Nigerian writer and Jesuit priest Rev. Uwem Akpan, S.J., will read from his works and discuss them at 7:30 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 9 in the Globe Room of Cataldo Hall as the first writer in a formidable lineup for the 2008-2009 Gonzaga University Visiting Writers Series.
Like all lectures in this series, this event is free and open to the public. The Gonzaga University Visiting Writers Series is supported by the University’s English department, the GU offices of intercultural relations, academic vice president, and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.
The cover of Uwem Akpan's Latest Book
Akpan will read from his latest work, “Say You’re One of Them,” a collection of short stories about Africans who have experienced grave poverty, dislocation and violence. The stories take place in five different African countries and are as much emotive as they are shocking. He also will host a question-and-answer session on campus at 2 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 9 in Room 108 of the Jepson Center for the School of Business Administration. That event also is free and open to the public.
Upon traveling to Nairobi to study theology in 2000, Akpan was moved by the phenomenon of the street children. He was motivated to write these stories by a desire to consider a child’s perspective regarding the seemingly endless conflicts in Africa. Akpan was interested in how children deal with issues of genocide in Darfur, child soldiers in Sierra Leone, and so on.
“My continent is in distress and has been since the beginning of slavery,” Akpan said in an interview (2005) with The New Yorker. “Leadership is a big problem. My hope is that things will change in Africa.”
Akpan was born in Ikot Akpan Eda in Nigeria. He studied philosophy and English at both Creighton and Gonzaga universities before studying theology at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa. He was ordained a Jesuit priest in 2003 and received a master of fine arts degree in creative writing from the University of Michigan (2006). He now teaches at a Jesuit College in Harare, Zimbabwe.
The Gonzaga University Visiting Writers Series has brought many well-known writers and poets to Gonzaga’s campus in recent years, including Sherman Alexie, Herman Asarnow, Donald Revell, Joy Harjo, Bharati Mukherjee, Daniel Butterworth, and Robert Hass, a former Poet Laureate of the United States.
This year’s series also will feature Spokane writer Jess Walter on Oct. 21; Carolyn Forché, Nov. 13; Li-Young Lee, Feb. 3; GU alumni writers Joe Wilkins and Claire McQuerry, March 3; Alexandra Fuller, March 24; and GU English Professor Beth Cooley on April 9. All events will take place in Gonzaga’s Cataldo Hall Globe Room at 7:30 p.m.
In 2005, Uwem Akpan’s first short story, “An Ex-Mas Feast,” was published in The New Yorker’s Debut Fiction Issue, signaling the arrival of a breathtakingly talented writer. Through the sanitized windows of our TVs and newspapers, the truth about the pervasive poverty and violence that exists in so many African nations comes only in fits and starts, clouded by physical distance and apathy toward what we may feel we cannot relate to or change. In his first collection of stories, “Say You’re One of Them” (Little, Brown & Company; June 9, 2008), Akpan brings to life the issues facing children in one of the most beleaguered places on earth, so that their voices will no longer go unheard.
In five separate narratives, each told from the perspective of a child from a different African country, “Say You’re One of Them” vividly portrays the horror and beauty to be found in both the history-altering events and mundane details of everyday life. In these stories of family, friendship, betrayal, and redemption, Akpan highlights the tenacity and perseverance of his young protagonists.
The 8-year-old narrator of “An Ex-Mas Feast” needs only enough money to buy books and pay fees to attend school. Even when his 12-year-old sister takes to the streets to raise these meager funds, his dream can’t be realized. Food comes first. His family lives in a street shanty in Nairobi, Kenya, but their ways of loving and taking advantage of each other strike a universal chord. In the second of his stories originally published in The New Yorker,“My Parents’ Bedroom,” Akpan takes readers far beyond what we thought we knew about the tribal conflict in Rwanda. The story is told by a young girl, who, with her little brother, witness the worst possible scenario between parents. This singular collection also take the reader inside Nigeria, Benin, and Ethiopia, revealing in beautiful prose the harsh realities of life in Africa for children.
According to Franz Wright, author of “Walking to Martha’s Vineyard,” winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, “Say You’re One of Them” is “astonishing, triumphantly unique. The stories flow with an eerie Chekhovian ease and understatement -- the horrors are evoked with a matter-of-factness that is devastating, and the characters’ memories and inner lives are always more real than the appalling events occurring around them.”
Wright adds that Akpan “has moral greatness -- you can never again put out of your mind what he has taken you firmly by the hand to get a close look at. The startling newness of his language gives us no choice but to listen.”
Akpan’s voice is a literary miracle, rendering lives of almost unimaginable deprivation and terror into stories that are nothing short of transcendent, notes his publicist at Little, Brown & Company.
More information about Akpan can be found at the following Web site. For more information on the Gonzaga University Visiting Writers Series, contact Tod Marshall at (509) 313-6681or via e-mail.