The Writer’s Block Transcripts: A Q&A with Okey Ndibe
Nigerian writer Okey Ndibe is the author of two novels, Arrows of Rain (2000) and Foreign Gods, Inc. (2014). His upcoming memoir, Never Look an American in the Eye, is due out in October. His writing touches on themes central to his own experiences in Nigeria, the challenges of immigrating to the United States, and conflicts with the Nigerian government. In April, Ndibe read from Foreign Gods, Inc. at City of Asylum Pittsburgh.
In this interview with Sampsonia Way, he discussed his literary roots and influences, his personal relationships to the characters in his works, and the experience of chasing the elusive American Dream. Ndibe has taught at numerous universities in the United States and Nigeria and is currently a Black Mountain Institute Fellow at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas for the 2015-2016 academic year.
Could you describe your relationship with Nigerian literature?
I was very fortunate when I was in high school, growing up with a vibrant educational system where intellectual affairs mattered. People loved the reading culture. As I was coming of age, Nigeria was making a major transition in its curriculum for high schools from an era where students read exclusively European–specifically British and Victorian literature–to one where we are now. My class was actually the first one that read African literature so I read the greats like Wole Soyinka, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, and Chinua Achebe of Kenya and I was introduced to a wider tradition of African writers in poetry, in fiction, and in drama. It was very important to my intellectual and creative development.
My last year in high school, I sent a hand-written, short opinion piece to The Daily Star, which was the major newspaper in my home state. One day my father called me and said, “Did you send a piece to The Daily Star?” I was actually quite afraid because I thought the newspaper might have called my father and said, “Warn your son not to send those very juvenile write ups.” Growing up, corporal punishment was used at school and at home. If you disgraced your family you’d be caned, so I considered lying and saying, “No it wasn’t me.” Then my father said, “Because somebody saw a newspaper today and it has a piece with your name.” I told him I was the writer and my father hugged me. That was a very important transitional moment.
I had been a very difficult child. I was interested in the kinds of adventures a young man would like. I liked to go dancing, pursuing girls and so on. My parents were really worried about what I was going to become. In those days kids knew that they wanted to be lawyers or architects or engineers. To be a writer really wasn’t sexy at all. Writers didn’t do well. My parents felt that I was good at language so I should be a lawyer, but I didn’t have the discipline. I was a party personified.
During the long holiday vacation from school, I went to Enugu, the state capital, where The Daily Star was located. I went to see my favorite columnist whose pieces I read every Sunday. I told him in addition to being a great fan of his, I had written a piece which his paper had published. He told me to go to the accounts department so they could pay me. I didn’t know people were paid for writing.
So I went there, got paid, and began to write more for the paper. After my second year in college, I paid my way through the rest of college from money that I earned writing both for this paper and for other papers in Nigeria, as well as magazines that were focused on Africa that were based in London. So that’s how my career therefore was decided. I didn’t know what I was going to do in my life and now I had discovered something that I was passionate about, something that didn’t feel like work.
Your mentor, Chinua Achebe, brought you to America to be one of the founding editors of his publication, African Commentary. How did you meet Chinua?
When I was in high school, as I said, we had begun to read African literature. So we were all very familiar with Achebe’s novel. We read Things Fall Apart, and No Longer at Ease and on my own, I’d read the rest of his novels. But these two were the prescribed texts. One long holiday, I would gather with some friends of mine at a roadside just to while away time and talk about girls and our small adventures. One day in the distance we saw a car that looked rather strange. As the car passed us, we saw that it had been driven by Chinua Achebe. We recognized his face because it was on the back of all of his books. So we jumped onto the highway and we began to wave to him. We could see that he saw us in the rearview mirror and that made our week. Then one day I was wandering around town and came to a gas station where Chinua Achebe was in the same car, getting fuel. My heart began to pound and I walked up to him and said, “Good afternoon, sir,” and he said, “Good afternoon.”
That was my first encounter with Achebe. Several years later after college, I had been hired by this newspaper and I had two weeks to start work. I visited my parents and a girlfriend of mine from Ogidi, Achebe’s hometown. During the visit, I began to rave about Achebe and I said “I wish I were from Ogidi, so that I could claim that I was part of Achebe in some direct way.” So she looked at me with wry amusement and told me that Achebe was her uncle and that his house was not far from hers. She took me to go see Achebe and he was such a gracious, generous man. I kept raving about his books and trying to impress to him that I was a total fan. I told him that I had just gotten a job with a weekly magazine and that I would want to interview him. He gave me his phone number and told me to call him whenever I was ready. When I reported for this job at the newspaper, I told the editor that I’d met Chinua Achebe and he would give me an interview.
