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Author interview: 'New York, My Village'

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally, today, it's all there - the sense of adventure, excitement and opportunity upon arrival in a new country and as well a longing for a home, along with the sobering realization of the traumas inflicted by the past and the present. In his new novel, "New York, My Village," bestselling author Uwem Akpan tells the story of a Nigerian editor named Ekong and the challenges he faces navigating his new world, the shockingly hostile one of New York City and American publishing. But, also, it's a reflection on the conflicts and divides that he and other immigrants bring with them. In this case, it's the Biafran War and the ethnic politics that drove it. The book is already getting raves, so it's a pleasure to have Uwem Akpan with us once again.

Welcome. It's so nice to speak with you once again.

UWEM AKPAN: (Laughter) Michel, I'm so happy to be talking with you again, and thank you for all you've done all these years to support my work.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for that. But before we talk about the new book, let's catch up with you.

AKPAN: (Laughter).

MARTIN: This is your first novel. Your 2008 collection of short stories, "Say You're One Of Them," was a huge bestseller. It was picked up by Oprah's Book Club. I mean, and it just - it was on the bestseller list for months, and that has to have been just an incredible experience. Like, what was that like?

AKPAN: (Laughter) I have not recovered yet. It was an incredible experience. Before Oprah picked my book, I had not watched a full episode of her show. So it was, you know, like out of the blue. And I don't know how to describe it, but it - I was so, so, so thankful to God and to Oprah and to my fans worldwide. It was quite an experience, quite an experience.

MARTIN: So why a novel now? What inspired you to tell this story in this way?

AKPAN: For years, I have been thinking about the Biafran War. I was born a year after that war. The war was from 1967 to 1970. I was born in 1971. And so the soundtrack of my childhood was the stories of the Biafran War. It's quite different from the story the Igbos are telling. The Igbos have powerful writers - Chinua Achebe, Chimamanda Adichie, my friend Chinelo Okparanta. OK? They tell these stories but mainly from the Igbo perspective.

So I'm a minority in Nigeria, and a minority of minorities. My parents were in minority Biafra, and no one has been able to tell our story, and it's 50 years. The generation that experienced the war - they're dying out in Nigeria. And even our minority children don't know what happened to them. So I always thought someone like me with a lot of practice in writing tragedy should tackle Biafra from the perspective of the minorities.

The other thing is I always wanted to write an immigrant story. I wanted to capture this. Can you believe, Michel, that, you know, after coming to America twice - two visas, the third time, I was coming to do my MFA program. And during the visa interview, I was told to write a short story. I was standing there at the counter, and I was given pen and paper. Write a short story. Why should that have to be part of the visa interview?

MARTIN: Just to let people know what you're talking about, the book, you know, opens with this, really - I mean, Ekong, your main character, is already a celebrated editor. He's been invited to the United States on a prestigious fellowship. He's - he has everything arranged. He's got an employment in a prestigious publishing house. He has housing. And yet he's put through this humiliating experience to try to get his visa.

AKPAN: (Laughter).

MARTIN: So you're saying that this is rooted in your experience? I mean, you were actually...

AKPAN: Yes, yes, I was told to write a story. I was very...

MARTIN: Like, right there on the spot?

AKPAN: On the spot. I thought he was joking till he brought out pen and paper and went away for 15 minutes. And by that time, I had spent, like, six hours at least at the embassy - it's a mess. So I had that personal experience that I always thought I would put in fiction. I've heard things. I have seen things. It's total absolute terror to go to the embassy. You can await to your visa interview. You cannot sleep. You - so anyway, I had that experience. And then I've lived in the U.S. for a while. I know what it has meant for not just Black Americans but Africans coming into America to - what racism, what it is. It's very complex. And since I was a priest, I was a seminarian, I could also speak about this from the perspective, you know, of the church.

MARTIN: So it's fascinating because what the book does is it makes a point about tribalism, and it makes a point that tribalism is not just what you think it is...

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: ...That lots of people are tribal and treat each other in ways that are not kind. Can I just put it that way?

AKPAN: Yes.

MARTIN: I'll just put it that way, not kind.

AKPAN: Yes.

MARTIN: And...

AKPAN: And, you know, for me, I'm a minority in Nigeria. I come out here. I run into racism again. So, I mean, I'm in between two walls.

MARTIN: What I feel like I hear you saying is that Americans you find are willing to look at the travails of Africa and the troubles of many countries in Africa and tsk tsk at them, but they are unwilling to look at the travails and the troubles of this country.

AKPAN: Yes. This is a very important thing you have brought up. It's very easy for Americans, for people in the West to say, look at those Africans. They're always at war with each other, you know? What is wrong with them? But America needs to be reminded of the fact that they killed 50 million Native Americans to take this land. So how can you say that we are the violent ones?

So I was looking for a chance, for opportunity to say you are like us in everything, especially violence. We are all human beings. We are capable of doing this. So this is what I was, you know, aiming at. More than 30 minority groups would be happy to hear, to see, to feel their pain in terms of this Biafran War. They will feel some kinship with Ekong in this - you know, this book.

MARTIN: That is Uwem Akpan. His new book "New York, My Village" is out now. Uwem Akpan, thank you so much.

AKPAN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAY-Z FEAT. ALICIA KEYS SONG, "EMPIRE STATE OF MIND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.