Uwem Akpan was born in Ikot Akpan Eda in southern Nigeria; his parents were teachers. He and his three brothers grew up speaking both English and Annang. After studying humanities and philosophy from Creighton and Gonzaga universities, he got a theology degree from the Catholic University of East Africa in Kenya. Uwem is also a graduate of the University of Michigan's MFA program.

In 2009 Oprah Winfrey recommended Uwem Akpan's Say You’re One of Them as her 63rd influential book club selection. Akpan said he was humbled to learn his debut collection of short stories had caught Winfrey's eye. Winfrey said that Say You're One of Them (published by Little, Brown, 2008), "left [her] stunned and profoundly moved." The five short stories give voice to an African child growing up in the face of incredible adversity.

Entertainment Weekly put the book on its end-of-the-decade "best-of" list, saying: "Against all odds, the Nigerian priest's searing African stories from 2008 imparted both joy and hope."