Wednesday, 24 September 2014

A Talk with Nigerian Writer Okey Ndibe

What does it mean to be an immigrant in the U.S today? What happens when a man who achieved professional skills finds himself on a different path, incapable of fulfilling his responsibilities to his family back in Nigeria? How do circumstances lead people who try to stay above water to drawn in the gigantic ocean of frustration, despair and failure?

Foreign Gods, Inc. is with no doubts a brilliant novel by Okey Ndibe, who explores the depths of the human condition when exposed to uncontrollable circumstances.
Ike Uzondu, the protagonist, lives in the U.S and doesn’t fit within the context of the American dream, which has made him a cab driver while he could work as a financial accountant in Wall Street. The immigration experience from Nigeria to the States forces the nature of his life experience to challenge the only seemingly possible chance left to get back on top: Ngene, the war deity of his homeland.
Foreign Gods, Inc. is also confronting Ike on a different level, not only as an immigrant in America but also back in his home country, trapped in a complex net of corruption, religious conflicts and political instability.
A story of despair, hope, family bonds, morality and faith all crafted with irony and linguistic shades which perfectly switches from fiction to storytelling.
VALENTINA A. MMAKA - In your novel you portray Nigeria in its many contradictions, moving the reader toward different threads: religious tensions, gender inequalities, corruption, political instability, migration. You chose to tell the story of the protagonist, Ike, who is a Nigerian immigrant in the States in the real momentum when he feels under pressure, a very delicate stage. You’ve skipped what is usually represented in stories about immigrants, how they arrive, how they adapt. What made you choose this perspective?
OKEY NDIBE – Each story is a unique organism, and demands its own parameters, its own inner logic and tensions. The subject I set out to explore had little to do with some of the concerns you enumerated. I was interested in a story in which my protagonist, having undergone the inevitable moments of gestation and primary initiation as an immigrant, is facing new kinds of challenges—trials that test his inmost moral and spiritual mettle. I was intrigued to learn how such a character might respond to what he perceives as his darkening circumstances.
VALENTINA A. MMAKA Ike, the protagonist, is a Nigerian immigrant who has gained a degree in the USA and fails to get the position he studied for the very moment he stumbles upon the reality of seeking a job, because of his “accent” which doesn’t fit the American standard. So it’s like to say America does prepare me to be a lawyer, a doctor, a finance manager, but when it comes the time to show my achievements and my skills, there’s still something missing just because I’m a foreigner. Immigration is a huge cruel experience. Does Ike feel a sense of being betrayed by that same country which gave him the opportunity to be more than a simple cab driver? How much of this sense of betrayal mines the identity?
OKEY NDIBE – I’d like to clarify several points, to avoid misperception. Being a cab driver is as dignified a way to earn a living as any other profession. The only time when this is not “true” is when, as in Ike’s case, he’d much rather be doing something else. Otherwise, there are lots of cab drivers who lead fulfilled, rich and satisfactory lives. And there’s nothing “simple” about being a cab driver. The other clarification is that the immigration is not always, or even primarily, “a huge cruel experience.” In many cases, it’s a lifesaver—which is why many people, including some who could be happy in their natal spaces, emigrate. Ike’s situation is by no means an every-person experience. I’d like to see Ike as one character who is done in by his accent. One could create another character in fiction—or find one in life—whose accent, even when stronger than Ike’s—becomes a key to all kinds of opportunities. Having said that, I’d leave the question of whether Ike feels betrayed to the impressions of each reader who encounters him.
VALENTINA A. MMAKA - Referred to the difficult experience of so many immigrants who often hide their real struggle in the foreign country, Indian author Kiran Desai said that immigration is like an act of translation where the possibilities of dishonesty are immense. Do you agree with this view?
OKEY NDIBE - I’m certainly intrigued by Desai’s claim. I like the openness and mystery of it; in fact, I admire writers who come up with such clever statements. There’s much to like—and agree with—in her statement. But one could also playfully broaden it by asserting that life itself, not just that sub-sector called immigration, is an act of translation susceptible to dishonesty (and, why not, honesty as well).
VALENTINA A. MMAKA – Ike is drawn as a failure. He failed in marriage; he failed the expectation back home. He became a drunkard and a gambler. Stressed in his solitude almost at the bottom of that huge hole of failures, he decides to give himself a last chance to gain in a different way the wealth he was supposed to achieve through his skills and university degree. He then decides to steal Ngene, the war god from his Village to sell it to “Foreign God, Inc.,” a huge New York gallery that sells statues of deities from around the world to rich, bored, mostly American collectors. Choosing a symbol of traditional belief from his own country to mend Ike’s failure in the land of opportunities is provocative. Does Ike feel he has paid enough for his struggle by stealing Ngene and the symbol it represents? Does he feel justified in face of the unjust treatment he received in the USA?
