Patronised Immigrants – A Chat with Okey Ndibe
“It is quite a while since I sensed creative promise on this level,” said Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka on reading Foreign Gods Inc., a recent novel by outspoken Nigerian writer Okey Ndibe. We sat with Okey to discuss the book, Chinua Achebe and immigrant life.
This interview was first published by This is Africa
Atane Ofiaja: Tell us a little about yourself and your background.
Okey Ndibe: I was born in Yola, Nigeria and I grew up in Nigeria. After college, I worked as a journalist for two major Nigerian newspapers, The Concord and The Guardian. I then came to America in December of 1988 at the invitation of Chinua Achebe. He asked me to be the founding editor of a magazine that he and some of his colleagues published in the US called African Commentary. I’ve lived in the US ever since. Wow, so that’s been over 25 years.
After the magazine, I went to graduate school to get an MFA in fiction. As part of that study, I produced what became my first novel, Arrows of Rain; it was later published in 2000 by Heinemann UK in their African writers series. It will be reissued later this summer by Soho Press, an American publisher who acquired the rights to the novel. So Foreign Gods, Inc. is my second novel. Along the way, I got a PhD from the University of Massachusetts. I currently teach at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. I’ve taught at a few colleges like Simon’s Rock College, Connecticut College, and Trinity College. I’ve been a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Lagos, and I have worked for the Hartford Courant, which is the largest newspaper in Hartford, and it is the oldest continuously-published newspaper in the US.
AO: You mentioned that Chinua Achebe brought you to the US. How did you get to know him?
ON: It’s a very interesting story actually. When I finished college in Nigeria, I was recruited by the Concord magazine, which was initially called Concord Weekly, and ultimately became the African Concord. It was a weekly news magazine published by the Concord group of newspapers. Before I reported to Lagos to take up that appointment, I went to visit a friend who happens to be from Ogidi, which is Chinua Achebe’s hometown. I was raving to her about Chinua Achebe, telling her that I wished I was from Ogidi, because of the great admiration I had for Achebe. I very much would have wanted to say I was from the same hometown as this extraordinary novelist. She was smiling as I spoke, then she said to me “Do you know that Chinua Achebe is my uncle?” I was quite surprised. She told me that his home wasn’t far from where we were and that he would be home that weekend, and asked if I wanted to meet him. Of course I wanted to meet him. I couldn’t wait. She took me to Achebe’s country home, and anyone who knew him knows that he was a very genial, warm-hearted man. He was quietly elegant and very hospitable. Before I left, after spending a couple of hours telling him about my admiration for his work, I told him that I had been hired by the Concord and that I would like to interview him. He gave me his number at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where he was then a professor. He said anytime I wanted an interview I should call him. So I reported on duty at Concord and told the editor that I had met Achebe and he said I could interview him anytime I wanted. The editor said that would be my first assignment. The magazine quickly sent me to Enugu, and I went to interview Achebe in his office at Nsukka.
The interview lasted about three hours. I had read everything Achebe had written that had been published, including his essays and so on. I was just crazy about his work, so I had a lot of questions to ask. At the end of the interview, I went to my hotel room in Enugu. I had some friends who went to school in Enugu, so a lot of my friends gathered in my hotel room because they wanted to hear Achebe’s words. I pressed the cassette recorder so we could listen, but it turned out the recorder had malfunctioned. It didn’t pick up a word of anything Achebe had spoken in those three hours. So I panicked and called him immediately to tell him what happened and that I was really sorry, especially after taking up so much of his time. Also, being that I thought the interview was being taped, I had not written down any notes at all. I said to him that I know I wasted his time, but if he would let me come back the next day, for just 20 to 30 minutes, so that I would at least have something to take back with me. He was busy the next day and was fully scheduled, but told me that he would give me as much time as I needed the day after. So two days later, I returned to the university armed now with three different tape recorders, not just one.
AO: You made sure nothing went wrong this time.
