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Catholic writers: Celebrating our common humanity at the heart of Uwem Akpan’s poignant prose

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Emerging Catholic writer Uwem Akpan has made quite an impact since releasing his first book of short stories in 2008.

Titled “Say You’re One of Them,” the book captured readers’ attention throughout North America and earned a mention on Oprah Winfrey’s TV program. Its depiction of the struggles of simple families merely to survive in times of warfare, famine and political turmoil marked Akpan as a writing force to be reckoned with.

Akpan has gained further prominence in literary circles with the 2021 release of his semi-autobiographical novel, “New York, My Village,” which critics described as an illuminating tale of finding one’s place in a society marked by suspicion and mistrust of anyone outside the mainstream.

The writer was born in Ikot Akpan Eda, Nigeria, in 1971, one year after the end of the gruesome Biafran War, which pitted local nationalists against the combined forces of Nigeria in a struggle for independence. Not only did the war claim an estimated 100,000 soldier fatalities, it also spawned a widespread famine that cost another 2 millions lives, three-fourths of whom were under the age of 15.

Akpan is of special interest to Catholic readers especially due to his former “career” as a priest of the Catholic Diocese of Ikot Ekpene in Nigeria. He was ordained in the Jesuit order in 2003, and after serving in a pair of dioceses in Africa, Akpan eventually succumbed to another kind of vocation — in this case — becoming a writer.

In a note to readers in “New York, My Village,” Akpan says he could not continue in the priesthood because “I needed to write.” Undaunted, Akpan’s bishop responded, “Whatever happens, don’t forget your God, for God is God. … At the end of the day, we do what we must do.”

Although Akpan chose to leave the Catholic priesthood, he still holds high regard for the priests and missionaries he dealt with as a child in the former Biafra. Several of the short stories in “Say You’re One of Them” touch on the influence of Irish missionary priests struggling to impart the faith in communities devastated by war, poverty and suspicion of all forms of civil authority.

Despite the desperation and violence Akpan describes in his short stories, the author still has room for the grace and healing as an antidote to disunity. His story, “Luxurious Hearses,” for example, includes the following:

“This was not the time to talk about Islam or Christianity, or God too much. … It was time just to be human and to celebrate that. What mattered now was how to get people to lay down their weapons and biases, how to live together.”

Akpan earned a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Michigan in 2006, and then held various fellowships. Today he teaches creative writing at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

Akpan hopes the “New York, My Village” book will be thought-provoking for Catholic readers. In addition to discussing immigrants struggling with their faith in a new country, the book advocates for ethnic minorities and migrants who are often forced to justify their humanity and find an identity in unfamiliar settings.

The plot focuses on the character Ekong, a member of a Nigerian ethnic minority arriving in New York City to edit an anthology of Biafran War stories. While the book offers criticism of the insular nature of the American publishing industry, it also speaks to issues of tribalism, mistrust and subtle racism.

Sadly for Ekong, suspicion and latent hostility tend to flare up based on assumptions about a person’s origins. As Ekong notes well into his New York “village” experience:

“I was tormented by the fact that Black subjugation was accomplished by the unbelievable magnification of terror across racial lines — in the blood-soaked voyages across the Atlantic, this very ocean which separated New York from Ituna-Ekanem (Nigeria), these voyages which shall always cast a shadow on any Black person, irrespective of whether they still called Africa home or had bloodied their knuckles and heads for 400 years in the iron door of America’s heart.”

Despite the harsh realities Akpan echoes in his short stories and the struggles of minorities with First World assimilation, Akpan is a writer with a hopeful outlook.

He recalls the words of an Annang (Nigeria) Catholic priest when Akpan was a teenager considering a vocation to the priesthood. “My young seminarian and teenager,” the priest told Akpan at the time, “sooner or later you will learn that sometimes, there’s nothing you can do except be present to the suffering around you.”

This sensitivity to suffering and oppression, tempered by a sense of better things in the future, is for Akpan a key message to his creative writing students. In the lengthy acknowledgments section of “New York, My Village,” the former priest and present-day mentor and guide offers this gentle, almost pastoral note:

“I was filled with the hope our children all over the world, irrespective of the things that divide us, shall discover a language, a tenderness, a friendship with which to negotiate the increasingly complex world we had so thoroughly messed up.”

By Mike Mastromatteo, Catholic News Service

Mike Mastromatteo is a writer and editor from Toronto.