Harrowing and unbearable scenarios befall the young protagonists of Uwem Akpan’s “Say You’re One of Them,” a 2008 collection of short stories describing the plights of war- and poverty-stricken children across Africa. But there is hope amid the struggles, and if the critical raves the book has earned since its publication are any indication, “Say You’re One of Them” should stand as testament to fiction’s ability to broaden our understanding of different cultures.

Uwem Akpan book reading

Tomorrow, 4 p.m.
At Hatcher Graduate Library

Akpan, the newest featured author of Oprah’s Book Club and a 2006 University of Michigan Master of Fine Arts graduate, is scheduled to appear tomorrow at 4 p.m. at the Hatcher Graduate Library to talk about his book.

Akpan’s own story is almost as fascinating as his fiction. He’s a fully ordained Jesuit Catholic priest hailing from the small Nigerian village of Ikot Akpan Eda who still preaches in his home country when not touring with his book. After living in Nebraska in the mid ’90s, he decided to apply to Michigan’s MFA program because of a haphazard Google search for creative writing programs in the Midwest. He entered the program with much of “Say You’re One of Them” already written.

“We had a workshop each week for three hours. It was here that I finally understood how to create tangible conflict in my work, how to pace the stories, how to sharpen the dialogue, how to manage perspectives,” Akpan wrote in an e-mail interview. “Whatever I learnt from the workshops, I went back and applied to the stories.”

Akpan’s semi-finished stories showed he came to Michigan with the goal of publishing, and he knew he had a lot of polishing to do. Eileen Pollack, head of the Creative Writing department, taught Akpan in a fiction workshop and immediately realized his potential.

“He came in with this huge amount of pages — these very rough, very long manuscripts that eventually became the stories and novellas that are in the book,” Pollack said.

Among those drafts was an early version of “An Ex-Mas Feast,” a story about a 12-year-old girl who must work as a prostitute to support her destitute Kenyan family. This story propelled Akpan into the upper reaches of the literary world when it was published in The New Yorker in June 2005.

In creative writing workshops, Pollack helped Akpan tighten up his stories by focusing more on the ordeals of one relatable character than the turmoil of an entire country. She also helped him develop his own unique point of view on the events his stories cover.

“You can’t just write from the point of view that genocide’s terrible. I mean, we know that,” Pollack said. “You have to have a particular question about what’s happening to your character. And you’re writing from that question, not from something you already know.”

The five stories in “Say You’re One of Them” are set in several African countries including Kenya, Ethiopia, Benin and Rwanda during the time of the nation’s genocides. Akpan had not traveled to many of these locations before he started writing, but he performed massive research to accurately reflect their customs and dialects.

“Africa has 52 countries and myriads of cultures and ethnic groups. But we Africans do not necessarily know what is happening in other parts of Africa,” Akpan wrote. “The pidgin English spoken in Nigeria is decidedly different from that spoken in, say, Kenya. The people of Senegal may not know what is happening in Sudan and vice versa.”

Pollack put it more succinctly: “Just because somebody is African doesn’t mean he knows every country (and) every region in Africa.”

Pollack recalled an early draft of a story set in Ethiopia in which characters lived in tall buildings and flew kites. It wasn’t until Akpan visited Ethiopia that he discovered none of the country’s buildings exceed two stories and it’s practically the only place in Africa where nobody flies kites.

The main challenge facing Akpan was communicating the diverse struggles of Africa to readers who were not familiar with the continent.

“I had to write in such a way that whoever read the book would flow with the spirit of the stories, without necessarily understanding every word,” he wrote.

But writing stories to address these African struggles was an important challenge for him to meet, and one he was more than ready to accept. And he’s already found immense success. In addition to the exposure he’s gotten from Oprah, “Say You’re One of Them” has received numerous other awards and topped many critics’ year-end best lists for 2008. Akpan is particularly proud to have won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book for the African region.

Recently, Akpan has been surprised by the astounding accomplishments of his first book, and slightly exhausted by the busy promotional schedule.

“I travel lots these days. That is grueling,” he wrote. “But I am thankful to God. It is better than shopping around with a manuscript.”

A good dozen of the stories Akpan showed Pollack at Michigan didn’t make it into the book, including a long piece about child soldiers in Uganda. Since he’s currently one of the hottest names in literature, it’s likely these stories won’t stay hidden for long.

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