Photo: Courtesy of Uwem Akpan
The author of Oprah's latest book club pick, Say You're One of Them, reveals how inspiration works in mysterious ways.
Failure introduced me to fiction writing while I was preparing for the priesthood. I was four years from ordination and teaching 60 preteen-agers per class at St. Francis Secondary School in the slums of Lagos, Nigeria. But my dream lay outside the classroom. I longed to be a columnist for the Nigerian Guardian, where I imagined I would write articles criticizing the ills of my country. I'd hoped that if I submitted four articles a month to their Op-Ed page, after six months I could show up and say to the editor, "I am he.… Please, make me a regular columnist!" So I went to work and sent in my first package of four articles. I was well into my second package the following month, when it dawned on me that they weren't publishing any of my pieces. When I phoned them, they said my pieces weren't…well, good enough. I'd failed. I was a miserable 28-year-old. Teaching, which I'd once taken pleasure in, now depressed me. My students complained that I'd become tougher on them. Some days I was even angry attending Mass, and sleep was difficult. I stopped reading the Guardian for a while.
Some months later, when I went back to reading the paper, I noticed that the Guardian serialized stories on Saturdays. So I decided to attempt fiction. After a few nights of writing, it felt as if a gate had opened into parts of my being I never knew existed. Every night I ran through that gate, like a mischievous child, and played and explored and ran after flying termites all over again. At night even when there was a power cut (we suffer daily power cuts in Nigeria), sometimes I couldn't sleep. I was thinking characters. It was crazy. I was free to make and to destroy, like Jeremiah. Awesome responsibility. I'd never been so happy, and yet so frightened—except on the day of my First Holy Communion. Which is the easiest way I can begin to describe an earlier turning point in my life, when the faith that called me toward my other vocation—the priesthood—deepened.
I was 11. First Holy Communion, best day of my life. As an Ikot Ekpene morning sun poured its rays into the cavernous Prince of Peace Chapel, I choked with awe, waiting to eat God. Having experienced the indescribable freedom and joy of First Confession the previous day, now I trembled: But how do you eat God? And how do you live after that? Awesome responsibility. The Handmaid Sisters had warned us not to chew but to just let the Communion melt on the tongue. After Mass, the whole day, I walked around feeling this deep peace that finally the Lord was my portion but also anxious I would have to pee or go to toilet, to flush away the Body and Blood of Christ. It was like what Rilke says: "Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror."
So it wasn't too strange for me to begin to believe that I could be a priest, the one who changed mere bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, the one who reconciled people to their God in the confessional. And that Wednesday in January 2000 when, after endless rewrites, I submitted my first short story, "Soaking the Gun," to the Guardian (they started serializing it three days later), I could imagine the beauty and terror of being a writer.
Uwem Akpan's collection of short stories, Say You're One of Them, recently came out in paperback, and is the new Oprah's Book Club selection .
More on Say You're One of Them
From the November 2009 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine
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