Interviews · 03/11/2014

An Interview With Okey Ndibe

Very early in Foreign Gods, Inc., the second novel from Nigerian-American writer Okey Ndibe, we find Ikechukwu “Ike” Uzondu strolling through the eponymous Manhattan business where ancient relics and statues of deities are sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars. It’s his first trip to the store, though he already knows this is where he will sell his Nigerian village’s most sacred idol: The statue of Ngene, God of War.

Walking unhurriedly, he cast deliberate glances about him, so that an observer might mistake him for a veteran player in the rare sport where gods and sacred curios were bought and sold. He paused near the spiral staircase. A sign warned PLEASE DO NOT ASCEND UNLESS ESCORTED.

This opening scene depicts the book’s foremost conflict, between Ike’s Nigerian traditions and his desire for materialistic status symbols in his new home in New York City, which he finds to be riddled with false hope and few opportunities for someone with an Igbo accent. Ike walks into Foreign Gods, Inc. spiraling, frustrated with his inability to attain a white-collar job and spending his wages as a cab driver on Guinness and gambling rather than bills and his family back home.

This is where Ndibe — an elder statesman of sorts for a new wave of Nigerian writers, one who has worked with Chinua Achebe and become nearly a pariah in his homeland for speaking out against corruption — shows us the type of desperation that accumulates over years of frustration in a foreign country.

Originally a 1,000-plus page manuscript, according to Ndibe, Foreign Gods, Inc. uses banter and earnestness in its characters to offset what it really is: an efficient (332 pages in its final form) yet expansive look at the human psyche in some of its most defeated moments.

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I liked that “Foreign Gods, Inc.” skips Ike’s arrival in America. You allude to his initial disillusionment, but it was unique that you find him when he’s approaching rock bottom and thinking a lot about his old home in Nigeria. I was wondering if it was a concerted effort to move the story ahead? What did you hope to show?

When I set out to do the novel, I wanted to wrestle with the question of how do we come to a point where you contemplate the taking of an important sacred object, one that has filial ties, as his uncle is the chief priest of the deity. So I wanted to get to a point where there’s a combination of pressures. When people come to America they have all kinds of expectations. These expectations are shared by those left back in Nigeria, who expect you to go, do well, thrive in your studies, make a ton a money, and come take care of them. Ike confronts a reality where everything is not as it should be, and in his own case, his accent — people wouldn’t like him because he speaks in that way. Suddenly he wants to participate in the professional world and he cannot. And his sense of self is defeated, so he takes to marrying a woman who isn’t by any means at his level of education, but he’s desperate for a green card. So I had to, rather than move the novel with this slow accretion of details, I tried to bring it to the point where he’s already come to this moment of profound disillusionment.

It seems consistent in a lot of immigrant fiction that the disillusionment of America creates great inner conflict: They hide their struggles from their family back home because they don’t want to spoil the illusions built up, which represent hope, but that also means they’re struggling independently in a foreign place.

Absolutely. I came to this country to edit an international magazine. When I was coming, my salary was supposed to be $30,000 a year. I thought, in Nigeria, that that was a lot of money. I had all kinds of ideas — in Nigeria we had the impression that food was so dirt cheap in America. So I came here thinking that with a quarter, I could eat like a king. I was looking at that salary and thinking I could pay my rent, pay all my bills, and have $25,000 to save.

So I came to this country and a good friend of mine said to me we need to go grocery shopping. I said, ‘no way.’ He asked, ‘How do you propose to eat?’ I said, ‘I’ll be eating at a restaurant.’ He said, ‘You don’t have enough money.’ I said, ‘I have $30,000, I can spend 50 cents a meal.’ And he just said, ‘No. There’s nothing that 50 cents can buy for you.’ And then it happened that the magazine that I came here to edit lost its investors, and I had to work some without being paid at all. I actually depended on borrowing money.

And yet, before I came out, I had my youngest brother and two youngest cousins — my extended family back in Nigeria had given me the responsibility of paying their way through college in Nigeria. Back then, $500 a year would be enough to pay school fees, and if you added another three to five hundred, that would be enough for their food. So my family says, well you are a young man, you’re not married and making a lot of money, so you take care of these three.

This was extremely difficult for me. I didn’t want my parents and uncles and aunts to know that I was suffering and that I can’t provide for them. I was paid a little bit and after I paid the bills I had to pay, I sent all the money I had home, just to convey that things were fine. So yes, in that sense, I would say that I went through the phase where Ike doesn’t want his family to know that he’s going through very rough times.

Obviously Ike struggles more with gambling and alcoholism, where did those added false idols and temptations come from?

That definitely wasn’t a part of my experience at all. But I do know that people in extremely difficult situations with people who take to drinking and it becomes a way of at least temporarily forgetting the problems and woes and so on. And some people also think, who knows, maybe I’ll be lucky and strike it rich by gambling.

In the novel, for me, Ike’s heist, his decision to go steal the deity, it is his ultimate gamble. He becomes a gambler when it is not necessarily his nature to do this, but circumstances propel him in that direction.

