Monday, 14 June 2010

Uwem Akpan - 'Say You're One of Them'

An author who has been causing a stir recently is Uwem Akpan. With rave reviews in The New York TimesThe Times and a whole host of other newspapers, Akpan is hot literary property. He's even won the ultimate accolade: the approval of Oprah Winfrey. (Note slight tone of irony here.)

What makes all this adulation so surprising is that Akpan is a Nigerian Catholic priest. He doesn't bash you over the head with his Catholicism but clearly his beliefs are a major motivation behind his writing, as this fascinating interview with Granta Online reveals. 

Akpan writes about some truly horrific events - everything from the Rwandan genocide to child trafficking - but he does so in a way which  is always deeply humane if not always terribly hopeful. By focusing on the perspective of children, by addressing a range of Africa's contemporary social and political difficulties, and by presenting characters who are often only tangentially affected by the Church, Akpan avoids the trap of writing from a narrowly denominational perspective while simultaneously demonstrating what one type of contemporary Catholic fiction could look like. Indeed, on the rare occasions when he writes directly about the Church, as in this story from The New Yorker, he is less successful because he seems to be defending a particular (and perhaps questionable) theological position.

Having worked in Zimbabwe, it will be intriguing to see whether Akpan addresses the difficulties of that country. Until his next collection of short stories is published, we shall have to remain content with the substantial offering he has already given us.

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