Exclusive Interview: “New York, My Village” Author Uwem Akpan
Many years ago, Uwem Akpan had a terrible time in New York City. And it wasn’t just because of the bedbugs where he was staying. But rather than vow never to return, and curse the city until his last breath, Akpan decided to write a dark but satirical novel about someone else going through the same thing…and more. In the following email interview, Akpan discusses the impetus of, and influences on, his first novel, New York, My Village (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook).
To begin, what is New York, My Village about, and when and where in New York does it take place?
My crazy novel is about Ekong Udousoro, a Nigerian editor from the Annang ethnic group, a minority. He comes to a publishing house in New York City for four months to improve on his knowledge on publishing. While here, he’s also supposed to edit a minority anthology of the Biafran War, the ethnic war that ravaged his country in the late sixties before he was born. He runs into serious racism in NYC. He’s struggling between this racism in American publishing and the tribalism in his country. He’s heartbroken that even his precious Catholic Church out here is steeped in racism. In the midst of all these, he’s fighting an endless bedbug infestation in Hell’s Kitchen and negotiating daily life with his white, African American, Latino, and Asian American neighbors. He tries to make the best of his stay. This is also a book that explores both Nigerian and American food and the wonderful ethnic restaurants in NYC.
Is there a reason why you set it in New York City as opposed to Los Angeles or Boston or some small town?
I chose New York City because of publishing. The place is the center of publishing.
But it’s funny, I once tried to set it in Las Vegas. Back then I called it Las Vegas, My Village. I was hoping to explore Vegas from a Nigerian immigrant’s perspective.
More importantly, is there a reason why you have Ekong going to Starbucks where there are way better coffee places in NYC?
Ha! I loooove Starbucks. This is just author privilege.
Wait, Paul, who told you there are better places? Anyway, you’re forgiven. I love Starbucks and having driven through the 48 states, I can’t remember the number of Starbucks I’ve visited. Sometimes, I go there to write. I wished they’re open all night, since I write at night for the most part.
Okay, clearly you’ve never been to La Lanterna di Vittorio down by Washington Square Park.
We Starbucks fans believe totally in Starbucks and its ambience…but okay, if I get to di Vittorio, I will send you a photo.
Cool. Anyway, as you said, in New York, My Village, Ekong has to deal with racism. Did you set out to tell a story that was socially and politically relevant or did you come up with the idea for this story and then, as you were writing it, realize it needed to have some social and political relevance?
I set out to write another bloody immigrant novel. And immigrant novels can’t do without politics, or can they? I wanted to make it a satire. Once I decided to set it in New York City, I knew I was going to go against big publishing. I was afraid because I worried powerful publishing might not want to be satirized as being horribly racist. But the George Floyd effect has reached them. All these publishing houses looking for black people to promote to key positions, where did they hope to find them when they’d refused to employ them for centuries? I must tell you I love this new awareness, but we have to watch out, lest we revert to the comfort of keeping this a white space.
So then where did you get the idea for New York, My Village?
Paul, many strands came together, things I’d wanted to write about for years, things that worried me. For example, I was born a year after the Biafran War, so I was overfed with its stories and “artifacts.” For example, my primary school, Saint Paul’s, Ekparakwa, Nigeria, had a mass grave behind it. It belonged to Biafran soldiers who were having their dinner in our classrooms, which they’d converted to barracks, when Nigerian forces lobbed in grenades. This mass grave had sunk in over time, but as six-year-old kids, which was my age when I started primary school, we used to play and wrestle in that field. Sometimes, it was really frightening and sad. It wasn’t uncommon for someone to rip a femur or rib from the earth and scream or run…this was my first lessons in anatomy. The war has remained too close to the surface in Nigeria, even today.
Two, after my first book [2008’s short story collection, Say You’re One Of Them] went through a protracted auction and I got to see the insides of all these big publishing houses, I knew one day I’d have to tackle the race issue in publishing.
Three, at my readings, people always ask about agents, how to submit stories to agents, what happens to the manuscript when the agent takes it to the publisher, etc., etc. So I knew there was a story there.
Four, when I lived in NYC as a Cullman Fellow in 2013/14, many things began to click.
Five, Oh Lord, struggling with bedbug infestation in New York City meant I’d finally found another kind of war, something to drive my readers crazy…so, yes, I guess you can say the book evolved. It began as an unpublished short story in 2014. And, of course, ha, the little business of rewriting and editing meant I had to rewrite so many times. I think I should be called a rewriter instead of a writer.
And don’t forget, too, I once tried to set the book in Las Vegas. Lots of evolution.
New York, My Village is your second book after your short story collection, Say You’re One Of Them. Are there any connections between Village and any of the stories in Them?
