Uwem Akpan In conversation with Sola Osofisan.
In 2008, Uwem Akpan seemingly came out of nowhere with a short story collection that ignited a bidding frenzy among the big publishers in New York. That manuscript, now a modern classic called Say You’re One of Them, published by Little, Brown & Company, became a New York Times and Wall Street Journal #1 bestseller. It received an avalanche of acclaim, awards and commendations, including the coveted Oprah Book Club selection and interview of the author. Say You’re One of Them has been translated into 14 languages and was a prominent feature on multiple Best of the Decade lists. Closer to home, it won the Commonwealth Prize (Africa Region).
In 2017, I met Akpan at a Brown University African Writers Festival organised by the author, Chika Unigwe. Of course, I asked him for an interview. He promised to make himself available as soon as his new book was released. He reached out late 2021 at the publication of his sophomore book, a novel, New York, My Village (W.W. Norton). This new book that took over a decade to write may just be a response to Chinua Achebe’s well-known admonition; “If you don’t like someone’s story, write your own.” Akpan wrote his own story and it has stirred uncomfortable conversations that the author is not shy to confront.
Uwem Akpan, formerly a Roman Catholic priest, is a teacher in the MFA program at the University of Florida.
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SOLA OSOFISAN: Your writing career has been remarkable, Uwem. Your 2008 book, Say You’re One of Them, was on the bestseller lists for months, and is still highly in demand. Did it place you in the exclusive class of rich writers out there?
UWEM AKPAN: Yeah, those were the days! But, no, no, I’m not rich! Are you trying to avoid taking me to lunch? I’m just grateful to God and to everyone who helped me conceive and build that book.
SOLA OSOFISAN: “It took your novel to really instruct me about an important gap in my knowledge of this [minority Biafra] history.” I am in agreement with those words as spoken by the author and scholar Okey Ndibe in conversation with you. Okey has written extensively about the Nigerian Civil War and aspects of your book hit him hard. I’d read about minority abuses in Biafra, but it never struck me that it was as grim as you captured it in your book… I guess right there is a clear justification for the book’s existence…
UWEM AKPAN: God bless Okey Ndibe! His voice in this matter is strong, both as a Biafran survivor and writer.
Sola, Biafra was even grim for Igbos! But the current nostalgia for Biafra is such that they talk about the Biafran army as the purest and most innocent army in human history. But if you read Chimamanda’s Half of a Yellow Sun, you’ll see the monster the amiable Ugwu grew into as a Biafran soldier in Igboland! My books says, look, in minority lands, Biafra was, well, well, well, pure undiluted evil.
We were trapped between Biafra and Nigeria. Igbo writers have done a tremendous job for 50 years to show what Nigeria did to Igbos or Biafrans. My book provides what’s been missing: my focus is what Biafra did to us minorities, while also signalling that Nigeria wasn’t our saviour. We’ve not quite recovered, so we’ve remained voiceless and deeply wounded. There’s nothing Biafra didn’t do to break us. It couldn’t have been otherwise, because the biggest reason for which the Igbos went to war came down to their refusal to let minorities have their region or states. They couldn’t stand losing the old Cross River and River states, the coastal states, which happen to be minority states, which again happen to be the oil states. But our people had been crying for this autonomy long before Independence. Some minorities have actually told me that once the creation of these states was announced, there was a sense of “Oh, finally, we’ve left Egypt,” meaning they didn’t have to be dominated by Igbos again. So now the Igbos were fighting two wars—one against big Nigeria, another against helpless minorities of minorities. Everything was done to suppress us.
Many Igbos don’t know this history because their parents who’re telling them war stories were young children in Igboland during the conflict. People don’t always know what their soldiers are doing in foreign lands. I’m happy that some of them are beginning to ask deep humane questions now—why are the minorities not excited about Biafra? What went wrong? What happened when Biafran forces came to your lands in 1967? How did they treat the people of Benin City when they invaded Nigeria? Of course, they understand that my book isn’t denying that they—Igbos—suffered in this war, too. But the focus has been too one-sided for too long. War is a multi-dimensional thing. Okey Ndibe actually says we’ve been “deleted” from the narratives.
