Book Review|From a Small Nigerian Tribe to a Big American Publishing House
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- Nov. 2, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET
NEW YORK, MY VILLAGE
By Uwem Akpan
It is intolerable to find the colony of Ikot Ituno-Ekanem, location to the Annang people successful the Niger Delta, connected the internet. This is wherever Ekong Udousoro, the protagonist of Uwem Akpan’s debut novel, “New York, My Village,” is from. When we conscionable Ekong, helium is simply a erstwhile prof and managing exertion successful Uyo, Nigeria, successful the process of acquiring a visa to question to New York for a fellowship, named aft Toni Morrison, astatine the fictional publishing location Andrew & Thompson. There, helium is to edit an anthology connected the Biafran War that volition bring the atrocities committed against his radical to a greater audience.
Akpan is precise successful balancing his main character’s (at times) naïve optimism with his reader’s cognition of people and race-based homogeneity successful Western publishing. It is with a wince and a laughter that 1 reads Ekong’s prediction: “It was to beryllium my archetypal clip successful America. I had seen a batch of America connected TV and spoke American English, truthful it was not going to beryllium that complicated.” But to summarize the publication arsenic a satire connected New York’s publishing manufacture belittles its aims. Before helium gets to the titular city, Ekong is doubly denied for a visa due to the fact that helium cannot beryllium the beingness of his people oregon the warfare crimes it has survived, prompting uncertainty from embassy officials astir the legitimacy of his task successful New York. “What benignant of state successful the 21st period cannot adjacent number its taste groups?” helium wonders. “How bash you cognize who is who? Does the terms for the deficiency of this basal cognition person to beryllium being mistakenly slaughtered on with others? How does 1 go a minority? How does 1 halt being a minority?”
The reply to that last question is the book’s success. Akpan’s introspection of the publishing manufacture serves little to mock and much to illustration the ways successful which communicative is indispensable successful the forming of taste groups. Various characters are often asked to constitute memoirs that would situate their identities successful trauma, a precept Akpan steadfastly rejects. This is simply a publication successful which African American spirituals are dubbed “ultra-sad songs astir slavery,” and which alternatively encourages literate holism. Ekong’s 600-page anthology, similar this caller itself, extends sympathy to some Annangs and Biafrans, encompassing texts by Chinua Achebe, S.E. Orobator, Brig. Gen. Godwin Alabi-Isama and others.
That is not to accidental that Akpan envisions cosmopolitan harmony — interpersonal connections go analyzable by tightly held taste and radical ideologies. Ekong’s relationships astatine location and overseas are continually mislaid and regained arsenic characters navigate 1 another’s differing taste identities. Keith, his African American neighbour successful New York, rapidly conflates his experiences with those of Black Africans; and Molly, the white-passing steadfast of Andrew & Thompson, makes efforts toward diversification that sometime manifest arsenic microaggressions themselves. Ekong’s matrimony to Caro, backmost successful Nigeria, is strained by her grandfather’s treachery successful the war. Most strikingly, determination is Ujai, the American-raised girl of Ekong’s puerility friend, who represents “our Black diaspora burning astatine some ends.”
Ekong’s find that helium is the lone Black idiosyncratic successful his bureau — “it was arsenic though I myself had go darker” — reads overmuch similar Frantz Fanon’s declaration that a Black kid “will go abnormal connected the slightest interaction with the achromatic world.” But New York feels “so global, truthful democratic, arsenic though each these lights had already boiled and refined each psyche down to indispensable humanity.” Food is the large leveler that restores halfway compassion, and the book’s denouement takes spot connected Thanksgiving, erstwhile a shared repast heals wounds created by colonialism, racism and tribalism.
There are immoderate method faults successful the novel. Moments of wit are often mislaid to poorly structured sentences, an abundance of too-apt proverbs and monologued exposition. A amended edit mightiness person highlighted Akpan’s evident acquisition for characterization and arresting images. A Midtown Starbucks is lovingly compared to “the powerfully energetic paintings of my namesake, Ekong Emmanuel Ekefrey”; Ekong’s white-suited landlord appears “like an ovum sunny-side up connected the curb.” It is simply a shame specified ceremonial imaginable is not much cautiously honed.
Still, “New York, My Village” succeeds successful making the too-rare reflection that individuality exists not arsenic a fixed, idiosyncratic thing, but successful narration to others, and frankincense is perpetually shifting. To those who hide this, Akpan extends a extent of kindness and forgiveness that gives this sometimes frustrating, but yet illuminating, publication its consciousness of hope.