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Uwem Akpan


Uwem Akpan


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Uwem Akpan, welcome on Borders. Congratulations once again on the release of New York, My Village. We're going to focus on the tragic elements of your book, but first tell us about the inspiration for the tidal wave of high comedy that carries us along.

I love to write in a funny way even when I am writing about serious matters. This wasn't very obvious in my first book because of my child narrators. But you'll see this same satiric bent in the short story "Baptising the Gun".

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Now to the serious side. Before reading New York, My Village, I had no knowledge of the existence of minority groups such like your own-the Annang-who resisted the formation of the Biafran State

First, I'm touched by the Igbos who've reached out since my book came out, to say they'd no idea of what their Biafran army did in minority lands. I'm even more grateful to the Igbos who helped me as I researched and tracked down information in Igboland. Many times, it was risky, tense. They stood by me! Second, I want to preface my comments by saying that the Igbos saw hell in this war. If you recall how the Nigerian army wiped out Odi and ZakiIbiam; if you recall how they massacred 350 Shiites and buried them in secret graves; if you recall what they did to our children at the End Sars protests, then you'll understand what was done to Igbo civilians in this war.

But, listen, Biafra was an evil thing in minority lands! A horrible, horrible experiment. A Black colonial concoction gone wrong. That's why minorities aren't sharing the nostalgia of the Igbos for Biafra. For example, before the war, in some parts of Annang, Biafra had told our people to turn in their weapons. They even searched some homes! We didn't know their trick and complied. So when the war started and they invaded minority lands, we had no defense. (Let me quickly say this: when I hear the Buhari government order peaceful citizens to turn in their dutifully licensed weapons, it reminds me of Biafra. Buhari is trying to make it impossible for anyone to challenge the Fulani herdsmen or bandits. How can 200 people be butchered in Zamfara and you want the survivors to turn in their guns? Or has that order changed? Where was Buhari when 400 bandits biked for hours to slaughter these Zamfarans and biked back? Where's the Nigerian air force? This is what you get when most of the security architecture is controlled by the same Fulanis. We saw this kind of thing in Biafra.)

Flag of Nigeria
Nigerian Flag
Flag of Biafra
Biafran Flag

Because Annangs in the targeted areas handed in their guns and machetes, the Igbos were able to rape, not just our minority women and girls but the men and boys. There's no crime they didn't commit against us, to break our will. My research reveals that most Igbos in Annang land weren't disarmed! Can you imagine your guns being seized while your next-door neighbours kept theirs? I don't know whether this was the case in other minority lands.

Listen, the Igbos were fighting two wars - one against the Nigerian army, the other against the minorities. Mind you, we were with the Igbos in Eastern Nigeria. They ran the colonial bureaucracy.The Igbos were very discriminatory and clannish even in colonial days. (Every ethnic group has this tendency, whether it's in Pakistan or Ethiopia!) There was a stratification of sorts-white people, Igbos, minorities. In a place like Ikot Ekpene, for instance, while the whites had the GRA, the Igbos occupied the huge Aba Road-Queen Street-Cardinal Ekanem Avenue triangle. So the enmity between the Igbos and minorities had been there for a long time, but they were able to lord it over everyone because we were minorities. Ask our Igbo brothers and sisters whether they allowed a minority to be the premier of the Eastern Region. Ask them whether they consulted the minorities before they tried to rope us into Biafra in 1967.

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Some Igbos are saying Ojukwu didn't consult them either

But he was their leader and could take that decision on their behalf, and in any case most of them were happy to follow him. Even if he had the wonderful instinct to protect his people, sometimes, I think he himself was simply overwhelmed by the trauma. But when we blame the white man for colonialism of Africa, it doesn't mean that every white person wanted this! And when you're a leader of a multi-ethnic entity you have to be careful. Ojukwu wasn't very mindful of this. In fact, he announced in Uyo Stadium that minorities would be like the harem of wives while the Igbos would be like the polygamous husband in Biafra. Would you want to join this kind of country? These same people who seized your weapons? These were some of the reasons why, in spite of 5,000 minorities being killed along with 30,000 Igbos in the 1966 genocide, the minorities still didn't think they stood a chance in Biafra.

Can you not sense the same insults and insensitivity in a section of the neo-Biafran agitators? Why do you put down our minority lands as part of your Biafran map without talking to us? Does that sound like people who want to practice democracy? Does that sound like people who respect you? Does that sound like people who know the history of the war or the region?