My favorite element was probably all the parallels between the two competing religions and status symbols in Nigeria compared with the status symbols and false idols in America. Where did the parallel between the more materialistic idols in America and the burgeoning materialism intertwined with religion in Nigeria come from? Did you find it personally difficult to maintain ties with such values back home while searching for success in America?

In my case, I had been an assistant editor for a weekly magazine before Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian novelist, invited me here to step up as an editor of a magazine he published. You might say that my cultural bearings were set, and they have remained. I did experience some transitional disquiet that younger Nigerians, or younger Africans, or younger immigrants go through. The disquiet that I went through had to do with the cultural differences.

Back in Nigeria, one was always surrounded by one’s friends and it was usual to drop in on friends and to do it as frequently as you wished. When I lived in Nigeria there were friends who visited my house, or whose house I visited, and you could go everyday if you wanted. Then I came to this country and I found that you had to wait to be invited to come, and that was really, really disturbing to me. I remember a couple, who were my best American friends at the time, they would call me and say, ‘Is it ok if we drop in on you in three days?’ And I said, ‘Look, we’re friends. Just drop in, you don’t have to ask me.’

They were reluctant to do this. So one day I drove to their home unannounced and they looked at me in confusion, like, how could he come without telling us? Finally, we stepped inside and they told me ‘you’re welcome, but we prefer you tell us before you come.’

So, for me, this was difficult. The experience of going to eat with a friend. You have to split the bill. In Nigeria, one friend will sit with five friends and eat and all five friends would understand that it’s a part of the deal. And if he had money, he could do it once every week, twice every week, and treat his friends to a meal. So I have great stories of going to a restaurant thinking that somebody who invited me was going to pay, and then the bill came out…

Could you talk more about the circumstances under which you came to America? Given Chinua Achebe’s personal invitation, were there any particularly heightened expectations?

I came to this country in 1988, on December 10 was the 25th anniversary of my coming to America. I came at the invitation of Chinua Achebe to edit African Commentary, which was a magazine that he and some other Nigerian friends set up. So I was invited to be the founding editor. I came when I was 28.

I had actually wanted, from when I was in high school, to come to America. But I also had visions of going to England, which some people called the White Man’s Country because the British were the ones who governed us. I was interested in the UK because it was the location and the home of the white man who became part of our country and ruled us. So there was a fascination there. I was interested in coming to America because I was watching professional wrestling. I found it fascinating how this big bully-man would fly from the top ropes. I would say, ‘Wow, I want to go to this place where these men are so huge.’

Then, I also wanted to go to the Soviet Union because one day when I was in high school, I had overheard a man explain that communism meant that everybody owned everything in common. That nobody locked any cars so that you could see a Rolls Royce on the road and the key will be in it and you can just have the car and drive it wherever you wanted to go. My parents were poor, relatively speaking, so I said, ‘Wow, I want an opportunity to drive in big cars, to sleep in big mansions.’

Of course, as the years passed and I got into college, I knew those were fanciful ideas about the Soviet Union. My desire to go to England was whittled down to a curiosity that wasn’t very strong. And I began to admire America because of all the things America was doing in the world at the time. It was the fulfillment of a dream when Chinua Achebe invited me to come.

Did the personal invitation alleviate any doubt or guilt you may have otherwise had about leaving?

Yeah — yes. I was in New York over the weekend and I met Nigerians, and one of them was telling me how he came to this country many years ago expecting to quickly finish his degree and go back. That Nigeria was the place he would work, but then he found out when his degree was finished that Nigeria was basically falling apart, and he was stuck in this country. So there’s a sense that many here are compelled by the terrible situation back in Nigeria to stay in the US.

In my case, because I was invited to serve on something extremely important. I felt it was important, that if I was actually going to be here in America, I would help set up America’s focus on Nigeria and Africa, on the cultural, economic areas. So I was going to be as invested in the history and the continent as if I were there. That made it a little easier. But even when I became an American citizen in 1996, there was a measure of terror in my mom’s voice when I called her and told her I had been sworn in as an American citizen. Her question was ‘Why?’ Because she felt that if I became an American, it meant that Nigeria had lost me. The way I came to look at it is, Nigeria hadn’t lost me, but I had gained another country, while retaining Nigeria as well.

I was reading a James Baldwin essay recently about how he felt compelled to move to Paris to get away from America, which in the end, ironically, made him feel more that he belonged in America. This makes me wonder how you feel when going back to Nigeria — is there part of you that wants to stay and work directly on the country’s progress?

I’ve been writing a weekly column for a Nigerian newspaper since 1999 — mostly political, occasionally cultural and literary commentary. My column has acquired a reputation for a certain directness of tone about the corruption in the country. In January of 2011, I went to Nigeria to visit and I was arrested by six agents because the government has included my name on a list of enemies of the state on account of my commentary. That arrest provoked outrage both in Nigeria and amongst Nigerian groups abroad, groups like the Committee for the Protection of Journalist and several American and British writer groups as well. So the government, which had ceased my American passport, was compelled to return me to them. Since then, I have been arrested five times. So they will arrest and detain me, for anything, for two to ten hours and then I’ll be on my way.