That was my first assignment. The magazine paid my hotel and my flight ticket to go back to my home state where Achebe was a professor at the University of Nigeria in Nsukka. He and I met at his office at the University for three hours. That evening I came back to my hotel and some of my friends were there because it was a huge deal. They wanted to listen to this interview with Achebe. I pressed play and silence. I put in a different tape, pressed play and silence. I had interviewed Achebe for three hours and had caught not a word that he said. I’d been so awed by his presence that I had not taken notes. I called him back in a panic and asked if I could go back and get 25 to 30 minutes. Achebe said “I’m sorry. Tomorrow won’t work, but if you come back in two days, I’ll give you all the time you want.” So I borrowed money from friends to stay an extra two days. In my forthcoming memoir which is coming out in October of this year, I tell that story of how Achebe saved my career. That’s how we met. He loved the report that I wrote and we became close.
So in 1988, when he and some friends decided to set up a magazine in America, he told them that I would be the perfect candidate to be the founding editor. So he brought me to America.
How did your relationship with African Commentary and its writers influence you as a writer?
African Commentary was such an important voice when it came out. It was a revolutionary voice. It had happened before, W.E.B Du Bois had published The Crisis that had the entire black world as its purview. So this was what we tried to recreate with African Commentary. Achebe, myself, and the other people who worked in the magazine wanted a medium that would reflect on and explore the relationships within and between people of African descent around the world, to begin to engage with the question of why Africa and people of African descent were often in bad shape. It became a very important voice that resonated with so many different readers and brought together a great collection of African intellectual powerhouses from the continent as well as the Diasporas. People like Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor, Chinua Achebe, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Nadine Gordimer and others were part of the magazine. It was a very important magazine at the time it came out.
Here I was, getting to meet all these writers and all these intellectuals because I was editing the magazine. One of our writers was John Edgar Wideman, the fascinating African-American writer, and Michael Thelwell, the Jamaican-American writer who wrote The Harder They Come. Extraordinary writers, and a lot of them became both direct and indirect intellectual, moral, and ethical influences on me. A lot of them would champion my career subsequently. I was very fortunate to be part of the great intellectual ferment that was brought about by African Commentary.
Eventually, the magazine was shut down because we couldn’t impress the ties in the industry to support us. The response we got constantly was, “Your magazine is too serious in its engagements. Do an Ebony Magazine, or an Essence Magazine.” But Ebony and Essence already exist. We wanted to do something else. After a while, Achebe and the other investors in the magazine—about ninety percent of them were professors and academics—simply could not keep up with the financial burden of bringing out a magazine that wasn’t making money so they decided to let it die. If it were today with the resources of online publishing, we might have tried to sustain it.
You wrote in your essay, “Eyes to the Ground,” about your experience as a Black college student. What are your thoughts on the campus activism that we’re seeing among black students, particularly in places like Yale and Duke?
I think it’s in the nature of young people to want to create a more just world, a better world. Sometimes the world they want to create becomes too idealistic. In the long run it may turn out to be that what the students are fighting for is not particularly significant. For me it’s heartening when I hear young people say that they want a world that is better, where there is greater justice and concern for segments of the population that are not well treated. In recent months, in the last year and a half, there’s been a great interest in police brutality towards black people. I think that’s always existed but it’s important that students are standing up for greater consciousness of issues like police brutality and profiling—which has been there for many, many years—out in the open and discussed.
I was a victim of a police arrest ten days after I came to America. The police arrested me for bank robbery. The police saw me at the bus stop, picked me up and said I fit the description of the robber. The story ended well because I told them I had just come to this country. The officer drove me to my apartment, and I gave him my passport. He realized I had just come to America and unless I was a genius, I would not have been able to pull off a robbery.
