There’s a curious coda at the tail end of writer Uwem Akpan’s curriculum vitae. After learning about Akpan’s work experience, accomplishments, and awards, the reader comes across the following: “I used to play the banjo. I watch lots of soccer. I love long road trips. In my writing, I hope to capture the hopes and anxieties of folks on the margins of society.”
Except for the banjo-playing ambition, Akpan appears to be living up to his leisure time and professional desires. And today, with a collection of short stories and a full-length roman à clef novel to his credit, the Nigerian-born Catholic writer is drawing attention as a scribe very much worth listening to.
A professor of English and creative writing at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Akpan burst onto the literary scene in 2008 with his debut short story collection, Say You’re One of Them (Little, Brown and Company). Consisting of stories and novellas set in different African countries, the book focuses on how refugees, those who are destitute, and trafficked people struggle with a sense of identity and self-worth when shunted to the margins of the community. Many of the stories in Say You’re One of Them also reveal the author’s sympathy and compassion for society’s most vulnerable people as the normal protections of a nurturing family and a stable community crumble and fall.
In 2003, before turning to full-time writing and teaching, Akpan was ordained a Jesuit priest in Nigeria. He served the diocese of Ikot Ekpene, and for a time he was personal assistant to Bishop Camillus Archibong Etokudoh of that diocese. He has also worked with people with leprosy in Nigeria, street kids in Tanzania, and lay leaders in Kenya, and he taught writing at a seminary in Zimbabwe.
In the early days of his priesthood, however, Akpan could not escape the lingering desire to “capture hopes and anxieties of people on the margins.” He finally chose to exchange pastoral work for a vocation as a writer.
Akpan emphasizes that in deciding to leave the priesthood, he did not leave the church. And he still has respect and admiration for some of the Irish missionary priests who ministered in Nigeria at the time of the Nigerian Civil War (also known as the Nigerian-Biafra War). Although some of these priests were embroiled in the politics of nations at war, others actively sought to protect the minority people caught up in the conflict.
Life beyond the stole
Akpan earned a master of fine arts degree from the University of Michigan in 2006. He has held fellowships at the Black Mountain Institute (University of Nevada, Las Vegas), the Institute for the Humanities (University of Michigan), the Yaddo Foundation in Sarasota Springs, New York, and the Hank Center for Catholic Intellectual Heritage at Loyola University, Chicago. In 2021, Akpan released New York, My Village (W. W. Norton), a story of a Nigerian writer and editor invited to the United States in 2016, to help edit books on the plight of Nigerian minority groups during the Nigerian-Biafra conflict.
In a lengthy acknowledgment section at the end of New York, My Village, Akpan praises the support and understanding of his chief pastoral shepherd, Bishop Camillus Umoh of the Catholic Diocese of Ikot Ekpene in Nigeria. “Between you and me, between me and our beloved diocese, you know how grateful I am for your support,” Akpan writes. “When I finally told you I could no longer continue in the priesthood—because I needed to write—you made me know there’s life beyond the stole. ‘Uwem, whatever happens, don’t forget your God, for God is God,’ you said tearfully in August 2015. ‘At the end of the day, we do what we must do.’ ”
That same acknowledgment section offers a snapshot of Akpan’s experiences leading to his current vocation as a writer and teacher. Akpan has long been troubled that the histories and life stories of minority groups in times of war and famine can be distorted or even sugarcoated by writers and historians who lack proper perspective. Akpan says that while the “brutality” of racism in the United States is readily apparent, it was no less horrendous in his native Nigeria during and immediately after the Biafran War.
“But what is not always known is what the Igbo-dominated Biafra did to our minority ethnic groups in Biafra,” Akpan says. “They were really tribalistic. The worst is their big writers have attempted to use the power of the pen to push a singular narrative that seeks to ‘gaslight’ us minorities. It allows them to project the Igbos as the biggest victims.”
Akpan says Nigerian minority communities, including his own Annang people, were especially devastated during the civil war. Between 45,000 and 100,000 soldiers died in the conflict, and as many as two million civilians perished as a result of famine and disease. As a youngster growing up in the immediate aftermath of the war, Akpan was especially interested in collecting and recording the harrowing experiences of the survivors.
