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From MFA to World Renowned Author

When told that critics compare his writing to Chekov’s masterpieces and some have drawn similarities with his collection of short stories to the moral resonance in the plays of fellow Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka, Uwem Akpan shrugs at the comparison, and taps his chest. “I chose to write about the tragedies of Africa, to make the conflict as palpable as possible, and I am just writing from here.”

Speaking— and writing—from the heart has earned Akpan critical and popular acclaim for his collection of stories, “Say You’re One of Them” (Little, Brown & Company). And perhaps the greatest boost to assure his work receives a wide readership occurred when Akpan’s book was chosen as an Oprah’s Book Club selection for the year.

Three years ago, Akpan received his MFA from the University of Michigan, spending his student days developing stories that would be among the five independent tales told with an emotional wallop and a gifted storyteller’s sense of engagement. He returned to UM on Dec. 4, where his talk about his days from graduate student to published author drew a large crowd at the Hatcher Graduate Library.

Crafted as contemporary parables of the tragic circumstances occurring throughout Africa, Akpan’s haunting and evocative stories present a stark and unflinching portrayal of the mundane and horrific, including the story of a child who dreams of going to school, only to be relegated to beg for money; and, an uncle who demonstrates sex to the niece and nephew he plans to sell into slavery.

In choosing to tell each story from a child’s perspective, Akpan creates an unsettling innocence where — despite the poverty and depraved conditions — hope still exists. Through all the suffering and senseless violence throughout Africa, Akpan retains a deep, abiding faith in the higher nature of humanity, a conviction fostered, he readily points out, by his own faith. In 2003, Akpan was ordained a Jesuit priest, and lists Biblical parables as among the most influential literature.

Ironically, he is a bit uncomfortable in the role of preacher when it comes to pointing out the lessons of his stories. Instead, Akpan said he prefers readers come to their own conclusion. “If they read these stories and want to do something to help Africa, that’s fine,” he said.

The title story comes from a phrase in Akpan’s story, “My Parents’ Bedroom.” Set amid Rwanda’s civil war, the story captures the pervasive violence and fear. The mother, who fears for her and her daughter’s life, tells her daughter that “When they ask you, say you’re one of them.” The girl responds: “Who?”

The mother’s injunction is intentionally ambiguous, said Akpan. The point requires the reader to reflect: Does he or she empathize with the victims to the point of taking action, or is the reader “one of them” who remains silent amid the horrors of starvation, widespread disease and genocide?

It’s a question that begs to be answered.

— F.P.

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