These are two vastly different books. I was quite happy I could try my hands at something else. But I wanted to write about an American city with the same intensity, the same promise and pain, I’d written about in our African cities. I wanted Americans, who seemed to have enjoyed my first book, to have a very personal experience of what I do to our African cities. I wanted to get Americans into the parts of New York they don’t usually want to see or don’t even know exist. For example, the bedbug infestation, which has shocked a lot of my New York friends. People in the developing world also need to learn of this version of New York City. And how many New Yorkers or Americans even know how insular American publishing is? How many can hear the silent screams of the few minorities in the system?
However, I must say that the child characters, Ujai and Igwat, who live in the Bronx, remind the readers of the child characters in Say You’re One Of Them. They bring real tenderness and vulnerability and heart to the story.
New York, My Village sounds serious, but the press materials say it’s also “hilarious,” and earlier you called it a satire. Is it funny? Or rather, did you try to make it funny?
It is a satire, so yes, some parts are hilarious and a lot of painful parts are written in a funny way. Some parts are just painful. No balm.
So, is the humor situational like in one of Kurt Vonnegut’s novels or is it more jokey like in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy?
It’s difficult for me to compare my work to anybody’s work, though Booklist has compared it to the works of Colson Whitehead and James McBride. I just wanted satire. I wanted the reader to laugh, I wanted the reader to cry, I wanted the writer to laugh and cry.
After I’d finished the book, I had this funny conversation with my wonderful editor, Alane Mason. We were trying to describe the tone of the book. I ended up calling it “laugh and cry and laugh and cry” tone. So, yes, Paul, of course, I’m handling serious stuff. But can you swear there were no moments that made you laugh? I believe writing pain without humor is painful. Writing pain with humor is more painful, because it means the characters have become comfortable with something they shouldn’t have to deal with in the first place. But, it seems to me, writing pain with satire takes it a cut closer to the bone. It could be really unsettling, which is what I wanted. Everybody gets a black eye in this book. If you survive the novel, my 25-page “Acknowledgements” hits you.
To be honest, I don’t think too much about tone when I begin to write. I just want to put a gripping story in the hands of my readers. I want to create the big moments and show the characters struggle with the consequences. I want my readers to keep turning the pages. I love Jaws. How are the people of the city of Amity Island going to get rid of this monster killer shark in their waters? But, in the midst of all the deaths and terror that this monster inflicts, I find myself laughing at some of the scenes and dialogue. And I love the characterization. Sometimes, I use clips from Jaws in my writing class. I can see the pain and sadness and shock on the faces of my students as we watch the shredded body of the first shark attack casualty. But, then, some of them are also shocked to catch themselves giggling a few scenes later! How can we replicate this sort of feeling in our writing? I tell them, if humor or satire is your thing, go for it. Develop your own style, see what comes naturally to you, figure out what each story needs. Everybody must not write satire or humor though.
This might be a moot question, but who do you see as being the biggest influences on the comedic aspects of New York, My Village?
My mother’s cousin, Sunday Akpan Unwa Ukpekpe. He was eternally funny. He was a bicycle repairer; he knew how to entertain his clients as they waited for their bikes to be fixed. He could take a real painful story and fictionalize into something else altogether. People even asked him to fictionalize painful or frightening historical events for them so they could laugh.
The thing is, there was a lot of humor in my Ikot Akpan Eda childhood. What’s a community without laughter? The catechist, Aloysius Udeme, was another crazy soul. We kids were happy to listen to his preaching, because he was very funny. Very. Then you had the cast of The New Masquerade, the best local TV show of my childhood. As I’ve said in my book, this comedy retaught Nigerians how to laugh again about ethnic jokes and stereotypes, after a very brutal ethnic war. I particularly love Chika Okpala as Chief Zebrudaya Okoroigwe Nwogbo alias 4:30. Of course, I can’t forget our ekpokpara masqueraders and ekong masqueraders. These two groups were like the tabloid of our villages. They were always gossiping about village life. All they did was sing and act and make fun of criminals and immorality as a way of entertaining the crowds. They brought so many hidden affairs to the open. I’ve never seen any American comedy audience so excited, so boisterous and edgy, as that of ekpokpara.
Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a particularly big influence on New York, My Village but not on anything else you’ve written?
Jaws. Jaws. Jaws. For years, I’d thought about what I could put in a story to do what that shark did in Jaws. I finally found it in the bedbugs of New York City, something to strike huge discomfort in my readers. I saw Jaws first as a movie before I learned it was first written as a novel by Peter Benchley. Two years ago, my neighbors in Gainesville, Florida, Trilla and Dave, told me how enthralled they were by the novel when it first came out in 1974. May Benchley’s soul rest in peace. And I hope I get to meet Stephen Spielberg one day, so I can bow to him. The changes he made between the book and movie were genius.
