NEW YORK, MY VILLAGE
By Uwem Akpan
The village of Ikot Ituno-Ekanem, home of the Annang tribe in the Niger Delta, cannot be found on the Internet. This is where Ekong Udousoro comes from, the protagonist of Uwem Akpan’s debut novel “New York, My Village”. When we meet Ekong, he is a former professor and senior editor in Uyo, Nigeria, who is in the process of obtaining a New York entry visa for a Toni Morrison scholarship at the fictional publisher Andrew & Thompson. There he will publish an anthology on the Biafran War that will bring the atrocities committed against his people closer to a wider audience.
Akpan precisely balances the (sometimes) naive optimism of his main character with his readers’ knowledge of class and race-based homogeneity in Western publishing. With a twitch and a laugh, one reads Ekong’s prediction: “It was supposed to be my first time in America. I’d seen a lot of America on TV and spoke American English, so it wasn’t going to be that complicated. ”But to summarize the book as a satire of the New York publishing industry diminishes its aims. Before he reaches the title town, Ekong is refused a visa twice because he cannot prove the existence of his tribe or survived war crimes, which causes embassy officials to doubt the legitimacy of his project in New York. “Which country cannot even count its ethnic groups in the 21st century?” He wonders. “How do you know who is who? Must be the price for not having this basic knowledge mistakenly slaughtered together with others? How do you become a minority? How do you stop being a minority? “
The answer to this last question is the success of the book. Akpan’s investigation into publishing is less a mockery than a demonstration of the essential importance of narrative for the formation of cultural groups. Various characters are often asked to write memoirs that locate their identities in trauma, a command that Akpan persistently rejects. This is a book that calls African American spirituals “ultra-sad songs about slavery” and instead promotes literary holism. Ekong’s 600-page anthology, like this novel itself, is sympathetic to both Annangs and Biafrans and includes texts by Chinua Achebe, HE Orobator, Brig. Gen. General Godwin Alabi-Isama, and others.
This is not to say that Akpan envisions universal harmony – interpersonal connections are complicated by entrenched ethnic and racial ideologies. Ekong’s domestic and international relationships are constantly being lost and regained as the characters navigate each other’s diverse cultural identities. Keith, his African American neighbor in New York, quickly associates his experiences with those of black Africans; and Molly, the white-paced editor of Andrew & Thompson, pursues diversification that sometimes manifests itself as microaggression. Ekong’s marriage to Caro, back in Nigeria, is strained by her grandfather’s betrayal in the war. Most noticeable is Ujai, the daughter of Ekong’s childhood friends, who grew up in the USA and represents “our black diaspora, which is burning at both ends”.