Uwem Akpan

Behind the Book by

I can think of a thousand things that inspired me to write New York, My Village. I can tell stories of how my first impressions of the Bronx, New York, during my first visit to America in August 1993 have continued to fertilize my imagination. I can tell you of how my life as a former Catholic seminarian/priest got me to see racism from the unique angle of the Holy of Holies. I can tell you how shocked I was to discover the whiteness and racism of the big American publishing houses as I auctioned my first book, the story collection Say You’re One of Them (Little, Brown, 2008). I can tell you how New York City bedbugs ate up my peace in 2013 and of my fears that I would spread the bugs to the Cullman Center of the New York Public Library, where I was a fellow. I can tell you how a group of African American professionals from Atlanta, Georgia—which the author Anthony Grooms brought together in 2014—encouraged me to set my writing in America so I could write about racism.

But suffice it to share with you how the first two chapters of New York, My Village were inspired by an American visa interview in Lagos, Nigeria, in 2004.

I was living in Nigeria when I landed an admission to the Helen Zell Writers’ Program of the University of Michigan. It meant the world to me. I’d always loved Midwestern America, having studied in Omaha, Nebraska, in the mid-1990s. Though the U.S. visa process in Nigeria had always felt like being dragged to court, I didn’t foresee any major difficulties, since this was going to be my fourth visa.

Read our review of ‘New York, My Village.

I showed up early in the morning at the embassy. Because of the crowds of visa applicants, I finally got interviewed around 3 p.m. The fact that I was nursing a cold didn’t help matters. Because of the embassy’s powerful air conditioning, I was sniffling and clearing my throat the whole time. But I’d say I was coping well with the extremely tense atmosphere.

The American consular officers can ask you anything. ANYTHING. They can even insult your accent or mock your country if they feel like it. I’ve attempted to capture the terror that is a Western embassy visa process in the developing world in the opening pages of New York, My Village. But that day in the American embassy, decked out in my Roman collar, nothing could have shocked me more than when my interviewer asked me to write him a short story to prove I was a writer.

Thinking this write-me-a-story thing was a joke, I shrugged and giggled and told him the University of Michigan and other programs had already ascertained I was a writer, hence the admission and scholarship offers. He pretended he didn’t hear me and chattily asked why I wanted to be a fiction writer and not a poet. “Maybe someday I’ll also write poetry, sir,” I said as I stood there before his booth. In the silence that followed his nod, I was confident I’d secured the visa. But looking beyond my jubilant face, he slid me a pen and paper, insisting I write a story. When I looked lost, he started typing into his computer.

My fingers began to tremble with shock, then anger. I wanted so much to spit in the face of this consular officer. I kept clearing my throat, though I wanted to blow my nose and pour mucus all over him, his computer and the booth. Yet I wore a pleasant face, because as they say, it’s only when the mosquito lands on your balls that you realize there are ways to solve a problem without violence.

Nobody had ever abused my writing talent like this interviewer! If I remember correctly, this man wasn’t even angry at me. He seemed pleased that he could get fresh writing out of me at visa point—as in gun point. I’d never drafted a short story in a week, much less in a few minutes. My quickest draft took two sleepless weeks and resulted in the shortest story in my collection, “What Language Is That?” And apart from the fact that my fingers were too sweaty to hold the pen, I couldn’t remember the last time I wrote longhand. To be asked to do this, at what seemed like the biggest test of my talent, felt totally cruel.

“Sir, could I sit down to write the story?” I remember murmuring.

“Mr. Akpan, that won’t be necessary,” he said, smiling like he was saving me from being lazy. “Just a short story. Nothing long.”

I tried to write on the booth counter. It would also be the first time I wrote a story while standing up. And I prefer to write at night.

“My stories feel like an unresolvable crisis within me, something I can’t escape from, something I must carefully and sensitively incubate forever.”

Even in the best of situations, my stories do everything to sabotage me. They do everything not to submit to my dreams. I wake up some days without enough faith even to love the “lovely” passages I’ve written. It’s always a fight, a long, drawn-out war whose battles I win one at a time, mainly because I run away to fight another day or week or year. 

My stories feel like an unresolvable crisis within me, something I can’t escape from, something I must carefully and sensitively incubate forever, or till I miraculously discover how to show the invisible connections and bonds and spirit between the disparate characters and parts. I must rewrite countless times “to get in the reader’s face,” as Stephen King puts it. I live in admiration of those who publish a book every other year. But during that interview, I doubt even the most productive of authors could’ve written anything.

