New York, My Village… Biafra from another minority’s lens
Florida-based Nigerian writer, Uwem Akpan, has mastered the art of writing about pain. This is self-evident in his first work, a collection of short stories, Say You’re One of Them, a fictional account set in troubled places in Africa that had the world enthralled about this emerging talent. Now with his new work, New York, My Village, Akpan has come out with a work that will rattle many in Nigeria and New York City in its brutal frankness and clinical postmortem of a war that happened some 50 years ago and the dire fate of minorities within the Biafran enclave. But it goes beyond that war to also look at the great New York metropolis and racism in publishing and how the city is all too human to fall prey to some of man’s many foibles that, put on scale, equate the simple villager with the sophisticated city dweller. This interview is heralding a series that is exclusive to AnoteArtHub and The Guardian on Sunday, as Akpan tours the world to promote his new book.
Congratulations on the launch of your new book, New York, My Village. It’s some 13 years since you published your last collection of short stories, Say You’re One of Them. Why did it take you so long to come out with another offering?
WELL, what took me so long? I don’t know. Maybe I underestimated the task. At some point, I was so depressed because of what I discovered about the Nigerian Civil War. Biafra fought two simultaneous wars—one against Nigeria, one against the minorities within Biafra. We were being crushed, to accept Biafra. New York, My Village is about this second war—what Biafra did to the minorities, how the Igbos turned against their hapless neighbours. The book is also about race in American publishing. I also like to say, there was also the crippling fear whether I could write anything near Say You’re One of Them. It’s been a difficult time for me really.
Say You’re One of Them received rave reviews and endorsement from many eminent cultural figures, like Oprah. How did that experience particularly shape your creative impulse?
It was wonderful to be so celebrated. But as I have said, it also frightened me. I even hid from some friends who couldn’t understand the “delay.”
And then CNN went to Ikot Akpan Eda, your village, in Akwa Ibom State. If I remember correctly, they interviewed your parents…
Yes, they did come to my village. It solved a lot of problems for me. Because before then, many Nigerians did not believe I was even from this country. Journalists were going to Ikot Akpan Eda to ask my mom whether she was actually my mother, whether she gave birth to a son in 1971, whether I truly began primary school at Saint Paul’s, Ekparakwa.
Yes. Part of the confusion was that my stories were set in Kenya, Rwanda, Ethiopia, etc. I was living in Zimbabwe and Michigan and Spokane and Nebraska, all in the US. Fellow Nigerian writers did not even know me. I got to know strange people were travelling to Akwa Ibom State to ask my mother questions because she panicked and phoned me one day and asked why all these people were coming to ask about me. I immediately asked her not to talk to anybody, in case they were kidnappers…! Everybody stayed in their lanes once CNN hit Ikot Akpan Eda.
With CNN and Oprah Winfrey spotlighting you, how much strain did that weight of expectation put on you? It’s taken 13 years for you to come up with another book. Were you anxious as the years dragged by without a title from you?
I was a mess. But, you see, even when we cannot pray, the Spirit takes over, as the Bible says. With the painful, heavy material before me, I didn’t always see the road. I wanted to give the world an album of sorts, a book to help people deal with this complex world.
Does New York, My Village answer to that weight of expectation from your readers?
I don’t know, but I am happy, so happy. Relieved. It’s published. It’s in my name. We move.
You said on Facebook and Instagram that the Strand, the iconic, #1 bookstore in New York chose the book as the ‘Pick of the Month for November 2021.’ Greenlight Bookstore, which I understand is the #2 bookstore in that city, has also picked it. I also read somewhere it’s an Editor’s pick at Amazon. This must be overwhelming for you…
What were the chances that I would write about New York City and their best bookstores would love it or that Amazon would pick it?
But Say You’re One of Them was a New York Times and Wall Street Journal’s bestseller, which is not to be taken lightly, as not many writers get that special appellation for their books. Maybe, at this point, I should ask you what exactly it means to you now or back then…
It was crazy to see my book go that far! It was my agent who sent me the news in 2009. Back then I didn’t know how to look for these things. I didn’t pay attention. Yes, I have been blessed in many ways. I was happy a lot of people read the book.
It’s a bit of a paradox that Ekong, your protagonist, juxtaposes his village in Akwa Ibom State with the great New York City. What exactly should readers expect from this new offering? What informed the choice of title?