SOLA OSOFISAN: A book ordinarily takes a while to satisfactorily put to bed. That process naturally comes with its own pressures. SYOOT is now one of the most globally recognised titles by an African writer, and a follow-up to such an achievement would understandably add to the normal pressure of writing a book. Your latest, New York, My Village, reportedly took you thirteen years to write. What aspect of the writing challenged you the most? And why?
UWEM AKPAN: Everything frightened me, to be honest. But I couldn’t escape or look away. The more I researched and visited Biafran atrocity sites the more pained and overwhelmed I was…I was also concerned that Americans would find it difficult to accept my critique of racism in publishing and religion. So, yes, NYMV isn’t some love letter to New York or America. It shows you the beautiful and ugly soul of NYC. I always thought we immigrants need to be bolder in our fiction, to go deeper, to touch the architecture and infrastructure and many other things Hollywood doesn’t show you about America.
“When you’re a minority, you’re just voiceless. You don’t exist.”
SOLA OSOFISAN: Thirteen years is a long time, but not exactly uncommon when it comes to writing. How did you know that it was time to let go of the manuscript? Or, to rephrase that, how did you convince yourself that the work was done?
UWEM AKPAN: I felt within me the story was complete, that I’d developed the main characters to the best of my knowledge, that I needed an editor who could help me see better. Alane Mason, my Norton editor, confirmed my intuitions and accepted the book within 24 hours. I couldn’t believe it. The trust between us—and the gracious insightful presence of Nneoma Amadiobi, a Nigerian American assistant editor—meant we could work together, to give equal representation to America and Nigeria.
SOLA OSOFISAN: NYMV is a novel. Were the short stories for you always a stepping stone to longform fiction?
UWEM AKPAN: No, they were not. I just felt short stories would allow me to put many parts of Africa in the same book. I’m very happy, too, I can write a novel. Also, I’ve done bits of autobiography/memoir. I’ll let you figure out what my 25-page acknowledgement in NYMV is, ha!
SOLA OSOFISAN: How was writing the novel different from writing your short stories?
UWEM AKPAN: It was crazier. You get lost in a novel. I got lost writing this novel. Some say it’s a pregnancy that last forever. As you can see, it’s a complex, complex book. Juggling so many things in the air. Another important part of all this was that the success of Say You’re One of Them put a lot of pressure on me.
SOLA OSOFISAN: You laugh a lot and that sense of humour is evident in the book, but NYMV still deals with the kind of serious issues that can be found in SYOOT. What draws you to these serious and sometimes dark themes? Do you know?
UWEM AKPAN: Laughter has seen me through a lot of dark moments in this life…I write about things that bother me and the people around me. Do you know the number of Igbos who approach me to write about Biafra? Because I really listen to their pain and stories, they feel I can do it. They say, if you could write about Rwanda and Ethiopia, why not about your Igbo brethren? And each time I visit my home state of Akwa Ibom, I’m “harassed” for not writing our Biafran stories. This became especially acute after Prof Chinua Achebe published There Was a Country. I couldn’t hide…listen, the Annangs, my people, were the first to be overrun by Biafra in 1967. We bore that first bubbling raw anger that minorities didn’t want Biafra. It was bloody. 1968 was even particularly grim for us. I don’t want to go into details here, except to say that in 1968, even Igbo families were beginning to hide their boys from being forced into the Biafran army!
SOLA OSOFISAN: Ekong Udousoro was a toddler when the civil war ended, but Molly still tried to convince him to write a book on how his childhood was “shaped” by the “stories”, if not directly by the war. You were about the same age as your character when the Nigerian Civil War ended…
UWEM AKPAN: No, I was born after the war.
SOLA OSOFISAN: OK, and you have said in the past that the “soundtrack of my childhood was the stories of the Biafran War”. Can you tell us about that period of your life?
