Nigerian priest wins fiction accolades

By Ecumenical News International
November 25, 2009

A Nigerian Roman Catholic priest who has appeared on Oprah Winfrey's television show and won praise for his fictional accounts of the lives of children in Africa, says that writing, like the priesthood, is a religious calling - writes Chris Herlinger.

"If you want your congregation to listen, that's where it begins: stories," author Uwem Akpan said during a recent reading and discussion at New York's Inter-church Center.

Akpan's short story collection, "Say You're One of Them," was published in 2008, winning accolades in publications such as The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post.

Writing in The New York Times, critic Janet Maslin called "Say You're One of Them" a "startling debut collection". She wrote, "Akpan is not striving for surreal effects. He is summoning miseries that are real …. He fuses a knowledge of African poverty and strife with a conspicuously literary approach to storytelling filtering tales of horror through the wide eyes of the young."

More recently, the collection has won attention for being included as a book chosen by Oprah Winfrey, the US television personality, for her "Oprah's Book Club", often viewed as a gateway to mass recognition.

Born in southern Nigeria, Akpan studied English and philosophy before he entered the Catholic University of Eastern Africa in Nairobi to study theology.

After being ordained as a Jesuit priest in 2003, Akpan earned a master's degree in creative writing from the University of Michigan in the United States.

Yet while Akpan promotes his book in the United States and elsewhere, he continues to serve a congregation in Nigeria, the Christ the King Church in Ilasamaja-Lagos.

Answering a question at an 11 November 2009 discussion, sponsored by the New York Theological Seminary, about seeing writing as a "call by God", Akpan noted that as a priest, there is an element of "preaching to the choir" when he delivers a homily.

Examining issues and conflicts in fiction, he said, is a way to approach life's problems in a different way and to a wider audience. Still, Akpan said, successful fiction must stand on its own, though he made clear that he loves the Church, "warts and all".

Religious themes do colour Akpan's fiction. The story "What Colour is That?" explores Christian and Muslim tensions in Ethiopia; a recurrent and potently symbolic image in the harrowing story of a girl's observations of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, "My Parents' Bedroom", is that of a broken crucifix.

Akpan acknowledged some tensions between religious life and the life of a writer. "I have to tell you," he told his New York audience, "that in some of those theology classes [at seminary], I was writing and not taking notes." He also said he has more control in writing fiction than in his work as a priest.

In the priesthood, he said, "You have to work with the characters God has made."

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]

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