ON: Achebe was gracious enough to give me another interview that lasted about 2 and half hours. I wrote a piece on the interview which ended up being a cover story. The next time I was in Enugu, I called Achebe’s home, but he wasn’t there. His wife said that he loved my writing. He and I kept in touch, and over the years, I interviewed him in Nigeria several times before he became a professor at the University of Massachusetts. He and other Nigerian academics talked about the prospect of starting a new magazine in the US and Achebe proposed me as the founding editor. So that’s the story.
AO: Incredible. Did you always want to be a writer?
ON: I always wanted to be a writer, but for me writing meant journalism. I didn’t know I could be a novelist. My father subscribed to several newspapers and magazines like Time, Newsweek and various Nigerian publications. I wasn’t that interested in the news, so I was drawn to opinion pieces. I began to read Lance Morrow and Roger Rosenblatt in Time, and prominent Nigerian journalists like Alade Odunewu and several others. That was what I wanted to do. I wanted to write a column and do opinion pieces.
AO: How did you end up writing fiction?
ON: My detour into fiction began with what I sometimes call two creative lies that I told on two separate occasions; one in Nigeria and one in the US. In the case of Nigeria, I had been on a flight with Dillibe Onyeama, who used to live in London and had written some books that I read in high school and college. He returned to Nigeria to set up a publishing company. One day, he and I were on a flight to Enugu and I introduced myself. I was rather flattered that he knew who I was and that he had been reading my journalistic pieces. So as we were talking on the flight, he turns and says to me “You’re working on a novel, right?” I wasn’t working on a novel, but the way he asked the question, he seemed so sure that I felt I would look ridiculous if I said no, so I said yes. A few moments later, I asked him how he knew I was working on a novel. He said my language in my journalistic pieces comes across as the language of a novelist. So that gave me a boost of confidence. I came back to work on what I believed was a novel. I had just finished the manuscript when Achebe invited me to come to the US. When I came to the US, I found out that there was a different standard here. I encountered the American bookstore where anyone could go in and read for hours without buying anything and no one would bother you. In Nigeria, if you go to a bookstore and open a book and linger on a page for too long, they’ll tell you that if you’re not buying the book to put it down. So the idea of coming to a bookstore to sit down and read a book without buying it was new to me as a Nigerian. So I would go to bookstores here and sit down and read all day. Sometimes I would finish a book in a day. What struck me about the books I was reading was the complexity of the stories in the novels I was reading. It occurred to me that what I thought was a novel in Nigeria was really very superficial work. I discarded that manuscript. I said to myself “You’re not a writer; you don’t have what it takes.”
AO: What did you do next?
ON: After the magazine I was editing collapsed, in 1992, I ran into an African-American novelist John Edgar Wideman who was a writer for the magazine I was editing. He said to me “What are your plans?” and I told him I don’t know yet. He then said to me “You’re working on a novel, right?” Again, like the last time I was asked that, I lied and said yes. He told me to get him 15 to 20 pages of it to see if he could get me into the MFA program at UMASS to study fiction. So I wrote furiously that weekend, and on the following Monday, I went to him with the pages that I had produced. He read it and loved it. He said it reminded him of Ngugi wa Thiong’o, a Kenyan novelist who happens to be one of the best writers of all time. I was so flattered. He arranged for the MFA program to reserve a position in their incoming class for me. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to start immediately because my transcripts had not arrived from Nigeria. I had to wait another year. So that’s how I got into the MFA program and began writing a novel after that creative lie.
At a conference in Kenya, I told Ngugi about my creative lie and he said the same thing happened to him when he was a student at Makerere University in Kampala. He talked about how he told an editor that he was working on a short story, and the editor told him that he would love to see it. Ngugi said he ran home and wrote a story, and look at where Ngugi is now. He’s one of the most important writers of our time.
AO: You got your MFA in fiction. As a fellow Nigerian, I know this can be a problem for our parents who want us to study things like medicine, law, or engineering. Was this an issue for you?
