes writing can be like what Joseph Conrad says in Youth: "You fight, work, sweat, almost kill yourself, sometimes do kill yourself trying to accomplish something—you can't. Not from any fault of yours." If I failed, I didn't want to be bitter and cranky, you know. I like what the three men thrown into fire by Nebuchadnezzar in the Book of Daniel for worshiping the true God say to him: "If our God wants, he will save us from the burning flame. And if he does not, we will still worship him."
ES: Is there anything in particular in Jesuit spirituality that helped you in your fiction?
UA: That's a very good question. Jesuit spirituality has helped me in concrete terms, fertilizing my imagination. There's what we call the contemplation of place in our spirituality.
For example, if you want to pray about the Sermon on the Mount, in our spirituality, you don't just start praying about that passage. You try and imagine yourself in that situation, you become part of the crowd and you try to see Jesus. You walk with that crowd toward the mount and sit at the feet of Jesus. You try to feel the grass, you try to breathe the air and you try to see Jesus giving this Sermon on the Mount. By the time you start visualizing all these things, you'll come up with the Jesus that is very concrete. It could be a fat man, it could be a bald-headed man. But at the end of this you now present your thanksgiving, your needs to a Jesus you can really see in your mind's eye and feel. You can hug him or question him, if you wish. It's a very personal way to pray. Now, I have written these stories without going to some of the countries where they're situated. In any case, I always write the drafts first before I go over to research. But if I could visualize Jesus 2000 years ago in Galilee, why can't I visualize how a small kid would suffer and show resilience in Rwanda?
Akpan discusses what it's like to write from the perspective of a child