The newspaper that I worked for before I came to this country invited me to start a column focusing on America, but I told them I was more interested in weighing in on Nigerian issues. So I’ve begun to write on the way in which a country’s progress is undermined by the profound corruption of its so-called leaders. So I have that reputation.

Having said that, I cannot live in America for any extended period of time without returning to Nigeria. I’ll come apart, I feel like. I need that sense of careless laughter that I experience in Nigeria. When I go there I have friends or I meet people who are funnier than any comic you can find working in America. They are your friend and they will make you laugh and want that connection.

With my American friends, when I pick up the phone, it’s like you have this business and that’s why you called. Let me know what this business is and get off the phone. I have friends in Nigeria I talk with and there’s no subject. Sometimes we spend thirty or forty minutes on the phone just saying ‘how are you?’ I love that. I love just that assurance that I have friends who would like to share with me when I have no business.

The American life is beautiful. People have relationships but they are very busy and they want you to cut to the chase. My desire is that people just talk because they are friends and it’s worth saying to you, ‘you’re my friend, you’re important to me and when I talk to you, that’s enough.’ So that’s why I go to Nigeria, despite the risks.

So you’ve become as comfortable as you can be, given the danger, straddling the Nigerian culture and friends and family with American culture? How much does this duality fuel your writing?

Well, I am going to be setting stories and novels in America. And anywhere I choose really. But also, the current project that I’m working on, it’s a memoir — not quite a memoir in the strict sense of the word. I’m writing a series of essays about my experiences in America, e.g. I was arrested for bank robbery. It happened that somebody robbed a bank and the police said I fit the description. So I’m telling all those stories, and the stories about my name (pronounced Oh-kay).

I’m just fascinated by the big American ways. I’m still trying to come to terms with them and grapple with them and understand that’s part of what it means to be American.

I believe I’ve heard you refer to an African renaissance — do you keep an eye on fellow Nigerian and African writers? What do you think of this new emergence of voices?

Yes, I did say somewhere that there is a renaissance in African writing. The way I want to look at it is this: There’s always been important writing being produced by Africans. The publishing industries in London and the US and in Paris have begun to pay attention in the last, maybe, roughly, ten years. So there are lots and lots of real talented and fascinating and interesting writers who are writing. And I, as a teacher, follow their writing. I teach some of the new writers and when I don’t teach them I like to, when I have the time, as much as possible, look up what they’re doing.

I’m really, really delighted that the world is paying close attention to what we have to say. Having said that, I also am a bit distraught that there were extraordinary African writers, but the publishing industry in Africa is very weak. Ideally, it should be African publishers who discover new voices, new talents in Africa, then introduce them to the world.

What happens is that when you get published in New York or London or Paris, you are deemed important. And a fledgling publishing industry in Africa can publish you for the local market. I think that the strongest publishing market in Africa is in South Africa — Nigeria is coming on strong, but I would like to see it more vibrant, more active in bringing out all the voices that are there.

So the talent is seeping out because the US and UK publishing industries are megaphones compared to African presses. What are they trying to do to prevent the writers from seeking careers overseas?

If you look at the most discussed writers from Africa, most of them, I would say, live in the US. Some in the UK. Some in France, some in Portugal. But occasionally, they find a voice, a writer on the continent, who is about to break out. One example I can think of is Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani’s I Do Not Come to You by Chance. She’s in Nigeria, and that book is selling well. For the most part, because of people who are here.

When I go to Nigeria I buy a lot of books published by Nigerian publishers. A lot of the writing is extremely good, but it is writing that would have benefitted from closer editing, that technical resource to help the flower brighten. The development of writers isn’t quite there. So some of the writing that Nigerian publishers release, the best way to describe it would be to say they have talent but its raw. They would’ve benefitted from closer attention.

Seeing the process fall short at times like that, is this something you could see yourself championing?

There’s no question that I’m interested in seeing more colors emerge in the writing. If I got asked to play that role, I’ll be happy to help. And I’ve actually done it informally in the past. Some younger writers have sent me their stories and I’ve read and given them feedback and even edited some that they were sending off to journals. But when you teach full time, which I’ve done the last ten years, and your hands are so full of your own novel, and writing, it can be difficult to commit a lot of time to helping. But that desire is there.

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Okey Ndibe teaches African and African Diaspora literatures at Brown University. He earned MFA and PhD degrees from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and has taught at Connecticut College, Bard College, Trinity College, and the University of Lagos (as a Fulbright scholar). He is also the author of Foreign Gods, Inc. and has served on the editorial board of Hartford Courant where his essays won national and state awards. He lives in West Hartford, CT, with his wife, Sheri, and their three children.

Justin Stephani is a bookseller for Politics & Prose in Washington DC, and his writing has appeared in The Rumpus, Electric Lit’s The Outlet, and Tweeds Mag. In the past, he has read manuscripts and run social media accounts for Pegasus Books and edited creative writing for Whole Beast Rag (before it ceased operations).