UWEM AKPAN: Yes, Sola, I listened to a lot of war stories growing up, along with folktales, Greek tragedy, Shakespeare, etc. You have to thank my mom for this! At age six, I started primary school at St. Paul’s Primary School, Ekparakwa. In the field behind our block was a mass grave of Biafran soldiers. We were told the Biafrans were using the school as a barracks when Nigerian forces killed them during dinner. We used to play and wrestle in that field, a mere seven years after the war. But what did we know? It wasn’t uncommon for someone to pull a bone from the earth and scream and real terror would descend on the school. But the bullies said I was a weakling for crying. There were too many things to remind you of the war. People could find unused bullets, too, while roaming the bushes for firewood or taking goats out to pasture! My uncle, Itiaba, had one sturdy black metal—a digging bar—he said came out of a crashed war jet fighter. You won’t believe how useful this was to the whole extended family, in terms of digging post holes, breaking concrete, planting, harvesting, etc. We called it atimme ukwak.
SOLA OSOFISAN: Ekong loves Starbucks. So does Uwem Akpan. Ekong is from a minority ethnic group in Nigeria and has strong feelings about the untold stories of the Nigerian Civil War. So does Uwem Akpan. I could go on. So, it begs the question: How much of Ekong Udousoro is based on Uwem Akpan? Did Uwem Akpan’s stories become Ekong’s?
UWEM AKPAN: Oh no, I am NOT Ekong Udousoro! I don’t have his patience and resilience. Of course, there are things that have happened to me that have helped me write the book. Of course, I lived in New York City for a year.
I believe in my imagination. I think part of my gift is that I’m able to make my work feel quite memoirish and vivid. I remember people thought I’d been a street boy in Kenya when “An Ex-Mas Feast” first came out. I also remember some thought I’d experienced the genocide in Rwanda when “My Parents’ Bedroom” came out. Now everyone thinks I’ve worked in American publishing because I wrote NYMV, but I have not. It was my place to write as though I did…It’s futile to search too much for the writer in their characters!
SOLA OSOFISAN: Writers weave their idiosyncrasies into the characters that they create; think cute, even adorable peculiarities. Is it fair to assume some of the darker impulses exhibited by some characters are equally projections, or extensions, of the writer?
UWEM AKPAN: I repeat it’s a dangerous occupation to look for the writer in the characters o! Since my work has lots of darkness, iya uwei, it’s doubly dangerous. Someone once asked me how I came to write about the rape scene in “My Parents’ Bedroom” with such precision! I said, no, no, I didn’t rape anyone. In my own writing, I believe some of the depth and vividness of my emotional details emanate from my exposure to a photography course I took in college and to my exposure to Ignatian contemplation when I was a Jesuit. I also used to write poetry. So, my work thrives also on imagery.
SOLA OSOFISAN: What about research?
UWEM AKPAN: Equally very important. It gives me the peace of mind to unleash my crazy imagination.
SOLA OSOFISAN: Speaking as one who sat across from Ken Saro-Wiwa in his office around 1991/92 and listened to how bitterly he felt about the Ogoni experience in Nigeria, I can appreciate Ekong’s pain and motivations in your book. What do you hope the publication of NYMV brings to the conversation on the relations between majority and minority groups everywhere, especially at a time when Blacks from Africa, invisible in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, have drawn attention to the racism and abuses swirling around them?
UWEM AKPAN: As I’ve said, we minorities were trapped between Biafra and Nigeria. It doesn’t mean that we’re enjoying Nigeria. Nigeria, I must repeat, committed its own countless atrocities when they drove out Biafra from minority lands. Without even getting into the Ukraine race debacle—or crying over the lack of coverage of the ongoing Ethiopian war in western media—when you’re a minority, you’re just voiceless. You don’t exist. Your white neighbours as well as your black neighbours can do you in! You have no security in numbers. Sola, for example, your people, the Yorubas as well as the Igbos and the Hausas have no idea what it means to be a minority in Nigeria. Could my book begin to invite you guys to know how we feel, to stop bullying us? We are human beings. Nigeria should belong to everyone.
SOLA OSOFISAN: This ability to capture and so eloquently express pain…It obviously has its benefits. Your books are bestsellers. But does it come bearing agonies of a kind, especially when you do what actors call “getting into character”? Talk to me about Uwem Akpan, the interpreter/translator of agonies… Do you have to immerse yourself in a place of pain to situate or express your characters’ lives? Is the writing process therapeutic for you? Are you relieved and unburdened after the tale is told?
