In possibly the biggest news to hit African literature since, well, since Things Fall Apart, the world’s book club queen, Oprah Winfrey, has selected Nigerian Uwem Akpan’s Commonwealth Prize-winning book of short stories, Say You’re One of Them as the next title to feature in her life and, crucially, on her show.
Advance reports from Akpan’s US publisher, Back Bay Books, have it that Say You’re One of Them has already drained the USA’s greater Hudson industrial region of ink, since the choice was inadvertently revealed by US book distributors Ingram late last week.
OK, that’s not true, but Say You’re One of Them already features on Amazon.com’s front page, and it’s fair to guess that sales will now jump from the thousands to the hundreds of thousands.
The fact that Akpan is now “made” is also official; his smiling face has just appeared in that most coveted of literary spaces, Oprah’s own website:
In his own words, Uwem Akpan shares a glimpse at where he came from, what inspired him to become a writer and why he always looks forward to returning home.
I was born under a palm-wine tree in Ikot Akpan Eda in Ikot Ekpene Diocese in Nigeria. I was inspired to write by the people who sit around my village church to share palm wine after Sunday Mass, by the Bible and by the humor and endurance of the poor.
My grandfather was one of those who brought the Catholic Church to our village. I was ordained as a Jesuit priest in 2003, and I like to celebrate the sacraments for my fellow villagers. Some of them have no problem stopping me in the road and asking for confession!
This marks the first time that Oprah has selected a work of short stories for her club. One of the stories, “The Offering: Chokra Love”, has also been posted to Oprah.com:
That hot Kenyan Saturday afternoon, I was thirsty and exhausted as I returned from my routine walk into the endless Kibera slums. Into the valleys and over the hills covered by shanties, I plodded through the maze of busy dirt roads. I was angry with myself for venturing too far and was running late for lunch at Hekima College, the Jesuit seminary where I was studying for the priesthood. My T-shirt was drenched in sweat, and my flip-flops were covered by brown dust. I usually dressed down to fit into the slum crowd. Also I seldom spoke to anybody, so my Nigerian accent wouldn’t betray me. There were lots of artisans hammering away on scrap metals, and the roads were hemmed in by petty traders’ mats, selling tomatoes and used clothes and sukuma-wiki. But my mind was on the lunch of Nile perch, rice, and ugali.
Suddenly someone was running behind me. I braced myself, instinctively sticking my hands into my pockets to guard my wallet. A boy ran past, stopped and turned to face me. He was a street kid, a chokora, about 7 years old and hungry-looking. He wore brown shorts and an oversize yellow shirt that had lost its buttons; when he ran the shirt spread out behind him like malformed wings. He had big eyes and his face was dusty as if he had been sand-bathing all day. He was holding something in a white dirty soggy paper cup. He held the cup high. Occasionally, he took a sip or pretended to take a sip, then wiped his mouth with a long tongue, which created a clean circle in his dusty face, a mustache of sorts.
Akpan’s book is Oprah’s 63rd selection; the title joins books by the likes of Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Maeve Binchy, Isabel Allende, Gabriel García Márquez and – believe it or not – Alan Paton, whose Cry, the Beloved Country was a 2003 selection.
Needless to say, the selection will change Akpan’s life as a writer – and hopefully, his book will be the proverbial rising tide that lifts all of African literature. Heartiest, heartiest congratulations to him from BOOK SA!