After publishing "An Ex-Mas Feast", one of the stories in his first collection Say You're One of Them (2008), in The New Yorkers Début Fiction issue, Akpan discussed his writing with Cressida Leyshon, deputy fiction editor
Your story, "An Ex-Mas Feast", is about a family living on the street in Nairobi, Kenya. When did you first start thinking about these characters and the world that they inhabit?
When I went to study theology in Nairobi, in 2000, I was taken by the phenomenon of street kids. Id never seen anything like it before
. I started talking with the bunch of kids around Adams Arcade, which was near my school. These kids were not very wild, because they still went back to their homes in the slums in the evening. There was one kid, Richard, who was their leader. I started calling him Dick. He had some English, and was very respected by the others. If I wanted to give them money, the whole bunch would ask me to give it to Dick, because they knew he would not cheat them. He would talk with me and ask me about Nigeria. I dont know how he managed to be so nice, unlike his friends. After the Christmas holiday of 2000, he disappeared. I started asking questions. Some of his friends told me that maybe he had gone to the city to become a real street kid. I really thought I would run into him someday in the city. But I never did. I kept hoping that he would keep his gentleness even in the very wild gangs of the City Centre.
Youre working on a collection of stories about children in various countries in Africa. Can you talk a little about the other stories? Why do you want to write about a number of African countries rather than one or two - for example, Nigeria, where you grew up, or Kenya, where you studied for three years?
I would like to see a book about how children are faring in these endless conflicts in Africa. The world is not looking. I think fiction allows us to sit for a while with people we would rather not meet. I have had the chance to study and to travel a bit. I really hope I can visit these places and do good research, so that the stories can be truly those of the people I am trying to write about. I want their voices heard, their faces seen.
Do you find it easy to move between the two continents, [Africa and America] or does it take time to adjust to life in each place again?
The rhythm of life here is different from that of Nigeria. I really liked the efficiency and accessibility of things here, the educational opportunities. And I was touched by the beauty and tolerance it has taken to fashion America. But, for instance, the thing about old people staying in "homes" away from home blew my mind. As did how little Americans know or want to know about life elsewhere.
It is a great thing to be able to move back and forth. I get to see my friends. Theres also the challenge of remaining faithful to my roots. Now each time I return to Ikot Akpan Eda, my home, I ask my parents and old people a lot of questions. I am more interested in my Annang culture now than I was before I started coming here. I am always interested in listening to old people in my village. Everybody knows everybody, and people tell tall stories. After Mass on Sunday, people sit together outside the church and share fresh palm wine. One of my mothers cousins used to come around to our home to tell us stories he made up about different people in the village. He seemed to have a license to change any story into whatever he wanted. My granddad, who helped bring Catholicism to my village, became a polygamist at one point and later came back to monogamy. So I have many uncles and aunties. My father and all his brothers live in one big compound. My mothers place is not far off.
Have you set much of your fiction in the United States?
I have not set any of my fiction in the U.S. . . . Not yet. I feel that you guys have tons of writers "discovering" the American experience for you. I feel that the situation of Africa is very urgent and we need more people to help us see the complexity of our lives. Ben Okri has said that rich African literature means rich world literature. Having said that, it would be great to set some of my fiction in this country. A lot of African refugees are coming to America now. So that could be where to begin.
What do you read, mostly?
The stories I find in the Bible keep surprising me. All the crimes are already committed in Genesis, yet God stays with the ones who committed them. I read extensively, though ever since I started writing, my reading speed has gone down considerably.
Is your faith important to you when youre writing? What role, if any, do you think it should play in your fiction?
Since it is not something I can put away, my faith is important to me. I hope I am able to reveal the compassion of God in the faces of the people I write about. I think fiction has a way of doing this without being doctrinaire about it.
In a story you have published in The New Yorker [An Ex-Mas Feast], two of the main characters, Jigana and his sister Maisha, live in a harsh world. Do you think that theyll survive?
My continent is in distress and has been since the beginning of slavery. Leadership is a big problem. My hope is that things will change in Africa. Europe fought endlessly with itself in past centuries; now they have a European Union, not just in name, like the African Union. I hope that someday all the stupid wars on the African continent will end. I am amazed at the endurance of people, whether in Asia or Latin America or Africa, caught up in harsh situations.
What do you do when you want to forget about everything?
(Laughs.) A priest has no way of forgetting about everything! I like to watch good soccer on TV. Take long, slow drives. Read. Visit with people.