Nigerian author Uwem Akpan is a professor at the University of Florida, a former Jesuit priest, and author of the story collection Say You're One of Them, a 2008 best-seller. His debut novel, New York, My Village, is now out in paperback.
The Man Died: Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka by Wole Soyinka (1971)
When I was 15, Mama forced this on me in Ikot Akpan Eda, Nigeria. She thought I was "all over the place" and needed to sit still. I toiled daily without understanding. At 24, I returned to this prison memoir and discovered a masterpiece on human rights and the effects of tribalism. I met Soyinka in 2009 and couldn't meet his eyes because of tears of gratitude. Buy it here.
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway (1952)
Still 15, I quit reading this novel halfway through and dropped out of literature class. I concluded Americans couldn't tell stories! Where was their Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Ben Okri, or Mariama Ba? But after I met my dad for the first time at age 25 in Texas, Hemingway helped me count my gains and losses, and taught me how to write pain. I've since been to the Hemingway Museum in Key West many times to say thank you. Buy it here.
An American Childhood by Annie Dillard (1987)
I first read this in 1992 in Ibadan, Nigeria. Dillard knows the heart of a child and captures its horrors and joys beautifully. She was the first writer I ever wrote to thank. Buy it here.
A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain by Robert Olen Butler (1992)
A Vietnamese friend gave this to me in Spokane, Washington, because of my fascination with Vietnamese culture and food. I didn't understand how Butler could write like this about another culture until years later, when I started writing about other African countries and America. I finally emailed Butler to thank him just last year. Buy it here.
Collected Stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer (1981)
I love the freedom and humor with which Singer handles religion. He's one reason I went to the synagogue in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to experience the lovely liturgy of the Jews. Yet my gratitude is always lined with guilt: We Christians have discriminated against Jews despite the fact they gave us God. Buy it here.
Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke (1929)
Pure grace. Reading it allowed me to mature slowly into the writer I am today: a writer of painful things. I recommend this nonstop to my students. Buy it here.
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