UWEM AKPAN: Hahaha, I have people running after me, begging me to tell their painful stories! But it’s not funny. They see you as someone who can make their pain memorable. It’s a good thing, the trust, the applause, the admiration, etc, but it’s quite a burden, too. My Tiv friends, for example, kept “blackmailing” me for abandoning them to Fulani herdsmen massacres in Nigeria. They wouldn’t let me rest till I crafted the Montana-bound Tiv dancer in the book, so I could dramatize their situation.
UWEM AKPAN: Well, my brother, I suffer a lot in the process of writing and research. Every writer goes through this agony. You know, the arts can be very depressing. Yes, entering and re-entering these scenes nonstop to get things right is difficult. But I don’t want to dwell on this too much, because there are people who’re actually going through the stuff I only write about. I don’t want to sound as though my pain is more or even equal to theirs. My hope is that my efforts would throw a little light on their issues.
SOLA OSOFISAN: Do you agree that a good book alters its writer in some way? Has that been your experience? I mean the Uwem Akpan that started writing NYMV years ago…how is he different from the Uwem Akpan that’s currently celebrating the publication of the book? How has this book and what you uncovered in your years of research for it changed you?
UWEM AKPAN: Yes, I’ve grown because I’ve thought a lot about certain issues. Research brought me a lot of pain but also hope. You get to see how people cope with difficult memories. How they still laugh. How they don’t give up. I experienced this in a deep way talking to a Rwandese family in Kenya I’d shown my manuscript to in 2002. And travelling all over minority Niger Delta to research this book was very emotional for me, as you can see in the long, long acknowledgment. Too many stories, too, of the minorities joining the Nigerian army to seek revenge, to go after the Igbos, once Biafra fell. Crazy, crazy mess.
SOLA OSOFISAN: I guess a natural follow-up to that question would be did the idea you started out to write thirteen years ago evolve or change over the years? Or did you end up with precisely the book you set out to write?
UWEM AKPAN: The book grew on me. I set out to write Biafra and an immigrant story. You can see all the other things that have come into the book. What I can tell you is that it was NOT a serial or chronological growth at all. I don’t plan everything ahead of writing, like some fortunate authors. I suffer my way into knowledge of what the main arc of the book should be. Even when I write a short story, it’s the same thing.
SOLA OSOFISAN: Uncomfortable news about Africa and Africans are commonplace in the media out here. What has been your experience drawing attention to American issues like racism? How is that conversation going?
UWEM AKPAN: Oh, a lot of Americans don’t like it at all! Some are angry that I’ve said NYC is full of bedbugs. But you should see how offended and ashamed they are. You should see how much they fight to deny it. You see they’ve been enjoying this privilege of choosing what to publish because publishing is very white and is domiciled in NYC. They ultimately determine what comes out. We minorities all want to be published, so we’re powerless, ha. It’s like the Igbos who’ve controlled Biafran narratives with an iron-fist, thanks to their powerful writers and scholars. As you know, they lost the war but control the narrative. Now that’s power! But, again, look, there are many white Americans, New Yorkers and others, who’re thanking me for showing their city and country in the way Uwem Akpan shows things. Are those recurring bedbug infestations in Hell’s Kitchen not a good image of the unending fight against racism? I must also say, yes, yes, I’ve received many wonderful Instagram and Facebook messages from Americans. And I can’t also stop thanking the Igbos who have risked a lot to help me write this book which will help our conversations on nationhood in Nigeria. Many have reached out to congratulate me, for intimating them of why the minorities aren’t interested, to put it mildly, in Biafra.
SOLA OSOFISAN: I was going to ask what the reaction has been from your “Biafran” friends who have read NYMV… Are you still welcome at parties?