ON: Oh yes, definitely! My parents worried themselves sick about it. Right from high school, I was no good at math and the sciences. I spent my time in class hiding in a corner, or sometimes I would even sneak out to the bathroom to read a novel. When I was at home, my parents saw me constantly reading novels. They used to say “What are you going to do with novels?” When it wasn’t novels, then I was reading newspapers. They didn’t think I was good enough to be hired as a reporter. And even if I was good enough; they felt that I had the option to be an engineer, a doctor, an accountant or an architect, and couldn’t understand why I would choose to be a journalist or a writer. They really worried about this. They thought I was wasting my life and squandering my future. I was lucky. I tell people that writing saved my life. There was a time when all I could do was read and write, and that was what I brought to the table. There were moments when I thought that the world didn’t need me, and that people wouldn’t care for another guy who could write, so where would that leave me?
After my MFA, I asked myself what I would do with this degree in fiction. In the mean time, I needed to pay bills, so I applied for a job as a manager at McDonald’s. They actually called me for an interview. When they asked for my resume, I made the mistake of giving them my real resume, showing that I had edited an international magazine, magazines in Europe and in Nigeria and so on. Plus I had an MFA degree. They had me do a test for three days, which involved me going in very early in the morning, supervising what was going on since I was applying to be a manager. On one occasion, I went to the bathroom and saw that someone really messed it up in there. I came out and asked one of the staff to clean it, and she said to me “You go do it!” because she knew I was interviewing and felt I couldn’t tell her what to do. So I went to speak to the man interviewing me, asking him what I was to do as I’m supposed to be the manager and I’ve given one of my staff an instruction to clean the toilet and she told me to go do it myself. He told me that she’s busy doing fries and that I should clean it. I went and cleaned the toilet. Then I was told that I had to make sure that there were no napkins and garbage people dropped on the floor, so I went and picked up everything off the floor. After three days, the man said to me “You have all these qualifications. We don’t want to hire someone who will leave soon. We don’t think you’re going to stay.” I told him I was going to stay because I had no other job. The New York Times wasn’t going to hire me and the Hartford Courant didn’t have jobs at the time, so I was ready to make a transition to become a manager at McDonald’s. After I protested that I was going to stay, he said he would give me a call. I’m still waiting for that call. (laughs)
OA: This is a perfect segue to Foreign Gods, Inc. The protagonist in the book is Ike Uzondo. He’s a well educated Igbo man. He went to Amherst, but he’s having issues with his citizenship and his thick accent is holding him back. Despite his education, he can’t get a job, so he’s been stuck driving a cab for 13 years. Now I don’t know if anyone has ever asked you this, but do you see yourself in the character? Obviously it’s not exactly the same, but is there a little bit of you in the character?
ON: (laughing) The reason I’m laughing is that everywhere I have given a talk about this book, someone has asked me this question in some way, and my response was usually “Hell no! I’ve never stolen anything in my life, much less a deity like Ike.” – But then I pause because I’ve stolen things before. I used to have a fetish for pens. If someone loaned me a pen that was very good, I would walk away with it if I could. I loved to collect pens. I’ve also liberated books. Liberated is what I call it. I had wealthy friends in Nigeria who would go and get books to put on their shelves for decoration. They never read the books, and here I was hungry to read. I knew a guy who constantly traveled to London and the US. I would give him a list of books I wanted him to buy for me, and he’d return to say he was so busy that he wasn’t able to get them. Then I’d look on his shelf and see that he bought the books for himself. He never read the books at all. He just put them on his shelf, so I when I would visit him and he wasn’t looking, I would liberate the books.
To answer your question, there are dustings of an author in whatever the author writes. There are parts of you that seep into your work. When I was writing about Ike, I was conscious that I was writing a purely fictional character. However, when you’re writing a fictional character, where does the imagination come from? Our imaginations are also a product of our experiences, right?
They spring from experiences. There are certain things you can’t really imagine unless you’re in the realm of maybe science fiction, but much of what we imagine is part of our experiences. Looking back at my early years as an academic, I religiously read my student evaluations, now I no longer bother. I was lucky that I usually received excellent evaluations, but almost always, there is a student or two in your class who would write so nastily about you, and with me it was my accent. They would write this professor’s accent is annoying and I don’t want to hear him for even one more minute. That sort of criticism stays with you, even though there are many evaluations saying you’re a wonderful professor, you read one nasty comment, and you feel attacked. So that’s one aspect of it.
