UA: I often wonder how children feel in the middle of conflicts. The newspaper reports don't tell us this. The TV clips don't tell us this. So when I was thinking of a collection, I felt I needed to explore this aspect of humanity. It was a challenge to begin to think like an 8-, 10- or 12-year old.
ES: Did you know children like these characters? The details in stories are so gripping, how did you research these real-life elements to bring the characters to life? How did you develop these characters?
UA: Let me begin by saying that I'm not writing biography or autobiography. While I lived in Kenya, I used to go out on Saturdays, to the city center to watch street kids, gangs, and did know some street kids. But I never met street families. I watched the kids for about a year and a half before I started writing "An Ex-Mas Feast." The basic thing is that I had to depend on my imagination to write the story. I think that is the most important thing in fiction writing, for all other stories in the collection, I wrote the first draft first before I visited the countries involved [for research], though I must say that I have never visited Rwanda, the setting for "My Parents' Bedroom." I had to rely on long-distance research, speaking to Rwandese, history and geography books, etc. Generally, once I have finished the draft, I asked very concrete questions about details I need to convince the reader I know or have experienced what I am describing. Besides, I love details. So maybe I end up writing about what I would love to read. I always think if someone writes in the first person, the person is taking on a great responsibility. It took me years to develop the characters and feel right about them. I was learning, too, to write from the perspectives of children. Many times I had to tell myself that a child would not feel this way or that way. I also play a lot with kids, whether in America or Russia. They all react the same ways—before culture and parents and society begin to get a hold of their "education."
Akpan talks about his childhood