UWEM AKPAN: Yes, I’ve lost a few friends. Some are accusing me of being “divisive”. It’s sad because I’ve always listened to their own Biafran stories. We’ve had great conversations about There Was a Country and Half of a Yellow Sun, etc. These friends never called Achebe or Chimamanda “divisive.” They never called the brilliant Igbo artists who’re exhibiting their beautiful Biafran arts in international museums “divisive”. But suddenly people are calling Uwem Akpan “divisive” for writing minority war stories, for saying this is what Biafra, this Igbo-thing, was like in minority land. So, all this while I’d been telling them our minority Biafran stories, they weren’t listening? My stories didn’t register? Or, they didn’t believe ours should be shaped into fiction? I don’t know where these folks got the idea that their Biafran army was this innocent and lovely and gentle brother’s keeper, or that it’s only the Igbo versions of the war that the world must see. It’s rather unfortunate—because minorities haven’t even started writing about Biafra.
SOLA OSOFISAN: Perhaps your Igbo “friends” were told minorities betrayed Biafra.
UWEM AKPAN: But who betrayed who? Why did the Igbos not want us to have our autonomy? Why must we be in Biafra? We were in our lands when they moved in and started killing and raping us, to surrender to Biafra. It’s like Russia attacking Ukraine and turning around to accuse Ukraine of betrayal. I mean we didn’t even have the resources to fight back like Ukraine. My book has already allowed some smart Igbos to reconsider the propaganda they were fed from birth. It’ll allow our compatriots, too, to reassess the history of Nigeria in the light of “new” facts and perspectives. It doesn’t make sense that the Igbos who’ve suffered and suffered and suffered from this war, do not want to listen to other people’s war pain. So, I’m forever grateful to the Igbos who helped me with research in Igboland, ordinary people who believe minorities should be heard. They’re my heroes!!!
SOLA OSOFISAN: Uwem, what do you really think led to this war?
UWEM AKPAN: The creation of minority states, the old Cross River and River States. As you know Akwa Ibom and Bayelsa came of these two. You can also see that these coastal states have oil.
The Igbos went to war to destroy the little autonomy the federal government was giving us. Ask yourself: would the minorities have wanted out of Biafra if the Igbos had been treating us well? No. Why should we want to be in Biafra when we’d been crying for autonomy from Igbos before Independence? How did the Yorubas allow the Midwest to be free? But it’s difficult for some of my Igbo friends to believe their wonderful and peace-loving parents and grandparents didn’t want minorities to be free. Some are even blaming their Igbo writers for NOT signalling to them Biafra was evil in minority lands… Sola, I try to console them that this is why we need diverse writers. Some are also shocked to know that the war ended or Biafra “died” because Biafra spray-bulleted eleven Italians, not because of the millions of casualties. I like to believe my book will help every Nigerian to deepen their knowledge of this war.
SOLA OSOFISAN: If I may ask, in the light of the still ongoing Biafran agitation, what are your personal thoughts, if any, on Nnamdi Kanu, the IPOB leader?
UWEM AKPAN: Well, I hate the way the Buhari government is treating him. Please, let me be crystal clear from the onset: I’m not a supporter of Nnamdi Kanu. But I believe the wise, sensible, compassionate thing would be to release this man.
My understanding is that our brother jumped bail because the government sent the military to kill him before his court date. I heard they massacred 28 people in his house. Has the government denied this? In my opinion, Buhari has committed the bigger crime here. Why attempt to kill him? In Kanu’s shoes, would you not run away? Kanu’s lawyers also say he was tortured in Kenya for days after his capture. We’re still hearing of this torture stories as his detention continues. My spirit hates this kind of thing. He deserves to be treated like a human being, with his rights intact. Killing Kanu cannot solve Buhari’s problem. Torturing him cannot solve Buhari’s problem.
As Wole Soyinka said, Biafra is an idea. Whoever killed an idea with a gun? There are millions of Kanus out there! The best way out is for Buhari to be a good and just leader and stop the blatant nepotism that has turned Nigeria upside down. Listen, allowing Boko Haram and Fulani herdsmen and bandits to sweep the north and keep children from school means this government is the biggest promoter, ally, supporter of Boko Haram and their ideology, No to western education! Under this administration, Northern Nigeria has become Afghanistan…did the presidency not say, Your lands or your blood? We may not support Nnamdi Kanu, but he did warn this blessed country that Buhari was only coming to promote nepotism and Fulani hegemony. Can anyone deny this today?
