Book Review: Francois Bereaud on Faith, a novel by Itoro Bassey

Nigeria is a vast country with a rich literary heritage. Award winning authors including Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Ben Okri, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie have influenced writers and readers across the globe. Now, with her debut novel Faith, the Nigerian-American writer Itoro Bassey announces herself as one of the next voices in this powerful tradition.

Faith begins in the United States when the protagonist, Arit, is a young girl, struggling to manage the expectations of her immigrant parents, in particular her dad who is prone to temper. Following a prologue which gives us a window into the spirit world, Bassey opens the novel with this brilliant line: “I’ve got an ancestor on my back.” In just these seven words, we see that Arit is caught between worlds and generations, and that these burdens fall squarely on her back. As she transitions from childhood to adolescence to young adulthood, this ancestor, who she comes to learn is named Epkewan, makes regular intrusions into her life, often on her birthday. While Epkewan and her parents try to root her to the homeland, Arit seeks to live squarely in her home, America. She’s resentful of the intrusion. Again, Bassey’s prose sparkles in illuminating the inner thoughts of her protagonist, “I blame the country this ancestor and my mother speak of for my parents birthing their children in a slush of desperation and fear.” As Arit becomes a young woman, she struggles with being too “blacky black” and laments the harshness of her father and that her family never just has a casserole for dinner. The ancestor, a girl a few years older than her, wearing a long dress with plain white button, exhorts Arit to listen to her parents and wishes that she too could have come to America before entering the spirit world.

Arit rejects this line of thinking, but Epkewan remains in her life into her young adulthood and they exchange views. Arit claims that she is “made in America” yet she sees how Blackness will always render her foreign, an “other” in this land. Epkewan encourages her to seek out her “African sisters” on campus. Arit tries to explain the tension between the Black and African students, each group relying on stereotypes of the other. In Arit’s struggle, we see perhaps a struggle common to all immigrants, that of assimilation versus maintaining ties to the old country.

The novel shifts as Bassey brings us a section from Epkewan’s perspective, her growing up in Nigeria and her ultimate death before she can come to America. Bassey’s rich prose immerses us into a new cast of characters. We learn about a possible ancestor, a “crook chief” described as “repulsive, leading with his protruding belly and his cock that was always at attention when a wide hip was in sight.” Epkewan’s story is a tough one and we see her transition to the spirit world.

This transition brings us to another shift in the novel, this time back to Arit reflecting on her parents’ experience as survivors of the Biafran War. Once again, the prose brings to life the generational challenges: “That’s where my generation comes in. The generation of iPhones, text messages, and sound bites. The generation of instant gratification and American arrogance. The generation once removed from their parents’ homeland. We wager that if we’re born in the land of milk and honey, we’ll never starve to the point of our stomachs blowing up like balloons or stumble upon gashed skulls.” These words frame the novel which will continue to bounce between cultures, countries, and generations of women finding their place. Regardless of the section, there are beautiful sentences on every page: “Like the unapologetic joy of drag queens when they decide it’s a good damn day to dress the world in glitter.” In a section devoted to Arit’s mother, Uduak’s, life post-Biafran War, we find “Sad the way you lose your taste for a thing with the mention of a name.” Bassey infuses her work with striking images, poetry, and sharp dialogue as we see Arit and Uduak moving both closer and farther from one another until Arit makes the decision to go to her homeland, but starting in Kenya, rather than Nigeria, perhaps as a way to ease into confronting the ancestors. Arit tells a woman she meets, she won’t visit Nigeria (“I couldn’t see myself there.”). The response is sharp: “But you can see yourself in America, where they like killing Black people? That place is definitely not on the list of places I want to go.” This blunt statement is one that an American reader must confront. It also lets us know that Arit will make her way to Nigeria.

In Nigeria, we meet Faith, a young woman kicked out of her sister’s house as another mouth to feed. We see her struggles immediately: “If her life had little prospect of getting better, then she hoped things didn’t get any worse.” Faith drifts through her life, finding both good fortune and hardship. She becomes remarkable in her unremarkableness, seeming to be an almost non-presence to those around her, except if asked to fetch something. She finds herself in the employ of a doctor who runs a guesthouse where she encounters Arit. In a strange scene, Faith is made to give Arit her fancy jacket, here Arit, who turns out to be older than Faith, is referred to as Aunty. It’s hard to know what to make of this scene. There’s an impulse to scream at Arit, who seems oblivious to the struggles of the young woman from whom the novel takes its name.

In the novel’s final sections, we see Arit building a life in Nigeria, while Uduak grows hers in America, questioning why her daughter’s trip has become a quest. We receive a visit from Epkewan in a parallel universe. The ending lines of the novel are as beautiful and complicated as we’ve come to expect.

Faith is an intricate novel and challenging read on many levels. We become entangled in intersecting lives of women across continents, generations, and worlds. It is not always easy to follow the who and what of the novel. Faith herself has a small and nebulous role, often seeming like more a spirit in her own life. Bassey gives us clear intonations on the experience of being Black, both in the United States and Africa. But she also poses questions about what we owe our ancestors and what a mother is to a daughter and reciprocally.

In a recent dinner table conversation, my children learned that a not-too-distant ancestor, their great-grandfather, had been murdered in the course of the Spanish Civil War. Their heads spun at this knowledge and I think about their perception of this ancestor on their backs. How does his experience guide them? His loss bearing on his infant son’s life, shaping a daughter who would be their mother. These questions loom large in Faith, giving us latitude to play with answers and possibilities.

Many years ago, I had the good fortune to be invited to travel and work for a short span in Nigeria. I saw the chaos, hardships, and beauty of that large country. For me, Faith was a means to relive that journey in the voices and images so beautifully rendered in Bassey’s prose. But regardless of any experience with Nigeria, Faith takes us on an unforgettable journey. While we await the next work from Itoro Bassey, this novel is one to read and reread.

Faith, by Itoro Bassey. Malarkey Books, January 2022. 256 pages. $16.00, paper.

Francois Bereaud is a husband, dad, full time math professor, mentor in the San Diego Congolese refugee community, and mediocre hockey player. His stories and essays have been published online and in print and have earned Pushcart and Best of the Net nominations. He serves as an editor at Roi Fainéant Press and Porcupine LiteraryThe Counter Pharma-Terrorist & The Rebound Queen is his published chapbook. In 2024, Cowboy Jamboree Press will publish his first full manuscript, San Diego Stories, which is the realization of a dream. You can find links to his writing at

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