In 2001, my wife and I got Fulbrights to teach in Nigeria. I went to the US embassy in Lagos and across the street from the embassy was this man in a shack with all kinds of anti-American graffiti, posters. I went to talk to him and he said he had been living in California with his family and the cost of living was too high so he went to see if he could get a job in Texas. He went to interview for a job, on the day of the interview he needed to draw some cash and went into a bank. There was a long line at the teller so he came out because he had enough money for transportation to the interview. He was waiting for a taxi or a bus and a police officer showed up and arrested him and said that the bank said that he came in to rob the bank and then he pulled out. They took him in and said that that particular bank had been robbed like two or three times before so they said he was now being charged with the robberies. The guy said, “I was in California. I just came here for this interview.” Somehow they appointed a legal defense attorney for him who told him “Let’s plead guilty.” The judge found him guilty of this robbery and sentenced him. He began to shout at the system, at the judge, at the prison officials driving him to prison. As they were processing him, one of the prison wardens got upset with his screeching and flung him against the wall and he cracked his spine. He became paralyzed. He finished serving his time. And then they said “Oh you are an immigrant. We are throwing you out of the country.” They knew he was now going to file a case. He told the judge that he was married to an American. So the judge said “Well, I am going to postpone this case, bring proof that you are married to an American.” He wrote a letter to his wife in California to bring proof, but later found out the wife never received the letter. He believes the prison authorities did not send it. When the case came up again, the judge said, “Do you have the letter?” He said, “I don’t think they sent a letter.” The judge said, “I don’t want to hear it,” and signed his deportation. They deported him to Nigeria and as a protest he set up outside of the US Embassy with all these anti-American slogans.
I realized that my story I was telling about being arrested for bank robbery had ended well and I could have fun telling it. But if it had been in the wrong place, it would not have mattered that I had just come to this country; perhaps I would have been in this guy’s shoes or worse. So when students are concerned about these questions it’s important.
When you were writing Foreign Gods, Inc., did these stories influence your development of Ike as a character?
There are always pieces of myself when I write. I don’t know if that’s true of every writer, but it’s true of me. Whenever I write there are aspects of my experience, conscious or unconscious, that permeate the narrative. Once my book came out, at readings somebody would get up and propose that perhaps I was Ike.
My next book, which is coming out in October, is actually my own immigrant experience in America. It’s titled Never Look an American in the Eye. I’m telling my own story as it happened so we can separate my story from that of my characters. But clearly my experiences and the lived experiences of other people that I have witnessed got into Ike’s narrative. One example I can give is when Ike pays somebody for a green card and the person takes his money and runs. I know of somebody who that happened to who paid a woman to pose as his bride. When immigration called the guy for an interview to bring his bride, the woman said “I’m not going.” And of course, he could’ve said, “Oh you signed a contract, you took the money, you have to go.”
I know a lot of Nigerians with PhDs, MBAs, and Masters who are cab drivers, mostly on account of their accent. I met a book club that resisted this whole idea that people would discriminate on account of an accent. That’s because they think that their accent is like the one that I have. There are some people who speak in a very strong accent. It’s a totally different kind of accent. Even I make it clear in the novel how strong his accent is. It’s a different order of accent.
A man from Lebanon who has a degree in mathematics and who was a lawyer is a cab driver in New York. In London, I met an Egyptian lawyer who was a cab driver. It’s a common story. Those things inform the story. They’re not my personal experiences necessarily but they are indirect experiences.
As the narrative of Foreign Gods, Inc. unfolds, we witness Ike make questionable choices in dogged pursuit of the American dream. How is Ike’s pursuit of the American dream a reflection of the Nigerian immigrant experience?
Ike is animated by the American dream. His father dies shortly after he comes to America. He has a widowed mother and a sister. In Nigeria and in much of Africa there isn’t social security, so if you are going to eat, you better have children who have jobs and who are doing well. That’s why a lot of parents make sacrifices for their children to go to school. It’s why people growing up batter down to do what it takes to succeed. Take my parents for example: my mother had a high school education, and my father had an elementary school education. My father became a postal clerk and rose to post master. My mother became an elementary school principal. But those positions, then and now, were not middle class positions. They were lower-middle class.
I recall very few times growing up when I had enough food to eat. Very few times, usually it was on Christmas or Easter or some other festivity where there would be a lot of food. Otherwise, when we ate, my mother would tell us to drink more water because there wasn’t more food. So that gave us a drive. We didn’t have a car for many years, but we wanted to have a car. My parents, my mother eventually got a car loan. But once the car died, we went back to carelessness. We had friends in high school whose parents had money and therefore had several cars. We envied them. For us owning a car was such a good fantasy.
In school, you wanted to be better than the next guy. I was lucky that I was reading literature and newspapers and I fell into writing. I lucked out because I didn’t have to work so hard. But my siblings: my elder brother is a medical doctor. My sister lives in New York and has a degree in fine arts, education, and social work. My other younger brother is an architect and the youngest is an attorney. From having parents who had very little education, all of us had, at least, advanced degrees.