You now understand then why I'm grateful to the Igbos who're open to learning what their Biafra did in minority lands. Such humility means they're able to appreciate the anger of the Efiks, Ibibios, Ijaws, Ogonis, Bekwarras, Ikwerres, Urhobos, Itsekri, Calabaris, Quas, Orons, and 30 other minority groups when they see their lands on that map. These sensible Igbos are ashamed of the arrogance that made Biafra invade Midwestern Nigeria in 1967, to rape and kill and plunder, and then suddenly declare the Republic of Benin for them! Just like that. Did the Binis, Etsakos, Esans, etc, tell them they wanted a country? Who does that? Why humiliate the Midwest? It's uber-colonialists who behave like this-all these Europeans who imposed national boundaries all over the world on unsuspecting natives. Colonial powers, White, Black, Asian, etc, behave the same way.

Ethnic groups of South South Nigeria
Some ethnic groups in South South Nigeria
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You're raising a serious question about what it means to be a minority in Nigeria. It's so important. As a Yoruba person, I don't know what it means to be a minority in this country

It means you live with the existential fears that the Igbos, Hausas and Yorubas can wipe you out. Think about it: if the world doesn't know we exist, how would they know if we're wiped out? But a new reality has dawned on Nigeria: do you see how the Fulanis are wiping everyone out and some of them are very boastful about their colonial attitude towards the rest of us? To widen the lens of this conversation for your audience, the minorities were caught in between the wicked Nigerian army and the wicked Biafran army. Both sides had a field day torturing us, forcing people to drink their urine and eat shit, for example. A huge theme in my book is the reveal of what Biafra did to minorities. The Igbos themselves have done a tremendous job exposing the atrocities of the Nigerian army.

Burnt house
Godwin Alabi-Isama's TRAGEDY OF VICTORY, p145

In a way, what Igbo fiction writers and scholars have done over time is to turn the rest of us in Nigeria into genocidaires. But the Igbos were killing and disappearing us, minorities, as they were being crushed by wicked Nigeria. They were forcing some minority-Igbo couples to split or be killed. Once Biafra lost Calabar, Biafran intelligence tried to poison the Calabar City potable water system, to wipe out the Efiks. Mbok, what did the royal Efiks do to deserve this? The London Times even published eye-witness accounts of Biafra arresting and dragging Ibibio men to Umuahia and inviting Igbo masses to beat them to death - in the streets and fields in 1968. These minorities were accused of sabotage. But it's not only the Ibibios they killed like this. My research shows that Biafra hosted these games of killing minorities more times than we want to know. The next time Igbo intellectuals mention the Nigerian army's 1967 heartless stripping and shooting of 400 Igbo men in Asaba, they must add this wonderful Biafran way of executing minorities this is why I say it's serious provocation for Igbos to put our lands on their new colonial map without asking us.

Now, have you seen the name of Arthur Nzeribe, the Igbo's biggest verified self-proclaimed saboteur, in any popular Biafran narrative? This Igbo man was one of the greatest suppliers of weapons to the Nigerian army in that war-that's how he became rich. He has boasted he has no regret. Yet, go and count the titles the Igbos have given him besides sending him to represent them in the senate!

I was really shocked that Chinua Achebe didn't highlight these tensions between us and the Igbos in There Was a Country. I've never seen soldiers as innocent as the Biafran ones he portrays in that book. I was surprised his editors didn't challenge him. No matter how big you are in the writing world and well-intentioned, you still need knowledgeable and critical editors.

There was a country

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Did you ever feel like writing a critique of There Was a Country?

Actually, Penguin, his publisher, reached out to me for a review. But, I realized I couldn't write a rejoinder in a 1000-word article. That was when I began to incorporate it, to braid it into New York, My Village. But I had to find a balance. Achebe himself was a hero and a pleasant, compassionate man who has contributed so much to African literature. The Nigerian government tried to kill him and his family, to silence the biggest Igbo voice. And, as a Biafran War ambassador, he suffered real humiliation and angst in 1969 when Ojukwu killed Italian oil workers in the Niger Delta, which is how Biafra lost the damn war. I can imagine his disgust that Ojukwu still collected a ransom to free other Europeans Biafra had abducted. He hung Achebe out to dry! But I believe neither Achebe nor his writing ever recovered from the trauma of the war. When Wole Soyinka said he wished he had seen Achebe's manuscript, I think he did so with perhaps the knowledge that the book needed serious edits and a widening of the lens to include minority Biafra and other matters.

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Your insights into the Biafran war and Nigeria are illuminating. I knew so little about it. I'm learning a great deal. I know close to nothing about the minorities of the Niger-Delta and I have to confess that I too didn't know the Annangs existed.

I didn't want to say anything about the Biafran War until my book was ready. I wanted to give Nigerians and Biafrans something they and the rest of the world could read, so they can have informed arguments about the future. I wanted a book that would cover the whole Niger-Delta, not just the Annangs. A book that would also expose how the minorities revenged and killed many Igbos, aided by the Nigerian army. How many thousands were killed in Benin City and Warri? Minorities are celebrating because now, through this book, the world can see their side of the Biafran War being promoted by a major publisher.