“[The Nigerian Civil War’s] crazy stories shaped my 1970s childhood,” Akpan says. “In the last 50 years, they’ve followed me all over the world. These past 10 years have been really difficult because, beset with self-doubt and despair, I was bent on fictionalizing this war from the perspective of the minorities of the Niger Delta. I didn’t always know whether I was weighed down by the prospects of writing a second book after Say You’re One of Them or by the very bruising wars I was trying to portray.”
Growing up in a country that recently experienced a near-apocalyptic civil war had a profound impact on Akpan’s imagination. He still recoils when hearing tales of the failings of priests and religious during the war. As he tells readers in the author’s notes in New York, My Village:
“While some Igbo priests, nuns, and lay leaders in the Port Harcourt diocese mediated between their Biafran patrols and minority parishioners, others simply behaved like the Biafran secret police. For me, a former priest, it was most heartrending to hear that some of the priests had broken the seal of confession and leaked minority ‘sins’ to Biafra, which sent its killer squads to ‘disappear’ the penitents and commandeer their properties. . . . This Biafranization of the spiritual life completed the desperation and abandonment of the minorities. It was as though even God had rejected them.”
Akpan goes on to explain that the Igbo people weren’t a minority before the war; they were one of the most powerful groups in the country. After the war, however, the Igbos lost much of their power and influence. They became another minority people looking for peace and stability.
Akpan downplays the suggestion that New York, My Village is semi-autobiographical, despite its narrative being based on the author’s own experience of the Nigerian diaspora. At the same time, his first few years living in the United States proved eye-opening. “I knew from being a writer that publishing is very racist,” he says. “Any minority writer who has been around publishing for a while and can’t see this has a problem. Writing about it, of course, is another thing. Not many have the talent to attempt something like this . . . and yes, I am personally disappointed in publishing because it is one place I didn’t expect to find toxic racism.”
Early in the story, the protagonist, Ekong, notes a sense of unease and ethnic tension as he settles into life in New York City. “In America,” Ekong says, “I was getting increasingly unable to articulate the fissures between the races to myself, much less to others. . . . I had become a child of the diaspora, consumed by the conflation of both American racism and Nigerian tribalism. My dreams were being shredded one after another.”
The story also makes a poignant observation about the need for contemporary society to acknowledge the debt it owes to exploited Indigenous people and to the descendants of slaves, many of whom labored to build the urban infrastructure we tend to take for granted today. Ekong says:
“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 four hundred years in the iron door of America’s heart.”
Ekong encounters other issues and challenges that parallel Akpan’s own. Akpan says his decision to leave the priesthood was driven largely by a need for artistic and storytelling freedom. “I left the priesthood because I wanted to do this kind of writing. If I were still in the priesthood, I would not have the freedom of expression as I do as a lay writer,” he says.
In New York, My Village, Akpan criticizes the subtle racism in the U.S. publishing industry and denounces the racism and discrimination experienced by people of color in the church. He pulls no punches in calling out this racism in the institutional church.
As a former priest and a storyteller who seeks to overcome racism and efforts to suppress elements of history, Akpan’s work takes on special significance for all readers but especially Catholics. As such, Akpan was surprised by the critical reception to New York, My Village. “I didn’t always know what to expect from the new book,” he says in one interview. “Even I was afraid of the content of what I was putting forward. My idea was to challenge white and Black peoples. As an Annang [Nigerian minority] person, I am a minority of minorities. I face discrimination both from white and Black majorities.”
In New York, My Village, Akpan seeks to show what it means to be a minority even in African nations. He says he has been attacked by some Igbos, who grew up with the notion that Biafra was paradise and that Biafran soldiers never hurt anyone. “I don’t know why they are attacking me,” Akpan says. “I don’t know why they are not learning from Europe listening to people they had colonized.”
