Emerging Nigerian writer Uwem Akpan's short story collection, Say You're One of Them, recently was chosen by U.S. television talk show host Oprah Winfrey for her book club. Oprah's book club is the biggest in the world, with about two million readers. Oprah says she is deeply impressed with Akpan's work.
"Our 63rd book club selection is Say You're One of Them by Uwem Akpan," Winfrey announced. "This is the first time I have ever chosen a collection of short stories. Each one of them left me gasping and profoundly moved."
What are the stories about?
Uwem Akpan's work is a collection of six stories, each one set in a different African country but all told from a child's perspective. Akpan, who began writing at seminary school while studying to be a priest, says he was overwhelmed by the news that Oprah Winfrey had selected his book for her readers.
"I was very grateful to God and humbled by all this, that I could start writing fiction 10 years ago and today I have a few awards to show for my efforts, the Oprah endorsement even more so," Akpan said. "What are the chances that Oprah would pick your book?"
Akpan won the 2009 Commonwealth Writers Prize for best first book and his collection of stories have racked up several awards, including being shortlisted for the prestigious Caine Prize for African fiction.
How he got started
The stories in Akpan's book are set in Kenya, Benin, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Rwanda, and cover dark and diverse issues as child trafficking, religious conflict, child prostitution and genocide. Akpan's subjects are African children, whose daily experiences could have been taken from the pages of humanitarian organization reports.
"My original motivation was to critique the ills of my own society," Akpan explained. "But when I realized I couldn't get my essays into the Guardian newspaper, in my country Nigeria, and I noticed they published fiction on Saturdays, I tried to write fiction and this is where it has led me."
Say You're One of Them has impressed readers and critics in the United States and in Africa.
Praise from peers
Corbin Collins, who edits the literary blog, Earthgoat, first read Akpan's stories in The New Yorker magazine. He says Akpan's writing is crystal clear and compares his characters to famous child narrators like Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn.
Collins says he is pleased that Akpan's stories will reach a wide audience through Oprah Winfrey's book club.
"I'm so happy for him and I'm so happy for American readers who are going to be turned on to him, who otherwise would never have even heard of him," Collins said. "This could single-handedly bring African fiction into the mainstream in the West."
Anote Ajeluorou is an arts journalist at Nigeria's Guardian newspaper.
"His collection of short stories, Say You're One of Them, I think is one of the most remarkable works of fiction to come out of Africa for some time now," Ajeluorou said. "The stories are really heartrending because they deal with a section of the society that is hardly spoken about -- that is children, especially those who are in vulnerable positions."
Alejuorou says Oprah's selection of Akpan's book is a great thing for Africa because it highlights the positive creativity that so often, he says, is overshadowed by the continent's political and economic problems. For him, Akpan's book is a cause of celebration.