Map of Niger Delta

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The minority principle is the tie that binds the episodes that make up your fictional travel journal - that's what the book is. But there are other conditions which share some of the book's 'minority' features which you explore or at least touch on. A striking one is the condition of "internal banishment".

Tell us about this "internal banishment" in the context of the family of Caro, the wife of the first-person narrator, Ekong.

Some minorities joined the Biafran forces freely, like General Philip Effiong, Ojukwu's deputy. Most minorities see this man as a traitor. Who sent him to represent us? Because of the hatred for Biafra, most minority soldiers were conscripted. Even young boys were abducted, plied marijuana or threatened so that they will do Biafra's bidding. Some of these minority Biafrans were very ruthless to their people, to prove to the Igbos that they were sincere about Biafra. You can see this same mentality in Black apartheid cops in black townships of South Africa. If they tagged you a "saboteur", their Igbo overlords would kill or disappear you. When the Nigerian army flushed away Biafra from minority lands, the tides turned against these traitors.The Nigerian army, using its own evil methods, killed a lot of them.

Man explaning
Godwin Alabi-Isama's TRAGEDY OF VICTORY, p144

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Your Acknowledgements section was epic! But it was an important Afterword to a novel dealing with a terrible national tragedy so so soon after we became an Independent nation.

Tell us about meeting the descendants and relatives of those saboteurs during your research. What did you learn?

In some places, those who survived (and their families) found it difficult to enjoy the trust of their people. So you were "internally banished". In my novel, though Ekong and his wife, Caro, are Annang, she and her family are "internally banished" because of her grandfather who reported folks who had defecated on the Biafran flag to Biafran authorities. These enemies of Biafra were killed. When the Nigerian army arrived, Grandpa was fished out and killed with a nail driven into his head. Caro who wasn't even born during the war,has always suffered a feeling of "internal exile".

First time screenwriter and director, Rebecca Hall, has released a screen adaptation of Passing, the novella by Nella Larsen about racial identity and crossing the colour line in Jim Crow America. She was inspired to make the film by her own family history. Watching Passing on Netflix and mulling over the issues it raises sharpens my apprehension of the Tuesday Ita character.

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I would describe his condition - passing for a white man-as a self-imposed banishment, but curiously, he is in very close touch with his people back home in Ikot Ituno-Ekanem.

Talk to us about why you created this grotesque, exasperating, tragic man and situation.

Tuesday Ita is a very complex satiric Black character. Ever since I read Kafka's Metamorphosis, I'd wanted to do something like this. If a human being can turn into an insect, I felt I could turn this Black man into a white man. In any case, there are Africans in the West who've become whiter than the white man! Some have become this way because they see Africa as an irredeemable failure, some because of their experiences back in Africa. Some are so ashamed of their roots. Some of them are afraid of even allowing their children to visit Nigeria. In 1993, when I first arrived in America, long before Buhari lost the plot in securing Nigeria, I discovered that some of our diaspora preferred their children to visit Argentina, Russia and China! Beyond this, too many Nigerians are bleaching. Why do we all want to be white? What's wrong with the black colour God gave us? I'll allow your audience to experience Tuesday Ita first-hand on the page so that they can see how the war has shaped his life as an immigrant in America.

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You used to be a Catholic priest so I wasn't surprised to find the Catholic Church in America featuring so prominently as a setting for the drama in your book. What I didn't expect to find was the ugly racial politics. What of push-back from the Church? Are you worried at all?

I love my dear Catholic spirituality but there is institutional racism in religion, and it's not just Catholicism. Ekong and his Annang friends are banished from the all-white New Jersey church because they're Black. I was very happy to write these scenes because of my experience as a seminarian and priest in America. I know what my experiences have been. I've heard a few things, too. My joy is that my readers say I was able to make the New Jersey scenes memorable!

Uwem Akpan in Time Square
Uwem in Times Square
New York City

As for the Church pushing back, let them consider that I've also created wonderful, compassionate clerics in the book. You could not find better portraits of priests than Father Kiobel, the Ogoni priest, and Father Walsh, the Irish priest, and Bishop Salomone, the American prelate. So they should thank me! But it's not just the Church that could push back. The Igbos could push back because in this work they've lost the absolute control they enjoy over the Biafra War narrative. The African Americans, the Argentines, the Australians and the Chinese can all push back.