How about non-literary influences; was New York, My Village influenced by any movies or TV shows? Besides Jaws, of course.
I’ve always wanted to write a church scene as iconic as the baptism scenes in The Godfather. I think since I’ve not read the novel yet, I can classify this as a non-literary influence. Listen, I really love my New Jersey church scenes…I think folks will remember it. But, Paul, did you expect me not to praise myself?
I’ll allow it. Now, as you said, you lived in New York City in 2013 and 2014. It’s obvious how that would’ve influenced New York, My Village, but I’m more curious how you think that influence may have been affected by the fact that you haven’t lived there for years, as opposed to if you had written it while you were still living there?
You know, I was quite angry with God and the world when I had bedbugs in New York City in September/October 2013. The shit messes up your mind. The shame. The fear you might export it all over the place and, in my case, to the New York Public Library, whose Cullman Fellowship had brought me to the city. But once I told them about my mess, they were very understanding. Very supportive. Still, I was so ashamed I didn’t even want to tell the court I had bedbugs when the landlord sued me…but, you know, now I’m thanking God, ha! Because I got to see how the court system works in NYC. Because I’ve been able to escalate the two bedbug bites I suffered on my left ribs into all the bites on my protagonist and his neighbors. Even when I was able to get stuff under control, the population of bugs kept multiplying in my head. I refused to believe the bugs were really gone. I kept spraying my apartment. Even when the court sent in an inspector four months, five months later, and he found nothing, my mind was still a mess. That’s when I began to believe I might’ve sprayed the bugs out of existence. But I kept spraying anyway.
More directly to your question, I think being an outsider, a visitor to this city, allowed me to marvel at New York, to gawk, to people-watch. To play with everything. I must tell you though that I quickly wrote a short story about bedbugs in NYC in early 2014. This is what developed into this novel, what, seven years later?
Earlier I asked if New York, My Village had been influenced by any movies or TV shows. But it sounds like it could be adapted into its own movie or show. Do you think that would work?
Paul, this is a crazy question, crazier than when you took a dig at my precious Starbucks. Do you know any writer who doesn’t want their writing to be made into a movie or TV show…? But, hey, I was that crazy writer when Say You’re One of Them came out in 2008. When my agent told me there was some movie interest in some of the stories, I quickly said “No movies!” I was too confused back then by the whole book world that had suddenly enveloped me. I was lost. I thought, perhaps, saying no was a way to protect my precious characters. I was too attached. Does this sound stupid enough?
So now that you know better, if someone wanted to adapt New York, My Village, what do you think would work better, a movie or a TV show?
Are you trying to raise my hopes? Do you always do this to your interviewees? Maybe you have to vow to love Starbucks coffee before I answer this question…well, k’akpaniko, I have no idea what would work better, movie or TV show. Let’s see, Denzel Washington would be too old to play Ekong. Same with Samuel L. Jackson. I’m sure OC Ukeje, a Nigerian actor, can play Ekong very well while Nsikan Isaac would nail Caro, Mbong Amata or Joselyn Dumas, Ofonime. Of course, if I had my way, Emem Isong, the influential Nigerian movie director, would have to be part of the production or director team. Reason? She’s good at what she does. Also, we grew up together in Ikot Ekpene and would know how to bring the culture or cultures of our Niger Delta minorities to the screen. Then I would suggest that Father Thomas Ebong be an important consultant. He saw the war. He helped me with research, and he’s got a PhD in Film Studies. Emem has consulted him before on a number of Nigerian movies. I think between an American co-director and Emem, they could figure out how best to present the American and Nigerian aspects of this story. They’d also figure out African American and white folks to play the other main characters. Julia Jones? Lakeith Stanfield? Jensen Ackles? Jessica Alba? Have I dropped enough names? Have I totally made a fool of myself? Thank God, I’d never have to decide who acted in these things. It would be the job of the professionals. I myself go to movies like once in five years. I am rusty. But the pandemic has made me watch lots of Nigerian movies on Netflix.
Finally, if someone enjoys New York, My Village, what other novel about someone visiting New York City would you recommend they read next and why that one?
Lots of wonderful books out there. But just from the top of my head, Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwige Danticat, Behold The Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue, and Typical American by Gish Jen.
If we include memoirs, then Tis: A Memoir by Frank McCourt. I love everything written by McCourt. Talk of humor, Angela’s Ashes, his Irish memoir, made me laugh and cry and laugh. Some of the people he depicted in Ireland behaved like some people in my part of Nigeria. It surprised me I could relate so much.
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