That’s what the drive that somebody like Ike has. He has done what America has asked him to do in order to succeed. He wants to succeed both for himself but also to take care of his mother. Here he is driving a cab. You could take care of your mother by driving a cab, but Ike has a particular sense of himself. He thinks: “I’m cum laude. I did well in school. I should have a job in the corporate world.” That’s how he envisions himself. That job isn’t there and the frustration of being a cab driver for thirteen years finally gets to him and opens him up to this kind of treacherous option. Especially after he’s undergone a divorce, he starts gambling and drinking so his sense of judgment is no longer informed by sobriety. Then with the divorce, he loses everything. So Ike is experiencing a kind of greed that can come to you when you take as axiomatic this idea that once you work hard, you’re going to succeed in America. You see a number of people who have worked hard and have succeeded but you see just as many people sometimes who worked hard but simply in material terms, haven’t quite succeeded. They could be satisfied in themselves, and have a sense of dignity but materially they haven’t made it. Ike wants to make it materially.
His belief that stealing and selling an idol from his village will allow him to support his mother is part of how he rationalizes his decision to plunder from his culture. He feels an incremental kind of self-convincing. He feels this deity used to be the god of war for his people, but his people no longer fight wars. When there is a dispute between the village, his hometown and another hometown, they go to court. They hire lawyers. The deity has nothing to do with it anymore. Ike buys into this whole argument that says deities have to travel or lose relevance. Perhaps he buys into it conveniently because he has opened himself to this really frightening prospect of stealing and selling what used to be the god of war for his people. But he tells himself, “I can do good. This deity is of no use to anybody, it’s just there. It’s frozen in place. It has no offices anymore. If I steal it, I’ll make some money, I’ll take care of my mother and relatives and so on, and I’ll re-negotiate my self-dignity by starting a business or something.” So he’s got it all worked out and he’s going to do some good, he thinks.
How did you come to the decision to include the history of his town and its experience in conversion in the novel? Why was it important for you to include that?
When I was writing it, I wanted to give the reader a sense of the majesty and the history of this deity. This is the deity that the first Christian missionary had tried to dislodge and felt that he had failed. He becomes a creature of mystery when he disappears in the river. That antecedent, that past, that moment of antiquity, and the bad drama that takes place there inform and lend tension to the contemporary drama between Ike, who is coming to steal the deity, and the past time when the village almost destroyed the deity. You find this deity that has withstood a great titanic struggle between European colonialism and the African attempt to remain relevant and resilient—the traditional pathway in Africa. We find that the deity’s history illuminates the contemporary struggle and perhaps foreshadows how politics are going to turn out, both for the pastor and for Ike ultimately.
In writing your memoir, Never Look an American in the Eye, did you often feel the influence of history upon your life?
I’m aware of myself as existing in very important moments of history in Nigeria. I was born in 1960, the year Nigeria became independent. I was a child of the Nigerian Civil War, which began when I was seven and ended when I was ten. Some of my most poignant memories are rooted in that war. In terms of intellectual development, my high school year coincided with when Nigeria made a turn towards indigenous culture in its curricula. Before there was only European history and literature. In my class, they went to African history and African literature. All of those developments became important.
My father went to World War II in Burma. So growing up poor, I had friends whose parents had means and they would spend their holidays in London and they would come back and tell us stories. One of the stories that I remember was a friend saying that in London you can’t see any trees, any plants, any grass; it’s all concrete. That for us was beautiful because we lived with the European narrative that said we were bush people; we were savages. So when you lived in a village that had trees, you were ashamed of the trees. You were afraid of nature. You wanted to live in civilization and that meant concrete everywhere. So I envied my friend who had gone to this concrete landscape. Years later when I arrived in London, to see trees everywhere was amazing.
But when I was in high school that represented beauty to me—the absence of nature was beauty. When I was in high school even though my father couldn’t go to London, my father had this Englishman that he met during World War II in Burma. They exchanged letters for about 50 years until my father died. So I would steal the man’s letter to my father and go read it. He became my wealth. Even though I couldn’t go to London my father had an Englishman who was his friend.
The English had this ghost-like appearance to us, to me particularly. My life has been a steady progress towards making familiar that ghost and making myself—who must have seemed ghost-like to this colonial presence—making myself also more human rather than ghost-like.