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In ‘New York, My Village,’ the long shadow of Nigeria’s civil war is impossible to escape


Arguably the most powerful tale in Uwem Akpan’s debut, a collection of short stories titled “Say You’re One of Them,” was set in his native Nigeria amid ghastly sectarian violence. All the more exciting, then, that the author’s first novel, “New York, My Village,” should feature a Nigerian encumbered by the legacy of his country’s 1967-1970 civil war.

That protagonist and narrator is Ekong, the managing editor of a small publishing house in Nigeria who travels to New York for a publishing fellowship to learn more about the industry and edit an anthology by Nigerian writers. During his four-month stay, he contends with bedbugs at his Hell’s Kitchen apartment and finds himself thrust into one misadventure after another. A few such experiences give rise to insightful takes on American culture, yet in the aggregate, the material comes across as meager and undernourished, especially when compared to a substantive Nigeria-set backstory that catalyzes the novel.

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The backstory is the Nigerian Civil War. For Ekong’s Catholic family and others who lost loved ones to that conflict, it is forever symbolized by their having held “burial Masses using pants and shoes and shirts in place of bodies,” which had been made to disappear. The minorities of Nigeria’s Delta region, including Ekong’s people, the Annang, had found themselves within the Republic of Biafra, a secessionist state declared by ethnic Igbos. Throughout the resulting grisly conflict between Nigeria and the Igbos, the latter persecuted those Delta minorities, such as the Annang, they deemed disloyal. The aggrieved Ekong observes that the war, during which he was an infant and from which Nigeria emerged victorious, is “still raging within us” 50 years later.

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Indeed, Ekong’s name means “war” in the Annang language, and the anthology he’s editing is by minority writers scarred by the conflict. Ekong’s own father fell victim to Igbo oppression. His harrowing fate, which Ekong recounts to his editor in chief in New York, gives the novel an early jolt. But we hear nothing more of him. And the tantalizingly murky past of Father Kiobel, Ekong’s parish priest in Nigeria’s Annangland, who is rumored to have served as a child soldier on the Igbo side, is repeatedly hinted at and then dropped.

Instead, Akpan, who lives in Gainesville, Fla., and teaches creative writing at the University of Florida, busies himself with Ekong’s trials and tribulations in New York. Some of these are very funny. The more dramatic ones, however, often involve an oblique bigotry that incongruously veers toward overt racism, such as when Ekong’s affable Black neighbor Keith suddenly, during a nonconfrontational exchange, begins spewing anti-African vitriol.

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That said, Akpan deftly reveals how racism heightens Ekong’s suspicions and clouds his judgment. Consider the priest in New Jersey who tells him and his Annang friends not to return for Mass the following week because otherwise “more Blacks will be here, and our church will be even more divided.” Together with less-incendiary encounters, this rebuff leads Ekong, already self-conscious and sensitive, to second-guess everything. Are his colleagues at the publishing house, one of whom he’s informed of the bedbugs, going to think that he brought them from Africa? “I just wanted to be accused of having the same bedbugs as the rest of NYC,” he laments.

With time, Ekong becomes attuned to an intriguing paradox of his host country. American cultural omnivorousness, which is pronounced in the realms of cuisine and music, remains hostage to a decidedly provincial rider: For something of foreign provenance to gain traction, it must undergo Americanization. Hence Ekong’s humorous yet telling dilemma concerning how to ensure that the West African meal he cooks for Thanksgiving will find favor with his neighbors. “Would these American friends of mine even eat any of this?” he muses. “The word jollof might even scare them, I worried, though it was one of the most popular West African dishes worldwide! . . . What if I called jollof rice Kelly King Rice, or Better Than Sex Rice?”

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There’s something ironic about this. Akpan, who good-naturedly pokes fun at Ekong’s clumsy yet endearing attempts to squeeze all things Nigerian through an American filter, employs the same artifice in constructing his novel’s narrative. Why transplant Ekong to the United States? Surely because by doing so, the author can envelop a putatively alien West African war story in a familiar American setting.

More troubling than apparently unintended irony is that Akpan’s stratagem doesn’t imbue him with enough confidence to give free rein to that historical war story in any of the fictionalized iterations with which he toys. Only toward the end of a novel gravid with the ghosts of Biafra do a couple of them, including Father Kiobel’s, finally burst forth. They prove as shuddersome as that of Ekong’s father. But it’s too late. By this point, we cannot banish the disturbing impression that the chronicle of Ekong’s sojourn in New York is a literary interloper usurping the deserving story’s place.

Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer and book critic in Malta.

New York, My Village

By Uwem Akpan

W.W. Norton. 404 pp. $27.95

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