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Itoro Bassey’s debut novel is a different kind of immigrant story

What is the cost of charting your own path and seeking answers to heal age-old family wounds?

Itoro Bassey is a Nigerian-American storyteller.
Itoro Bassey is a Nigerian-American storyteller.

From Dinaw Mengestu’s The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, to Adichie’s Americanah, to Chika Unigwe’s On Black Sisters’ Street, there is no scarcity of books dwelling on the African immigrant experience. However, none of them appears to be quite like Itoro Bassey’s Faith. Perhaps this uniqueness stems from the shift in focus from the first-generation immigrants themselves to their offsprings, or maybe it is because Faith is simply more expansive and daring in its approach on the subject.

Published in January 2022 by Malarkey Books, a US-based independent press, Faith is Bassey’s debut full-length novel. It chronicles the life, encounters and recollections of the protagonist, Arit Essien, as well as those of people related to or relating with her. We follow her life growing up in Massachusetts, USA as she struggles, albeit unsuccessfully, to find her place in the world as a Nigerian black American who doesn’t quite fit in in both worlds. Though spanning the years preceding the immigration of Arit’s parents from Nigeria to America through Arit’s eventual return to Nigeria as an adult, Faith’s plot is nothing but linear, and for good reason too.

What is the cost of charting your own path and seeking answers to heal age-old family wounds? What is the price of leaving home because it doesn’t feel quite like it, in search of the “home” you barely know but have grown up learning about? These are some of the questions Bassey raises.Set in Nigeria, Kenya, and the US, the novel traverses over four decades worth of experiences and family history. We see Arit as a kid in the 90s struggling to find herself as an African in America, and later trying to make do with the hand she’s been dealt, only to pack up and embark on the journey of returning to “the Continent” – a widely romanticised act. 

Time is fluid in Itoro’s Faith as is reality. The years and succession of events are presented non-linearly. Similarly, we traverse the conscious and subconscious worlds of Arit and can hardly tell the difference between the two. Ekpewan, a dead half-sister, visits and talks to her frequently. Also, she often wallows in her own thoughts.

Faith is Itoro Bassey's debut novel.
Faith is Itoro Bassey’s debut novel.

The book’s 15 chapters, divided into two parts, are interwoven but can also stand as independent short stories. The first chapter, aptly titled ‘Running’ opens with the following lines: “I’ve got an ancestor on my back. She wades through whatever spirit-filled world she inhabits to rest herself beside me while I sleep.” Characteristic of the theory of magical realism which alludes to the “matter-of-fact inclusion of fantastic or mythical elements into seemingly realistic fiction”, these lines usher us into the enchanting yet tumultuous world of Arit – filled with ancestors, unflattering family histories, and unconventional relationships.

The Second Chapter, “The Girl”, is set in Nigeria in 1995 and zooms in on the difficult life Ekpewan, Arit’s half-sister, had to endure , while growing up without her mother and wading through multiple challenges, including untold abuses from relatives. These circumstances would lead to her eventual demise. Told in the voice of the subject herself, it reflects the relentless defiance of Ekpewan, even in the most difficult situation.

The third chapter “To the Children Growing Up in the Aftermath of their Parents’ War” is an unravelling. It implicates everyone in the crime scene that is Nigeria and highlights how it all ultimately leads to the dispersing of broken people all across the world; broken people who refuse to remember what they left behind. Its most salient and most repeated phrase, “all of us are scoundrels” reads like the popular yorubanglish phrase “Olèní everybody” (Everyone is a thief). No one is left out. Not the pastor or the nun, not the westerner or the indigene, and definitely not the politician and his cronies. This is a sentiment rooted in disillusionment and a summary vote of no confidence on not just the ruling class and the political system but every citizen as well. But how come this sentiment exists across the Atlantic among the offspring of those who left? This is reminiscent of Adichie’s statement on the importance of her second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, a book about the Nigeria-Biafra war and many other books written about it. She said, “My generation was born after 1970, but we know of property lost, of relatives who never ‘returned’ from the North, of shadows that hung heavily over family stories. We inherited memory.” The war really did break everyone including those who left and the hurt keeps being passed down like family heirlooms.

Conversely, as with most things remotely related to the Nigerian experience, humour abounds, often side-by-side the sad and dispiriting – a fact Arit soon learns as she tries to settle into the country. It was only a matter of time before she began to embody it because it is, perhaps, the only way to survive. “Plot 196″, “Another Woman Leaves Home” and “Naija” are chapters that vividly depict the paradox of Nigeria. How come the delivery guy whose only job it is to locate your address and hand over your parcel safely finds it so difficult to use Google Maps and will instead call you a million times for verbal descriptions that he still won’t understand? Why do you have to pay “motivation fee” in order to file police reports for stolen items? And why do people jump queues without the slightest guilt or remorse? The answer to these questions is simple: this is Nigeria and in Nigeria you have to deal with the “Nigerian factor” everywhere you go.

Bassey’s characters, especially the female ones, are not archetypes of good or bad. They are complex people living in an uncharitably paradoxical world. Aggie, the woman Arit encounters in Kenya, is  brazenly confident and opinionated and is a victim of domestic violence. Mrs Bamidele’s driver is a righteous man who frowns upon Arit’s skimpy clothes but also steals from his boss when sent on errands. Relationships between these characters aren’t a straight line either. Arit regularly emails her friend in the US, Nkechi, about everything happening with her but Nkechi feels abandoned and betrayed because she feels she should be the one who leaves the US and not Arit. Uduak, Arit’s mother, has to escape the overbearing and accusing words of her mother after the failure of her first marriage, while Ekpewan contends with the loss of a mother as a result. The second husband, Arit’s father, is no good either, and Arit tries to keep as much distance as possible.

Ultimately, Faith is an important addition to numerous books written on immigration; written in a rich and emotive language that stops short of being poetry, it functions as social commentary and as literature. Bassey, the author, is not much different from Arit. She is a recently-returned Nigerian-American whose source of courage to return to her roots feels almost spiritual. Maybe Faith is a reassurance that all those who feel lost will eventually find home, as is captured in the poignant words of Ekpewan: ”Just so you know, an ancestor can’t be thrown away. You may dislike us, it’s allowed, but you can never really send us away, this is not allowed. Since we’re all eating from the same stew, if the meat in the stew is rotten then we all taste the flavor. You get?”

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