Summer reading: A can’t miss suggestion

Uwem Akpan--Jesuit author.jpgIn my humble opinion, at least–the suggestion would be “Say You’re One of Them,” a collection of short stories from Uwem Akpan, a Jesuit priest from Nigeria who is, remarkably and courageously, teaching at a seminary in Zimbabwe, at least as of this writing. If he emerges from that hellhole, he’ll undoubtedly have lots more material. But according to this NYTimes profile, Father Akpan has plenty already:


In 2004, when the Rev. Uwem Akpan applied to the graduate program in creative writing at the University of Michigan, his folder attracted a lot of attention. He was both a Nigerian and a Jesuit priest, and the program was unused to applicants from either category. And though Father Akpan’s talent was abundantly evident, if a little raw, Eileen Pollack, the director of the program, recalled recently, there was some hesitation on the part of the admissions committee. “There were discussions about having a priest be part of workshops where students would be writing about sex and drugs,” Ms. Pollack said. But in the end Father Akpan was admitted, and he endeared himself, Ms. Pollack recalled, by showing up on the first day of class wearing a University of Michigan sweatshirt. “Everyone loved him,” she said. “It turned out he had had more experience of the dark side of the world than all the other students put together.”


Say You're One of Them.jpgAkpan’s book is getting great notices, and one suspects that it is in part because he is a 37-year-old priest, a Jesuit no less, from Africa. (Although Janet Maslin’s Times review was so flat it read like a sneaky bit of backlash.) That curio factor certainly must feed into my fascination, as well as my affection for things Jesuitical. But all that is forgotten when you read his stuff. And when pros in the know read his stuff. Check out the intro anecdote to this Tablet profile:


Getting a short story published in The New Yorker is notoriously difficult. Thousands are submitted, a few considered, still fewer make the grade; even the most famous names in modern writing consider themselves lucky to get a story accepted by the magazine. So, in 2005 when James Martin SJ, associate editor of America magazine, was approached by his fellow Jesuit the Nigerian Fr Uwem Akpan for some advice as to where to publish a short story, he suggested The New Yorker but with little hope of his success. A year later, Fr Martin received what he later described as “the most surprising message I’ve ever read”. It turned out that not only had Fr Akpan’s story been accepted but that he had refused The New Yorker’s request to cut it from 30 to 14 pages – and they had agreed to run it in full. Fr Martin remembered: “His friends and professors at the University of Michigan, where he was completing his Master’s degree in writing, were horrified. ‘You said that you didn’t want them to edit it? You can’t say that to The New Yorker!'”


Ah, but he did, and I remember reading “An Ex-Mas Feast” and being struck by it even before I knew the author or his bio. And the New Yorker came back for more, recently running a one-page true story from Father Akpan, one of a series of essays in the issue under the rubric of “Faith and Doubt.” Akpan’s is titled “Communion,” and it is a gem which, apart from an affecting story, is I think a useful counterpoint to some of the “wafer war” rhetoric in the U.S. church these days.
NB: I edited the Tablet excerpt above to reflect the fact that it was Fr. James Martin, not Fr. Torrens, whose story was related. The Tablet is also in the process of correcting the error.

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posted July 16, 2008 at 9:46 am

The Tablet makes a mistake: this story is about Fr James Martin,SJ and no Fr James Torrens, SJ.

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