Bedbugs, Biafra and Being Black: A review of Uwem Akpan’s “New York My Village” – Sylva Nze Ifedigbo
New York My Village | Parresia Publishers, 2022 | 481
The decision not to teach our history and particularly the effort to subdue conversations around the Nigeria civil war continues to do a great disservice to the country and her future. Thankfully several writers, of fiction, essays and biographies have filled the void with am impressive array of writings that has documented the three-year war from which Nigeria is still to recover. The latest addition to that body of work that has interrogated the ghosts of that war is New York My Village, the debut novel by celebrated Nigerian writer Uwem Akpan, author of the very successful Say You Are One Of Them. This new book brings something extra to the table of the civil war discussion by travelling a route less taken, shining the spotlight on the experiences of minority ethnic groups in Biafra and bringing to the fore, for the first time, at least to this reader, the bloody ethnic conflict that ragged at this period, the memories of which like the war itself, still haunts and which will continue to shape the dynamics of peace in the country, over fifty years after the war.
At the centre of this narrator led story is Ekong Udousoro, an editor. When we meet him, he is in the process of obtaining a visa to travel to the United States for a short fellowship named after Toni Morrison, at Andrew & Thompson, a publishing house in New York where he would be editing an anthology of stories about the Biafran war from the perspective of minority ethnic groups. The anthology’s aim is to highlight their experiences, or better put, the atrocities committed against them by Biafran forces, and bring this to a wider audience.
The process of obtaining the US visa soon turns into an insulting and condescending experience, not for the more popular reasons for which Nigerians are quite familiar, but because he was from a minority ethnic group, Annang, the existence of which he must convincingly prove to the embassy officials. If there are doubts about the existence of his people strong enough to have gotten his visa request rejected twice, how then was Ekong going to prove that any atrocities were even committed against them during the said war?
In many ways the embassy experience defined all of the book; the existence of minorities, the embarrassing ignorance about minorities and the validity of the experiences of minorities. This is true in various contexts as Ekong will find after going over that hurdle and finding himself in New York for the fellowship. From here, the anthology he is editing becomes more of a backdrop as he confronts many other situations that aligns with or amplifies, the very experience his anthology is about.
Ekong will fall in love quickly with Times Square and Starbucks. His colleagues at Andrew & Thompson where he would discover he is the only black person are warm, and wave their ‘anti-racist’ credentials but his relationship with them will soon unmask the racial prejudices through which Akpan puts a mirror on the racial politics of publishing and how racism is often masked with progressive rhetoric. In one exchange between Ekong and Jack, a colleague in the marketing department (and there are many such to savour), he is accused of not being conversant enough about American culture to edit American stories to which Ekong agrees but adds in a spectacular clapback “But you guys have been editing African fiction, no?”
As topical and serious as the themes explored in the book are, Akpan delivers them with humour. Ekong is sometimes presented as naïve or even parochial in his reaction to events. He battles bedbugs in his New York ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ apartment. The description of the itch the infestation brings is so vivid, the reader will feel some itch. These bedbugs will play a role in cutting through the racial tension between Ekong and his neighbours and help create some of the more cheering experiences for him like the meal shared at Thanksgiving. The humour in Ekong’s narration also comes through in the other discoveries he makes as he navigates his host country with a number of incidences that would have revealing implications for his close-knit community back home in Nigeria who are also struggling to come to terms with their individual traumas.
A rather, long ‘Acknowledgement’ at the end of the work, helps to set the author’s thinking in context and gives a glimpse into the research that went into the book. With New York My Village, Akpan with brutal honesty, helps tell the largely untold civil war story of the many ethnicities of the Niger Delta who for the most part had it rough from both sides, largely because of the prize their land held – crude oil. With most of the active participants in that war now gone or in the ‘departure lounge’ of life, this book also draws some attention to how the war continues to shape the lives of the offspring of those who lived through the war, how the trauma, so largely buried in silence, is as real for them as it is for the Igbo, and how this wound that has been left to fester, has dire consequences for how we tackle our existential challenges of today be it the continued agitation in some quarters for Biafra or in how we are dealing with the terrorism and banditry by murderous Fulani herdsmen.
–Sylva Nze Ifedigbo, creative writer and social commentator is the author of Believers and Hustlers. He is available on social media at @nzesylva.