OKEY NDIBE – I doubt that Ike would think of his treacherous choice along the lines of being justified. Only a fool or a mad person would steal a deity quite so gleefully, in chest-thumping self-justification. If anything, I’d suggest that Ike desperately tries to avert his gaze from the pernicious and far-reaching implications of his choices. It’s not an easy path he’s taken. For sure, it’s not a path that lends itself to gloating and self-justification.
VALENTINA A. MMAKA – You also write about a Nigeria where traditional beliefs and Christian fundamentalists take the stage in raising tensions among people. What is the real impact of traditional beliefs in Nigerian societies? And how much do the Christian Pentecostal Pastors take advantage of it, preaching against traditional beliefs, promising prosperity and getting rich through getting more and more worshippers?
OKEY NDIBE – On the surface, at least, traditional belief systems are embattled, endangered, and on their way to extinction. But that’s only on the surface. In reality, aspects of traditional belief systems have grafted themselves even on Christian and Islamic creeds—the dominant faith paths in Nigeria today. I think, for example, that many miracle-hawking, prosperity-promising pastors employ the language and psychology of traditional diviners. Like traditional diviners, these pastors invoke the chimera of demonic yokes, witches and wizards, and human-made diabolism to explain sicknesses, unemployment, childlessness, the inability to find a spouse etc., etc. Even though I’m a Christian, I’m deeply troubled both by the ways in which some pastors, priests and imams use God’s name to exploit the gullible and desperate and the violence visited on those who are animists or have chosen not to believe.
VALENTINA A. MMAKA – Uka, the pastor who also intends to destroy Ngene, can be recognized in the many pastors who preach in Nigeria and who do really represent the symbol of wealth and flamboyance in the country. They drive SUVs and other posh cars, live in villas, and are escorted by the police. They register their brands; they have fat bank accounts overseas. Some have houses in the UK and USA, and own private jets. And among the most influential worshippers there are politicians. What is the relationship between politics and these pastors’ churches?  Do you believe that this presence and relationship between the two contribute in the lack of indignation in front of what corrupts Nigeria?
OKEY NDIBE – I’ve written elsewhere—in a piece for the New York Times—about the abominable nexus between religious hypocrisy and political corruption in Nigeria. I’m curious about the fact that most Nigerians would self-identify as devout Christians or Muslims. What then accounts for the intolerable level of corruption in the country? One explanation, for me, is that many Nigerians—especially those who hold and abuse exalted positions—have invented a deformed species of Christianity or Islam in which the mere profession of faith suffices—without any attendant evidence of ethical and moral transformation. A public official who steals public funds and then uses a portion of his loot to build a church or mosque must believe that God can be bribed! That’s how weird it’s become, this matter of faith divorced from morally sound behavior.
VALENTINA A. MMAKA – I’m curious about Ike’s feeling for his mother who is one of Pastor Uka’s most committed congregants. How did you personally relate to Ike’s feelings knowing that his mother is lost in her beliefs?
OKEY NDIBE – There’s a moment of irony in Ike’s profound sense of dismay at his mother’s complete susceptibility to Pastor Uka’s rogue schemes. Ike himself, whether he realizes it or not, is kin to the scheming pastor by the measure of their shared moral code. After all, Ike is in his hometown to steal a deity.
VALENTINA A. MMAKA – Your novel also focuses on the role of women in Nigeria. How much does the character of Regina, for example, reflect the reality of women in contemporary Nigeria? What will contribute in the next generation to emancipate women liberating themselves from traditional beliefs which often accuse them of being evil and witches especially when their spouses fail or die?
OKEY NDIBE – In many parts of Nigeria, women are still viewed with profound suspicion, or as somehow inferior to men. Part of the task for every Nigerian parent is to inculcate in their daughters the sense of their equality with men and dignity. In my novel, Ike’s former girlfriend, Regina, is accused of using “witchcraft” to cause her husband’s demise and death. On the basis of this unsubstantiated, hollow accusation, she’s stripped of her late husband’s assets. Women as well as enlightened men should rise in opposition to the practices—some of them culturally ingrained, some of recent provenance—that belittle, degrade or dehumanize women.
VALENTINA A. MMAKA – Without giving away the end of Ike’s adventure, was the end you wrote the one you envisioned from the beginning?
OKEY NDIBE – A novel is interesting to me precisely because it represents a creative adventure, especially for me as the writer. The adventure of writing Foreign Gods, Inc. led me to the way the novel ends. I thought it’d produce the right cathartic effect and leave the reader a bit restless, a bit unsettled, somewhat—yes—unnerved, even. I’m intrigued by the element of mystery in the way the novel ends.