One, I wanted a catchy, gripping title and I think this does it. Two, though New York City is a mega, sprawling city, these folks are human beings like the villagers in Isokoland or Annangland. Three, I wanted to talk about the different villages within that city. Four, I wanted our Nigerian readers or readers from developing countries to see that New York City is as helpless as some rural villages when it comes to certain issues. Nobody is an expert on how to be human.
I am quite interested in your Biafran War story. Up till now, the Igbos have completely dominated that narrative…
Yes, they’ve been blessed with powerful writers like Chinua Achebe, Chimamanda Adichie, Chinelo Okparanta, etc., and an army of Biafran War scholars, you know… I think, like you, most Nigerians would be interested in knowing what happened to our minorities in Biafra. I am just happy that after 50 years, I have been able to do it my way. I say my way because I am not the first minority to write about the Biafran War.
How do you think the Igbos would react to the Biafran atrocities against our minorities in your book?
Most of them think they alone suffered in the war… but, Professor Okey Ndibe, a foremost Igbo intellectual, novelist and essayist, really asked great questions at the Rain Taxi interview a day after the book came out.
Okey was really brilliant. That’s an example of someone who is listening, someone who can empathize. I sincerely believe it would be to the benefit of our Igbo brothers and sisters to listen. Knowledge is a good thing. The Igbos themselves are a people who believe in diversity. We cannot say it enough: the Igbo suffered a lot in the war—but they, too, can learn. Biafra was an unqualified evil in minority lands. They just plundered the place, raping men and women. They looked down on us. We were nothing to them. Many of them still look down on us today… otherwise, how do you explain this so-called map of the new Biafra that still includes minority lands? Who told them the Isokos want to be in Biafra? Have they asked your people?
I must say some Igbos are converting from this colonialist mindset. Many really helped me with research, especially in Igboland. Some of them risked a lot to take me around. They did this because they know, they believe that there is a reason the minorities are not jumping on the new Biafran bandwagon. Some Igbos were even begging me to write about Biafra, because some saw me as someone who knows how to write about pain, having read Say You’re One of Them. They wanted me to write about the pain of Biafra.
My Tiv friends also wanted me to write about how the Fulani herdsmen are killing them and grabbing their lands. So it’s not only the Igbos that could learn. Nobody is happy in this country. As you know, many groups don’t want to be in this country anymore. Nigeria is dying. Everybody is challenged in the book, including white people because the book is set in America.
I must tell you right away, the Annangs, Efiks, Ibibios, Orons, Ogonis, etc., who’ve read the book are quite happy to see their towns and languages and their war dilemmas and atrocities in the book. Why should we remain fringe characters or nameless “saboteurs” in these narratives? Look, Biafra was no better than Nigeria in raping and torturing and killing our peoples…We’ve been erased from the war narrative for so long. As long as you keep writing about the war as a fight between the Yorubas and Hausas and Igbos (the three major ethnic groups), the Igbos remain the victims. But as soon as widen this lens to include the minorities, at least in Biafra, then the story becomes complicated. You begin to see that the Igbos might have had their knee on our neck even while being crushed by the horrible Nigeria army.
You teach creative writing at the University of Florida. Many Nigerian writers like Helon Habila, Chigozie Obioma, Chika Unigwe, E.C. Osondu also teach at various American universities. Wouldn’t you rather be doing so in a Nigerian university, to leave a legacy among your country’s young men and women?
The universities in Nigeria at this point do not have MFA programmes. Which is a pity because Nigerians are very gifted. You need that structure and dedication. Our youths are flocking to MFA programmes in the U.S. Most of them are on scholarships here… What Nigerian writers like Helon Habila, Chigozie Obioma, Chimamanda Adichie have done is to run annual workshops…
Any plans for you to do the same for the teeming young people who need mentorship in that direction?
Someone still has to sponsor that workshop.
Do you have a Nigerian publisher for New York, My Village for the local audience?
Parresia is my publisher. I believe they will know what to do with the book. I’ve had a very good conversation with Azafi Omoluabi, the owner of Parresia. She was very down to earth and kind and full of ideas. I visited their office in Ikeja five months ago.
When do you plan to visit Nigeria to promote your new work, New York, My Village?
I don’t know yet.
• Ajeluorou is the publisher of online art/culture platform, AnoteArtHub (www.anotearthub.com).