Acclaimed visiting author asks and answers, ‘What language is that?’

Sasha Weilbaker, Staff Writer

Nigerian writer Uwem Akpan captivated his audience on Feb. 13 as he read an excerpt from his short story called “What Language is That?” in the Willard Smith Library. “What Language is That?” is part of “Say You’re One of Them”, a collection of five short stories Akpan published in 2008.

Akpan was brought to campus by Assistant Professor of English & Creative Writing Chinelo Okparanta. His collection has garnered several accolades since its publication, including the Commonwealth Writer’ Prize, the Beyond Margins Award, as well as a selection for Oprah’s Book Club.

“What Language is That?” is a story written in second-person perspective about two 6-year-old girls of different faiths in Ethiopia and the rifts their religious beliefs cause in their relationship. Although Akpan is Nigerian, he expressed how he wanted to set one of the stories in his collection near the Horn of Africa.

Before deciding where to set his story, he had already figured out the plot, which features the two main characters talking from balconies across the street from each other. He explained that Ethiopia was his ideal location for the story because the streets were narrow enough for the girls to talk to each other.

After deciding that he was going to set his story in Ethiopia, he visited the country for a month to do research.

“I definitely liked how the author stressed the difficulty in writing a story from a setting where you’re not from. It takes actual research and visitation to have the reader to be fully immersed in the most accurate setting possible,” Bobby Cao ’18 said.

During the Q&A session after the reading, Associate Professor of English Robert Rosenberg asked Akpan if he had any advice on plot for his students in the audience. Akpan said that his philosophy is to “give the key characters a desire” and then “give them a stumbling block to that desire.”

Akpan compared his philosophy on plot to the 1975 film “Jaws” and the 1997 film “Titanic.” In “Jaws”, the main desire of the characters was to go to the beach, however, the plot of the story revolved around the addition of the shark, which was the stumbling block. In “Titanic”, Jack and Rose want to be together, but their stumbling blocks are class difference and an iceberg.

Mara Vinnik ’19 said that her favorite part of the reading was “when he said that a story isn’t finished until people hear it.”

Information on upcoming speakers is available through the University Message Center as well as the Stadler Center for Poetry’s calendar of events.

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