When I first came to this country, people kept saying they loved my accent and I would say thank you. Then one day I was with an African-American friend and a white woman said to me “I love your accent”, and he lashed out at her, telling her that it was racist and who does she think she is to tell me she loved my accent. How about he loves your accent? I was shocked. Up until then, I never thought that the whole ‘I love your accent’ thing was similar to the patronising way adults talk to children, like saying “Oh, you look so cute.” Which is not so much admiration, but that you’re childlike; and telling me you love my accent is saying you’re superior and speak properly. They think you’re speaking incompetently, but because you do, you become this exotic being and they’re titillated and entertained just by listening to you speak.
I once applied for a job at a newspaper, and the editor that interviewed me hadn’t read my resume to see that I had edited an international magazine, that was considered one of the best publications in this country. I also had an MFA at the time. The man asked me to go through an internship, which they reserved for graduates fresh out of college with their first degrees. This internship was for 12 months, and then the interns would get an entry-level reporter position. I was applying for a reporter’s position and there were thirteen positions available. This man after looking at my resume still suggested that I go through the internship for a year, and only after then would they consider giving me an entry-level position. I asked why, and he said I’ve been working with a magazine and I need experience with a daily newspaper. At the time, I had been writing for a paper as a freelance reporter, so I said I had newspaper experience, as well as my experience with a daily newspaper in Nigeria. He sort of turned up his nose, as if to say ‘How dare you mention Nigeria?’ you know, it’s a third world country and we’re talking about American journalism. Finally I said to him, if I had been a British or Australian editor of an international British or Australian magazine, would you ask me to do an internship for a year before you considered giving me an entry-level job? He said to me “That’s a good question” and I said to him “That’s a bad answer”. That was the end of that interview. So I’ve had those experiences where I felt set apart, on the account of my accent or I felt discrimination because of it. But I’ve never driven a cab, gambled, had an alcohol dependency or married for a green card, so all that is fiction, but there are people like Ike that I know.
OA: How did you get the idea for the book?
ON: Good question. There’s actually a deity in my town called Ngene. One day, a cousin of mine told me about a statue of the deity that went missing. Nobody knew who took it, but a week or two later, the statue returned to its shrine. I was intrigued when I heard that story. I began to wonder who could have possibly taken it. Initially, I wanted to write a story where the statue of the deity was taken by members of a fundamentalist Christian group to destroy what they considered a false god, and then the worshippers of the deity would fight back; classic religious conflict story. I set out to write it as a short story and not a novel. One day, something struck me. My cousin who told me this story owned a shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts where he sold African arts and crafts. Things like masks and so on. I visualised a larger shop in New York that sold things like that to collectors all over the world. Once I got the idea, I realised that it wasn’t going to be a short story and that it would be a novel. The story then changed.
OA: Obviously Foreign Gods, Inc. is your latest book, and I hope this isn’t too premature to ask, but are you working on something else?
ON: Oh yes, I’m working on something else.
OA: This is like the questions you got years ago “So you’re working on something else, right?”
ON: (laughing) This time when I say yes, I’m not lying. It took me quite a bit of time to finish Foreign Gods, Inc., which started as a short story and careened into over 1,200 pages. I finished it about six years ago and spent four years cutting it down to the current size of the book. There’s a major section that I cut in the middle, which is close to 300 pages that I’m going to reshape into a different novel. While writing Foreign Gods, Inc., I took some time off to get my PhD. The immediate thing I’m writing now is something I call my memoir essays. They’re personal snippets and narratives based on my life and experiences as an immigrant in America. So for those who have asked if Ike Uzondo is autobiographical, I can then say to them that this is my own personal story. The book will be titled Going Dutch and other American Misadventures, in which I write about many things that happened to me, like the time I was arrested for bank robbery.
OA: What? You were arrested for bank robbery?!
ON: (laughs) I had only been in America for 10 days. Somebody robbed a bank and the police felt like I fit the description, so I was picked up and they drove to my apartment. They wanted to see my passport. I told them I had never even been inside a bank. I didn’t even have a bank account, and I didn’t know where to get a gun, so I definitely couldn’t have robbed a bank. It’s funny and very frightening when I tell the full story. So I’m writing about things like that, and also my idea of America growing up in Nigeria.