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Oprah picks African story collection: 'Say You're One of Them' by Uwem Akpan

September 18, 2009 |  8:16 am

Oprahsayyoureoneofthem Oprah Winfrey, whose book club selection has been known to shoot sales numbers into the stratosphere -- call it the Eat Pray Love Effect -- chose a collection of short stories by Nigerian native Uwem Akpan today.  "Say You're One of Them" is the debut book by Akpan, a Jesuit priest who studied creative writing at the University of Michigan.

The book's stories are set in Africa, and are often told from a child's point of view. "Say You're One of Them" was a finalist for the 2008 Los Angeles Times Festival of Books' Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction -- as was another Oprah Book Club pick, David Wroblewski's "The Story of Edgar Sawtelle." (Has she read "Finding Nouf" by Zoe Ferraris yet? That book took our award).

While popular wisdom in the publishing industry is that short story collections don't sell, Akpan found a major publisher (Little, Brown) which supported his debut. On his website, Akpan writes about the very different world where the stories began:

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 humour and endurance of the poor.

Growing up, my mother told me folktales and got me and my three brothers to read a lot. I became a fiction writer during my seminary days. I wrote at night, when the community computers were free. Computer viruses ate much of my work.

Finally, my friend Wes Harris believed in me enough to get me a laptop. This saved me from the despair of losing my stories and made me begin to see God again in the seminary. The stories I saved on that first laptop are the core of Say You're One of Them.

The idea of Oprah moving to engage her audience with both a short story collection and with fiction set in Africa is certainly welcome among literary types. Most of them, anyway. "['Say You're One of Them'] only reinforces Western stereotypes about Africa -- that it is a wasteland of child soldiers, poverty, and corruption," Rob Spillman, the editor of "Gods and Soldiers: The Penguin Anthology of Contemporary African Fiction," writes in the Huffington Post. "While there are serious problems in much of Africa, this is not the only reality."

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Oprah Winfrey. Credit: Kevork Djansezian / Associated Press

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