Uwem Akpan answers your questions about being a Jesuit priest, what his childhood was like and the role his faith played in writing Say You're One of Them.
Erin J. Shea: You're a Jesuit priest. Tell us what drew you to the Jesuit order, the largest male religious order in the Catholic church?

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   

ES: What inspired you to write these particular stories? I know they were crafted over the years, but what specifically moved you to write from these perspectives?

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

ES: What was your childhood like? 

UA: I had a very good childhood in my village. I have very fond memories of my grandparents. My paternal uncles live in one big compound. So there were lots of children. I was born in 1971, after the Nigerian-Biafran war.

ES: Tell us about your family. What was life like for you growing up in Ikot Akpan Eda?

UA: I have three brothers. My parents are retired teachers. I enjoyed growing up in Ikot Akpan Eda. Lots of relatives and celebrations. Since I did not go to school till I was 6—which was the age children generally went to school then—I played a lot and ate a lot. We did not have lots of toys, so we made our toys. We looked forward to the seasons, the dances and masquerades, etc. We had lots of storytellers. Everyone knew everyone, which is always a recipe for gossips and rivalry and intrigues and community spirit and support. Church was also huge in our lives. Then school. I remember I cried every morning the first few weeks at school.

ES: You've talked about the storytelling that takes place in your village. What are those stories like?

UA: You have fables. When I was growing up, some evenings the elders would gather the children and tell them fables. Now TV has taken over, and it's not the same anymore. You also have elders talking about the village history. Then you have people like Sunday Unwa Ukpekpe, my mother's cousin. This man could fictionalize any historical event to get people to laugh or to make people learn something. Even the elders sat in awe when he told stories. He could also make something up. Nothing was beyond him.

How long did it take for Akpan to write Say You're One of Them?
ES: Antoinette, one of Oprah's Book Club members, wants to know: "How long did it take you to write these stories? Did they come to you suddenly? What gave you the courage?"

UA: It took me eight years, 2000 to 2008, when my book came out. The only thing that came suddenly was the idea of writing about children. The rest came sentence by sentence, picture by picture. I kept rewriting, learning to write and experimenting. Courage? I did not look at it that way...it felt like something I had to do. It was like a vocation. I was afraid many times, of not succeeding, of getting the details of another culture and country wrong, of sitting through the painful scenes in the stories many times to get the details right...but I know all of these fears pale in comparison with what children who live through war, child trafficking, hunger actually have to face. They're the courageous ones!

Akpan talks about why his work is meant to challenge the reader

ES: You've said in other interviews that fiction allows us to "sit for a while with people we would rather not meet." What do you mean by that?

UA: I mean it is difficult for us to want to spend time with people in extreme situations. For example, would you like to spend a night with Maisha and her family? Would you like to sniff the glue with them to kill the hunger in your stomach? I think it is much easier to want to give them money or food from a safe distance. It is not even about this happening in some "exotic place". I mean how many of us would like to share a hamburger with the poor people who sleep in the streets of America? I mean, if they dipped into their dirty pockets and offered you sandwich, would you take it? Many of us would not even share the same side of the road with them.

What is Akpan's favorite book?
ES: What are some of your favorite books? Do you have some recommended reading for us?

UA: The Bible...there are many books in there, a whole library [worth of books within it].

ES: What is it like juggling a writing career with your duties as a priest?

UA: It is demanding. As a priest, you can be called upon anytime...and you would have to put writing aside, to visit the sick, to console the bereaved, etc. And when I am teaching, it is three things I have to juggle. So far, I have to say, this juggling has not killed me!

ES: When you're not writing, what do you enjoy doing?

UA: I used to play a lot of soccer; now I watch soccer on TV. I also like to eat out with friends. Of course, I enjoy being a priest and administering the sacraments to God's children. Ha, these are not characters you can manipulate or put away or rewrite!

What advice does Akpan have for new writers?
ES: What is your writing process? Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

UA: I suppose it is different for every writer. Well, in terms of rhythm, for me the best time is night. The worst time is morning. I never quite know what to do with mornings. If I had my way, I would sleep all mornings, but then again at my parish there is morning Mass and the other priests need a break!

The way I wrote these stories was thinking of large issues that bugged me and creating characters that most dramatized them. It was slow work, and I did not always know that the stories would come together. The most important thing was discovering that I had the gift to write, which basically, I think, is the ability to create a tangible desire/conflict on paper and leading the reader through all the emotions, excitement and heartbreak associated with them. Once I set up this desire/conflict, the rest of the story became trying to resolve or explore or dramatize this desire/conflict.

For example, in "An Ex-Mas Feast," the big desire, I think, for Jigana and the family is his education, something good, something the reader might associate with. But at what cost? Enter conflict: Maisha's prostitution.

Regarding advice for aspiring writers, let me quote here something I said in one interview:
"I have only written one book, and it took me eight years. I don't understand the process enough to advise with certainty, so take my advice with a pinch of salt, as they say: Do you love to write—or is there something else you would rather do? Can you put in those long hours? If you don't love the process at all, then quit. Otherwise, practice, practice, practice. Good writing, I think, will come from a good writing life. And I think, writing, as someone has said, is actually rewriting. Whenever I learnt something new about writing, I always went back to rewrite all my stories.

Again, it's a good principle to always finish a story, at least the first draft, no matter the obstacles; otherwise, you'll have a store of unfinished pieces. After a few years, ask yourself some key questions though: Are your stories getting better? Do you have people who can give you objective critique of your work? Are you able to create conflict in your work? Without a tangible conflict, the reader will not stick with you."

Do you have a question for Uwem Akpan or Oprah and her Book Club staff? Ask them now!

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