“Sir, it takes me a loooong time to write a story,” I said.

“No, this shouldn’t take long,” my interviewer said.

“I could show you the samples that got me into Michigan from my laptop.”

“Come on, you can do it!”

He was distracted by a colleague who entered his booth to ask a question. But the impatience in my interviewer’s voice had warned me that, as our people say, he had both the yam and the knife. I was a beggar.

Even my eyes refused to focus on the paper he’d given me. Instead, they focused on my shoes, which seemed very far away or as though they belonged to someone else. I felt stupid, as if this man were trying to prove that I’d scammed my way to Michigan. I was afraid he saw me as a criminal he must stop from reaching the shores of his country. I began to understand those who think that the sole purpose of immigration departments is to keep people out of their countries.

Still my mind was blank. Nope, it wasn’t blank—it was scalded by anger and humiliation and shame. My mind started bubbling with cusses instead of sentences for the opening of a story. I wanted to tell him to go “hug a transformer,” as we say in Nigeria, meaning to go and electrocute yourself with the highest voltage possible. I wanted to cuss the whole embassy: “Efiig ijire nyine . . . may hernia swell your testicles!” (One of my Black characters in New York, My Village says this when white church ushers want to flush him from a New Jersey church.)

The consular officer couldn’t even let me think up a short story in peace; he kept looking at his watch and telling me to hurry up, reminding me he still had many people to interview. He’d become more impatient, more restless. His powers over me meant he also had the luxury to show how he really felt. He tried to make me feel as though I was the one holding up his important job, locking up hundreds of people all day in this embassy. And what options did I have but to stand there and let him torture me? This sense of powerlessness was the height of my violation. Even my cold felt strange, as though the mucus in my nostril was slowly turning into sand and blocking my breathing.

Even when I tried to sublimate my horrible mental state with prayers, they still came out raw. “Oh, the Lord of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,” I prayed silently, “please, don’t let this f**king asshole of an American destroy my American dream! Oh, Blessed Virgin Mary and all the saints and angels, move and intercede for the grace for me to be calm to write this stupid story. Don’t wait till my situation becomes hopeless, just so that you can dispatch Saint Jude, patron of hopeless causes, that perpetual latecomer!”

– – – – –

But heaven knew I needed this visa more than anything. I had always believed that America would develop my writing. And that afternoon, it calmed me to remember that this America terrorizing me now was the same America doling out MFA scholarships to our army of new Nigerian talents.

Prudence meant I quietly ate the shit of this short story-writing humiliation. After all, I’d already done the hard part, getting admission into Michigan. I’d lived through five anxious months as the MFA program read earlier versions of “An Ex-Mas Feast” and “My Parents’ Bedroom” (both of which made 2005 and 2006 editions of The New Yorker). Now to buoy my spirit, I tried to remember the sweet, welcoming emails from my would-be Michigan writing professors: Eileen Pollack, Nick Delbanco and Peter Ho Davies. They said they loved my writing and would help me become a better writer. They said they loved my imagery and voice—even if I chose another program.

After about 15 minutes of wracking my brain, I managed to come up with two stupid sentences: I could never have known **** was a thief until that night. You would never have believed he could have treated me like this. I didn’t want to show this to him. I believed I’d flunked the interview since I couldn’t write beyond these two lines. But I was tired of him harrying me and worried about the people still waiting to be interviewed, so I held my breath and slid the paper back to him.

“So, Mr. Akpan, what happened next?” he asked excitedly after reading it aloud. 

“I don’t know,” I said.

“No, I really want to know what he did.”

“I have no idea, sir.”

“But you can just tell me what he did. Just summarize. It’s really gripping.”

“I would have to create the whole story from scratch and then summarize.”

Disappointed, he shrugged and asked how I was going to pay for my MFA since I’d rejected Michigan’s scholarship offer. I said my church would. But since I’d forgotten to bring the church’s financial statement, he became very quiet and still, his face hardened like he was going to finally nail me. I just kept saying I’d bring it the following day, knowing that providing this paperwork would be less difficult than writing the two-liner. I babbled and begged till he took my passport and said to come for the visa in two days’ time. I thanked him and loosened my collar and sauntered out, whistling a song of gratitude to the Virgin Mary.

Author photo © Aaron Mayes / UNLV Photo Services

An unusual request during a visa interview left Uwem Akpan, author of the bestselling story collection Say You’re One of Them, scrambling to find his voice. It also helped to spark his first novel, New York, My Village.

Sign Up

Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our newsletter to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres.

Trending Features