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Uwem Akpan: The first post-Oprah interview

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We had a chance to chat briefly this afternoon with Uwem Akpan, the Nigerian-born Jesuit priest whose short story collection, Say You’re One Of Them, was anointed by Oprah hours ago as her next Book Club pick.

Do I call you Father Akpan?

Actually, you call me Father Uwem.

Father Uwem, how do you reconcile two powerful callings — that of being a priest and that of being a writer?

They both require time and commitment and energy. But when you are writing fiction, you can set your characters aside. I can’t manipulate the people of my parish. If someone needs counseling, they need counseling. If someone is dead, they need to be buried. But the two callings also go together. For anyone to be a success on the pulpit, they must be a storyteller: They are using words to get into the heart of the congregation. Don’t forget that Jesus was a priest and a poet.

Are you currently on a church posting?

Yes, I have a parish in Lagos.

Does the church vet your writing?

I have permission to write, but I do not need an imprimatur from the church — that is more for people who are writing about theology and philosophy. They see that I am writing fiction and assume it is made up. I suppose it’s possible one day they could pose questions.

Are you working on another book yet?

Not yet. My parish has been very busy.

What kinds of books do you like to read?

I read the Bible a lot — other than that I am very eclectic. The stories from the Bible still amaze and baffle me. I especially like reading the Old Testament.

How did it feel when you learned Oprah had picked your book?

I couldn’t tell anyone because the contract was so full of confidentiality agreements. It was surreal. I’m very, very humbled by all of it.

Thank you, Father Uwem.

No, thank you. Entertainment Weekly has been very good to me.