Even American publishing didn't really warm up to being called racist. But what am I supposed to do when I know deep down that my dear publishing industry is super-racist? Why should publishing be 90% white in 2022? Many were offended I chose to highlight bedbugs in wonderful NYC. Look, the book bites everyone, including our minorities of the Niger Delta. It's a crazy satire. It invites everyone to be better than yesterday.

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As part of the dénouement of the scandal, you have crafted an enjoyable interface between the Church in Ikot ItunoEkanem, your village, and the church in New Jersey.

Actually, Toun, Ikot Ituno-Ekanem is a fictional village.

Oh, I see! I didn't know.

A lot of people think it's an actual place because, I believe, it's well-realized. I was able to manoeuvre this interface because of social media. The Annangs in NYC are able to tell their relatives in Nigeria what's happening to them in New Jersey in real time. That's the world we live in now.

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There is a global consensus: Say You're One of Them is a magnum opus. Reading it was like reading 5 books in one volume. Each short story carried the weight and the scope if not the length, of a novel. It was a huge success in America with accolades too many to count including the 2009 Oprah Book Pick. It was a New York Times and Wall Street Journal #1 bestseller. I was heavily involved with promoting it here in Lagos. Publishing New York, My Village has been 13 years coming. Talk to us about that hiatus.

I cannot thank you enough for your support over the years. When you asked me some years ago how my writing was going, it meant so much to me. I was struggling. I was depressed. I was running away from friends who kept asking about a second book. They meant well but they didn't understand: that kind of pressure can be an albatross. I refused to give interviews. I went on my knees and simply told God you either help me write my Biafra/immigrant novel or I'm done with writing altogether. You can't give me these gifts and bless me with just one book! Many days, it was a leap into the darkness of faith. It meant so much to hear you say I wasn't writing a second but a sixth book because of the weight of those stories. It lifted the burden of years off my shoulders. It helped me see things differently. I shared your insight with some friends.

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I only told you what I knew to be true. I'm glad you drew solace from my words and encouragement. So, give us a short retrospective of the journey to New York, My Village.

Readers will have to read the Acknowledgements section to get the fuller picture of my struggles with New York, My Village. I always wanted to write Biafra from the perspective of the minorities, because I wasn't happy with other fictional accounts. I have always wanted to celebrate our food in the West as part of our immigrant story. I have also wanted to write about the American Embassy visa experience in Nigeria, because I was dissatisfied with other accounts. I have always wanted to produce a comparative history of violence between Nigeria and America. At least a sketch of the comparative history of violence. There was so much I wanted to say, but I couldn't find a structure to uphold this crazy building. I threw away the first single-paced 250 pages. Initially I planned to set the story in Las Vegas. It was called Las Vegas, My Village. I spent a year in Vegas. I failed. The pain of this miscarriage has stayed with me. Then I wanted to set a part of it in Beijing. I relocated there for a month. I failed and threw away hundreds of pages. I spent a year in NYC, and it was here that God blessed my efforts and tears.

Annang People
Annang People

My Tiv friends also contributed to my stress! Suddenly, they blamed me for not writing about the massacres of their people by the Fulanis in Nigeria. They said by the time I finished my Biafran book there would be no Tiv people left. I said I didn't know enough about them to attempt a story. They accused me of discrimination, arguing I'd written about other Africans like Rwandans, Kenyans and Ethiopians in my first book. They even resurrected an interview where I said I've never been to Rwanda. They cried that they've no writers or priests who are ready to die for their cause. They refused to listen to my plea I was no longer a priest. They worried the Fulani federal government might kill Gov. Samuel Artom for exposing the killings. Luckily I was able to create the character of the dancing Montana-bound Tiv student in the embassy scenes and thread him into the book. With all this stress, New York, My Village arrived after 13 years, a teenager!

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Tell us about the reception to New York, My Village? Walk us through some of the highlights so far.

The book is doing quite well. The iconic Strand Bookstore in New York made it its Pick of the Month for November 2021, my publication month. I couldn't believe it! Then Greenlight Bookstore, the second biggest bookstore in NYC picked it for December, 2021. For these landmarks to pick the book means they have at least bought into my critique of New York, their city.

Uwem in Strand Bookstore, NYC
Uwem in Strand Bookstore, NYC

I'm getting so much positive feedback in my Instagram messenger inbox as well. From Nigeria to America to South Africa to Ukraine, readers are telling me they're slowing down their reading so they won't finish the book too quickly. They're asking me so many questions. This wasn't the case with my first book when that came out. People from developing countries are thanking me for my portrait of the American Embassy. And, best of all, Nigerians and Biafrans are beginning to have a more nuanced kind of conversation.

Uwem Akpan, what a conversation. Thank you so much for coming on Borders.

Read the Borders review of Say You're One of Them

Uwem Akpan

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