Akpan took a risk in devoting a significant portion of his novel to detailing the racist and white supremacist elements in both mainstream publishing and the Catholic Church. And while some readers haven’t welcomed the author’s literary boldness, others have commended Akpan for his honesty and directness.
“So many strangers have reached out to me, to thank me for New York, My Village,” Akpan says. “They’re very touched about my depiction of racism in our dear Catholic Church. But we can no longer keep quiet in the face of racism. When we have a solely white hierarchy, of course the voice of God is going to be very white. In this sense, I ask: what has been the experience of Black and Latino and Asian and Native American peoples in the American Catholic Church? Minorities who have reached out to me have said things like, ‘You have captured our situation in this most sacred of spaces and we’re losing our faith in the American Catholic Church.’ It’s very alienating . . . if Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were a Catholic priest, he would never have been allowed to fight for Blacks.”
Confronting the gatekeepers
As the author points out in New York, My Village, the publishing industry in the United States—and by implication its major storytellers—is still primarily white and of European origin. Some new artists, particularly those from minority communities, have alluded to the mainstream publishing industry’s reluctance to confront issues of injustice and exclusion that affect non-white or immigrant populations. The emergence of Akpan and other writers from diverse backgrounds also challenges the Catholic literary world to address these issues in their creative output.
Emerging questions include: What can committed Catholic writers learn from Akpan’s output? How can an appreciation of Catholic art be expanded through reading Akpan’s work? How can Catholic writers and authors do better when it comes to creating art that is a prophetic voice for justice or liberation?
Consideration of Akpan’s career as a novelist, educator, and former priest invites speculation on the value and relevance of the author’s work to a Catholic readership. Although the hierarchical church is not immune from criticism in Akpan’s creative canon to date, he remains optimistic about the institution’s potential in building a better future.
One of the most provocative observations Akpan makes in his depiction of racism and alienation in trusted institutions such as the Catholic Church is that the church must improve its interethnic dialogue. “People of color are beginning to understand how much this white bubble is poisoning their authentic faith,” he says. “It’s important to ask how the church can extricate itself from the racism of its past and present.”
Akpan cites Pope Francis’ recent pronouncements on the Doctrine of Discovery as a minor but significant starting point in reconciliation efforts. Although Pope Francis said the doctrine was never a part of strict magisterial teaching, he did admit that the church did little to support the equal dignity and rights of Indigenous people.
Despite his experience of racism both in society and the church, Akpan holds out hope for the power of faith and honest reflection to build up communities. As a teacher of would-be writers at the University of Florida, Akpan brings a special perspective to his students. “I am always encouraging them to write across culture, race, gender, creed,” he says. “I am always encouraging them to learn how to critique and learn from each other’s work.”
Being present to suffering
Akpan is optimistic about the educational power of his work, especially to a committed Catholic readership. “My writing is sacramental and purgatorial. It allows us to encounter the divine in the mundane, to see God in everything,” he says. “My writing is interested in using the deep symbols of Catholicism to confront the myriad problems of our world. We are all sinners saved by the love and grace of God.”
Notwithstanding the harsh realities Akpan represents in his short stories, he remains a writer with a hopeful outlook. He recalls the words of an Annang (Nigerian) Catholic priest when Akpan was a teenager considering a vocation to the priesthood: “My young seminarian and teenager, sooner or later you will learn that sometimes there’s nothing you can do except to be present to the suffering around you.”
Today, the former priest and present-day mentor and author offers this gentle, almost pastoral note: “I am 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 have so thoroughly messed up,” Akpan says.
Akpan is now working on his next novel while enjoying the laurels earned from his first two books. Although he is reluctant to divulge a working title or a plot outline, the new book will almost certainly involve the plight of vulnerable people on the margins of society—people who struggle to hold on to a community and faith that often ignores those who, as a prophetic voice once said, shall inherit the Earth.
Read about more Catholic novelists:
- Louise Erdrich gives voice to Native communities
- For novelist Peter Quinn, conversion means persistence
- Reimaging God: An interview with author Jessica Pegis
This article also appears in the October 2023 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 88, No. 10, pages 27-30). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
Image: Courtesy of Uwem Akpan