Review of New York, My Village by Uwem Akpan
Words By Ally Geist
Published November 2nd, 2021 by W. W. Norton & Company.
It took me a long time to write this review. I’m rarely at a loss for words, which goes to show how much New York, My Village struck me. It made me think, and I didn’t know how to organize my thoughts at first. I’m going to be mulling over the book’s themes for months to come, so, in the interest of actually helping you decide whether or not you want to read the book, here goes nothing.
Warning: This book contains racism, violence, and bugs. Lots of bugs. Lots of micro- and macro-aggressions and racial profiling. You are going to feel uncomfortable and, potentially, triggered.
When I first read the description for New York, My Village, I jumped at the chance to read it. Growing up with a parent who specializes in migrant literature, I’ve always been fascinated by immigrant stories and experiences. I found it exciting to get a glimpse into the protagonist’s culture and understand how a migrant writer might experience a publishing house (since the publishing industry is often inherently problematic).
Uwem Akpan is incredibly skilled, weaving humor, pain, and hope into this beautiful tapestry of a story. Throughout the book, readers follow Nigerian editor, Ekong Udousoro, as he heads to New York for a publishing fellowship that promises to help him finish an anthology on the Biafran War. Complete with an unexpectedly awful living situation, hostile neighbors, and racist assumptions about African culture, Ekong’s visit to America is hardly what he’d expected. While everything seems exciting and hopeful on the surface, hostility, greed, and bigotry quickly begin to simmer beneath the surface. All the while, we see Ekong try to navigate it without the pot boiling over.
I expected to enjoy this book. What I didn’t expect, though, was the physical reaction New York, My Village gave me. I could feel the grime in Ekong’s apartment and the itchiness of his skin: “I sprayed the analgesic on my torso till it dripped into my pants, but it was of no use tonight. When my nails carved out jewels of streaked blood and the itches still did not abate, I resorted to slapping the spots.” While I empathized with Ekong, something about the physical experience of reading the book made me feel even more connected with him. It heightened the stakes and made me feel like racing towards the end to find some sort of resolution to the chaos. Those details made the book more thrilling.
Akpan also skillfully makes readers feel the excitement, overwhelm, and disorientation Ekong experiences when he first arrives in New York. Even the familiar things, like yams and church, seem so foreign to him. Watching flickers of Ekong’s trauma surface while he’s in bustling Times Square, for instance—and almost having that familiar trauma comfort him—pierced me. The paradox that trauma can be comforting made me understand how alien Ekong felt in one heartbreaking beat. In the middle of the bustling square, he says “I would not have wanted to remember the war here, but the atmosphere was like an anesthesia and this seeming familiarity was like a precious opening, a doorway into the unbridled effervescence that was Times Square.” Akpan so skillfully depicts Ekong’s haunting loneliness throughout the book that my chest ached for pages at a time.
Despite Ekong’s loneliness, he is determined to share his story and bridge cultural divides. Through it all, he believes in the power of stories, and that’s so beautiful. As he is floored by the racism he experiences in America, Ekong expresses that one of “the only bits of consolation left for [him] in America were finishing [his] anthology.” He places so much hope in his work despite all the hardship. Ekong’s belief in the importance and impact of his work is moving. Akpan gives readers the opportunity to rejoice with Ekong, mourn with him, laugh with him, and root for him through this wild ride of a novel. And I guarantee everyone will learn something along the way.
The characters in New York, My Village are well-rounded and deeply flawed. But it’s their flaws that make them so interesting. Okay, yes, some characters you hate . . . but with many, you want to be mad at them, but yet they seem so human. That’s why you feel like you know them so well. Most of the characters are a foil to Ekong at some point in the book—including Ekong himself. People he thinks are his allies at the publishing house, in his neighborhood, and in his own family ultimately end up challenging him in ways he could have never expected. The complexity Akpan writes into the characters makes the book all the more frustrating, imperfect, troubling, and wonderful. By creating such layered characters, Akpan raises the stakes throughout. The author holds readers in a place of tension for an uncomfortable amount of time as we watch Ekong navigate these challenges. Yet, somehow it works.
Despite all the good, I felt like there were moments when too much time was spent on descriptions, which stalled the plot and left readers sitting in tension for a bit too long. While the book’s descriptions gave me such strong, moving reactions at times, when overused, they became distracting. There can be too much of a good thing—though, in this case that “too much” is more of a light drizzle than a full-on thunderstorm. While I hadn’t expected this prolonged tension, it created a sort of visceral discomfort that worked well for the subject matter. In my opinion, to pick up the pacing, parts of the subplot, including apartment infestations could have had a smaller share in the book.
Paragraph after paragraph, chapter after chapter, I was impressed that Akpan packed so many themes into one book. New York, My Village is messy. It’s raw. At times, it’s hard to follow. And it will make you question your own biases, preconceived notions, and flaws. In short, this book will make you think. If you’re someone who likes a challenge, who likes to read books that deal with complex societal issues, and you want to connect with some flawed, powerful, confusing, beautiful characters, you’ll definitely want to pick up New York, My Village.