deliberation, care, artistry

18Apr08

The approach that Nigerian author and Jesuit priest Uwem Akpan takes to his short stories, of which I have read none, was revelatory. Susan Felch, a Calvin professor of English, told her own story about Akpan’s presence at the Festival of Faith and Writing: “About a year ago, I was thumbing through the New Yorker. I read the first paragraph, stopped thumbing and started reading. And after I finished the story, I sat in silence for a while and then rushed in to Shelly and said, “I have no idea who this person is, but we have to have him here.” (“Shelly” is Shelly LeMahieu Dunn, the festival director.)

Akpan makes very deliberate choices in his storytelling, which is somewhat surprising. My impression of fiction writing is that it is rightly grows from intuition rather than calculation. Akpan, however, makes very careful choices about his characters, his plots and his devices — such as deciding that the girl who witnesses his father murdering her mother with a machete can be no more than 10 years old. His reasons for these choices are very carefully considered, and this deliberation may slow his work by months or years. He gave this reasoning for his portrayal of the murderous father: “There is no story if the man always hated the woman and hated the children… .What would push him to the wall to make him do this?”

Akpan’s own motive seems to be that he cares so deeply. He wants to accurately represent his characters, while telling true stories life in Africa. Toward the end of his talk, he gave this reason for his intensive research: “I want to be sure I have not gone to another country and colonized the people.”

He talked about his experiences with street children in Kenya: “I realized that people were not seeing them anymore.” He talked about his approach to characterization: “My belief is that people are complex, to say the least.”

And when Professor Felch casked him why his work partook of none of his professed love of the biblical miraculous, he explained thus: “Christ came and suffered terribly and died. And it’s become very hard for people to accept this, that God would allow his Son to go through this… People suffer.” He also offered by way of elucidation Jesus’ saying to his would-be apostles, “‘Come and see.’ Once you have seen, if you can unsee–fine.

And as cognizant as he is of being a faithful witness to his readership, Akpan seems, above all to be holding his work up to the witness of heaven. At some point in his talk, I was struck by the thought that he went about his work as though he were celebrating a sacrament. Maybe for a Christian, that is the ultimate artistry.

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