Friday, September 18, 2009
Uwem Akpan -- Say You're One of Them
But first, a bit more self-indulgent meditation on my own nature: To wit, when this perfectly nice kid I knew from back in the day became a famous (at least in Brooklyn and Silver Lake and Austin) hard-drinking indie rock and roller, I seethed. When this other, very sweet girl I knew from back in the day wrote a silly blog and then blew up and became something of a pundit, I seethed. When the jovial and dashing South African fellow who lived down the hall from me freshman year became an international correspondent on CNN, I seethed. I know I should be happy for these people and their successes, but I am human, tragic and flawed, and I am wickedly jealous when perfectly normal-seeming people whom I know stumble into fame and riches.
That said, once in a while, a supremely nice person comes along, he treats you very kindly, is humble about his own talents, and is gracious and laudatory of yours, meager though they are. Once in a while you meet such a person and you think this person deserves much from this world; in the least this person deserves fame and riches. One such person is Uwem Akpan.
Tomorrow he will be chosen as Oprah's newest Book Club inductee. His enormously moving debut short-story collection, Say You're One of Them, will be 2009's first Oprah selection, and he will be launched into the literary stratosphere.
I met Uwem for the first time a few years ago in the frigid college town in which I spent some time. I was doing a reading of a short story I had written for our law school literary journal (best not to ask), and he, friendly with the editor, showed up for the opening night event. Afterwards, he introduced himself to me, told me how much he enjoyed my story, and, eventually, revealed that he too was a writer. As a result of this conversation, I made my way onto Uwem's email list. This is how I learned that he managed to get a second story published in the New Yorker in June of 2006. I read this story, prepared to hate it or hate him for his success. But neither came to pass. I then read the first story he had published, "An Ex-Mas Feast," and I felt stunned by what he had achieved.
A couple of years later, Uwem's book -- which Oprah has now selected -- came out and I bought it immediately. I re-read the New Yorker stories and felt neither jealousy nor hate. I felt in awe. Then I read one of the final stories in the collection, "Fattening for Gabon," which ends in a way that arrests the heart, and I thought, everyone should read this. Everyone.
Thanks to Oprah, from tomorrow, about one bajillion more people will read Uwem's book. Uwem, who is also a Jesuit priest ministering to a congregation in Nigeria, not some latte-drinking malcontent in Park Slope, will have earned all his success, and I for one will come to know genuine happiness for another human being. You should buy his book.