When Ekong Udousoro gets the chance to travel from his native Nigeria to the United States to understudy at a New York publisher, he jumps at the opportunity. He'll get the chance to work on the anthology about the Biafran War that he's editing, while learning how publishing in the States works. "Nothing was going to stop me from enjoying New York to the marrow," he says in Uwem Akpan's novel, "New York, My Village."
Unfortunately, things go off the rails before he even leaves Nigeria. Ekong is humiliated by racist American embassy workers when he applies for a visa, with one blasting the "violence," "stupidity" and "craziness" of Nigerians. When he eventually makes it to New York, although he's delighted by the spectacle of Times Square and the coffee and food at Starbucks, his neighbors ignore him: "How do you live close to people who do not want to greet you?" he laments.
Things don't go well at Andrew & Thompson, the publishing house, either. He instantly realizes that he's the only Black person in the office: "When I glanced at my body it was as though I myself had become darker." He's forced to endure a series of aggressions that quickly go from micro- to very, very macro-, when he overhears a colleague making racist remarks about him in a phone call.
All the while, he has to deal with a host of other problems: He and an African friend are asked to leave a mostly white Catholic church, which leads to protests against anti-American racism in Nigeria. A white editor performs her own supposed virtue at him, essentially asking him to make her feel better about her own racist blind spots. And when he finally makes a precarious peace with his neighbors, it's because they're all suffering from a bedbug infestation.
Akpan packs a lot of plot into his debut novel but handles the assorted threads of the story quite well — the narrative moves quickly and is never overcrowded. Much of the story deals with the legacy of the Biafran War, the bloody conflict that gripped southeastern Nigeria in the late 1960s, and Akpan does a wonderful job explaining the history of the war to readers who might be unfamiliar with it; the background information he provides is integrated into the novel seamlessly.
The novel deals with a host of sensitive themes, which Akpan writes about beautifully and without didacticism. His observations about racism are excellent — at one point, Ekong observes that "many well-meaning folks who wanted to obliterate racism from the earth did not know they had a bit of it within them, a blind spot, a conditioning over time."
It's been 13 years since Akpan's debut book, the beautiful short story collection "Say You're One of Them," and he's only gotten sharper and more self-assured since then. "New York, My Village" is a wonderful novel, keenly observed and written with true compassion.
Michael Schaub is a member of the board of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Texas.
New York, My Village
By: Uwem Akpan.
Publisher: W.W. Norton, 404 pages, $27.95.