SOLA OSOFISAN: But they’re accusing Kanu of some crimes…
UWEM AKPAN: Sola, mbok, whatever crimes they bring up cannot be worse than sending the military to assassinate him. The federal government couldn’t even wait for him to defy the courts? Did they obtain a warrant to arrest him? And it’s so laughable when people say Kanu deserves what he gets because he calls Nigeria a zoo. Listen, our dear country is worse than a zoo today o! Nobody runs from a zoo the way Nigerians are fleeing from home today. What else would you call a country where cows graze on the premises of the National Assembly and shit all over the place? Last June, my taxi had to stop on the road to the Abuja international airport for cows to pass! As the beasts swamped traffic, I feared they were going to stick their horns in the car for me. And by the way, whether we like Biafra or not, Kanu has a right to want it…the Igbos have a right to want it, if they can limit it to Igboland. Treating Kanu this way is so wrong and sad—and totally counterproductive. Would Buhari want his only son or grandchildren to be treated this way? This government has turned the whole country into a torture chamber…Nigerians have never been this hungry or jobless! This is why many Yorubas and other groups are also thinking of seceding. Did you see the bloodbath in Sunday Igboho’s house? They wanted to murder him, too, for saying the herdsmen should stop murdering and raping the Yorubas. It’s just so sad. And what was the crime of the 300-plus Shiites whom the army gunned down and buried in mass graves? I can’t even put the EndSARS killings into words. I weep for our country. We cannot continue to treat people like this. Or, why are Fulani terrorists allowed to bomb trains, attack military barracks, invade airports, etc., without arrest? Can you compare these atrocities to Kanu’s so-called crimes?
SOLA OSOFISAN: What were you guys thinking when you chose author Elnathan John to narrate the NYMV audiobook, and what do you think a distinctly African voice brings to the audio version?
UWEM AKPAN: I chose him because of his deep beautiful voice o! And I loved the long chat we had about the book. His people in Southern Kaduna, minorities like the Annangs, have seen hell. They, too, like the Tivs, are being killed off, so their lands can be taken over by the powerful.
“It’s futile to search too much for the writer in their characters!”
SOLA OSOFISAN: Did you ever consider narrating the audiobook?
UWEM AKPAN: Yes, but by the time my publisher made the decision, I was in the middle of my semester.
SOLA OSOFISAN: You’re a teacher in the University of Florida MFA program. Does that mean you’re of the “writing can be taught” school of thought?
UWEM AKPAN: Writing can be developed.
We run workshops, which means the teacher and other students make a lot of suggestions about the work in question. As you know, applicants to writing schools get in on the strength of submitted stories. So, they already have some talent in this area. MFAs are a form of apprenticeship. Back in the day, it was easier to meet with established writers and get them to look at your work. These days, workshop teachers, who are themselves writers, fulfil that role. Not everyone needs writing school though…it was a huge blessing to me, I must say. Michigan MFA program improved my writing big time. Having a group of very talented people critique your work for two years meant a lot. Do you know how lucky I was to share the same MFA class with Celeste Ng, author of Little Fires Everywhere, or Preeta Samarasan, author of Evening Is the Whole Day?
SOLA OSOFISAN: Some writers thrive on writing, but dread and shrink from exposure and spending time promoting a book. What has been your experience in this area? You enjoy traveling. Do you also enjoy meeting your readers?
UWEM AKPAN: I enjoy driving. I once planned to drive from Nigeria to Senegal, on the coast. I wanted to return via the Sahel—Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad—then down into Nigeria. But terrorism in Mali and Boko Haram in the Lake Chad region destroyed that dream…yes, I’m happy to meet the people reading my work. But I’ve had a few “strange” situations, ha. For example, when Oprah picked my first book, one day in NYC subway, I saw a few people reading it. My eyes were too full of tears to know how to react. So, I looked down the whole way.
SOLA OSOFISAN: Can you whisper in my ear how much Starbucks is paying you for all the promotion and brand ambassador work? I promise not to tell…
UWEM AKPAN: Nothing o…please, could you whisper in their ear, to pay me?
SOLA OSOFISAN: Looking forward to the next title by Uwem Akpan. Hopefully, it won’t take another thirteen years…
UWEM AKPAN: From your mouth to God’s ear. Thanks, Sola!