Uwem Akpan: Oprah's next choice?

If you haven't yet heard the name Uwem Akpan, brace yourself. You may find that he's become a household name (in your house as well as millions of others across the US) a little later this afternoon. Rumor has it that his short story collection, "Say You're One of Them," is the next pick for Oprah's book club.

Oprah will make her announcement on her show later this afternoon. For weeks now, there has been speculation as to her choice and many book bloggers (the Monitor's included) speculated that "Say You're One of Them" could be her book of choice.  Yesterday, however, the Washington Post said that the rumor had been confirmed by a tip from a book distribution company.

Akpan is a Nigerian Jesuit priest. His five short stories are each set in a different African country. Children play major roles in the stories, which tackle the toughest of topics –  child slavery, religious rioting, and genocide. When the book was published last year it was widely praised by book reviewers (including Monitor reviewer Adelle Waldman who called "Say You're One of Them" a "work of immense power" that "combines the strengths of both fiction and journalism"), some readers found the stories too heartbreaking to enjoy.

(One of the most wrenching pieces in the book is a novella-length story called “Fattening for Gabon,” in which the story’s narrator, a 10-year-old boy named Kotchikpa, and his younger sister live with their uncle in a seaside border town in Benin. It is clear to everyone but the children that their uncle, who appears to be treating them very kindly, is actually preparing to sell them into slavery.)

Akpan said in an interview with The Rumpus that he grew up in a village with a rich tradition of storytelling but didn't begin writing fiction until he was an adult. He says he sees no conflict in being both a cleric and a writer, explaining that, in his opinion, "Jesus was both priest and poet." Asked about the complaints of some Western readers that such heartbreaking tales about children are painful to read, he explains simply, "With the raw material before me and the gifts within me, I did my best to celebrate the voices and intelligence and sweetness and dreams of the children in spite of their chaotic, outer worlds."

Akpan studied in the US in 2006, receiving an MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan. At that time he succeeded in publishing a short story ("An Ex-Mas Feast") in the New Yorker. Shortly thereafter, he found three publishers at his door (figuratively speaking.) He went with Little Brown and published "Say You're One of Them" last year.

"Say You're One of Them" received many positive reviews in the US but the book's success up until now is nothing compared with what is likely to be unleashed later this afternoon. Even the rumors have already worked their magic. As independent bookstore newsletter ShelfAwareness noted this morning, while yesterday the book was #165,769 on Amazon.com's sales rankings, " by 10 p.m. last night it had risen to #2,151; and at press time this morning it was #997".

It's been a year since Oprah's last pick which was "The Story of Edgar Sawtelle" by David Wroblewski – a book by a first-time novelist that became an immediate sensation. Check back sometime after 4pm this afternoon to see what's happened to "Say You're One of Them."

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