VALENTINA A. MMAKA – The narrative of your novel goes from fiction to storytelling, making the whole of it sweet and easy to engage with. How important is the presence/influence of Nigerian Storytelling Tradition when you write?
OKEY NDIBE – I’m not sure that an animal called “Nigerian Storytelling Tradition” exists. Nigerian writing, yes. As far as storytelling tradition goes, I’m more aware of the tradition from my hometown of Amawbia, which is part of the broader Igbo tradition. As a child, I was lucky to be told numerous folktales by my parents as well as aunts, uncles and elders. As I grew older, I took a deep interest in the rich harvest of stories that are told at every Igbo occasion—marriages, funerals, naming ceremonies, age grade meetings, at the shrines of deities, in bars, etc.
VALENTINA A. MMAKA – Author Susan Sontag said that “no book is worth reading that isn’t worth rereading”. I’ve read somewhere that you read Things Fall Apart 40 times. Can you tell us from the first to the 40th how your feeling about the book changed?
OKEY NDIBE – Each rereading—whether of Things Fall Apart or Ngugi wa Thiongo’s A Grain of Wheat, or Soyinka’s The Man Died—each rereading of a book rewards the reader with new perspectives, fresh insights, deepened illumination. A great book invites interminable re-readings. But each consequent immersion, if you’re a careful reader, has the beauty, magic and surprise of a first encounter.
VALENTINA A. MMAKA – You wrote a powerful essay on your memories about the Biafran War; how do Nigerians relate today with that chapter of their history? Do you believe there’s reticence in speaking and writing about it among the elders? And what about the generation which came after, what do they know about it? How important is keeping a collective memory about the past?
OKEY NDIBE – I’ve argued that Nigeria’s current crises—from the carnage inflicted daily by Boko Haram to the malaise of corruption—owe their roots to the Biafran War. And specifically to our reluctance to reckon up its meaning, its ethical demands on us, its imperatives. My fear is that too many Nigerians are hostile to the project of memory. We say “nothing spoil,” or “no wahala” or “it shall be well,” or “God is in control” exactly at moments when we ought to be most concerned, when the sky is close to falling on us. We thought that catch phrases like “no victor, no vanquished” or “reconstruction, rehabilitation and reconciliation” would suffice to put the ghosts of Biafra to sleep. We’re living the nightmare today of that misconception.
VALENTINA A. MMAKA – There are so many young African aspiring writers, most of them have degrees in law, in economics in management but have also that fine sensitiveness for the written word. It’s hard making a living by writing, but what would be your best advice to those who need to make a living and still pursue a calling in literature?
OKEY NDIBE – I always tell people that a desire for riches should be the last reason they take up writing. Yes, a few writers break out and make a fortune from writing, but they’re the exception, not the rule. Besides, those who make a fortune from writing are not necessarily the best or most important writers. I’d write because I’m passionate about it, because I believe I have an important story to tell—and the world of literature would be a bit impoverished without that story. I’d write because it’s impossible—out of the question—NOT to write. If you feel so passionately about it, then, inevitably, you’d find the time and space to write. And let’s not forget the luck as well.
VALENTINA A. MMAKA – Were you an early reader? Which books would you read as a child or teen? What was the first book which represented a mirror for you and, let’s say, gave you permission to write?
OKEY NDIBE – Without question, I was an early reader. And I was a kind of omnivorous reader—novels, magazines, cartoons, the Bible—any text in sight! I became enchanted the moment I learned to read. I fell in love with the rhyme narratives of Humpty Dumpty. I treasured Victorian literature. But it was my discovery of African writing—Achebe, Soyinka, Ngugi, Ekwensi, Nwapa—that truly made a magical impact on me. And yes, Things Fall Apart was that book that sparked the enchantment.
VALENTINA A. MMAKA – In the last few years, many books by African writers have been published in the UK and USA: Binyavanga Wainaina, Chimamanda Adichie, Teju Cole, Tendai Huchu, Adhiambo Owuor, Chris Abani, NoViolet Bulawayo, Jeffrey Renald Allen. Strangely enough, these writers were first published by Western publishers, not African publishers. Can you share your reflection about the incapacity of the African publishing Industry to invest in African authors? What could be your advice to African publishers?  What do African countries need to empower their literary treasures?
OKEY NDIBE – I’ve often registered my dismay about this anomaly—that it’s European and North American publishers that, for the most part, “discover” Africa’s contemporary literary talent. It’s all part of the economic arrangement of the world, where financial power—as well as the arbiters of global cultural taste—reside in London, New York, Brussels, Paris and such locations. African leaders, political, business and cultural, ought to start playing the game that would bring their continent into greater reckoning in the world. In that process, African intellectuals, writers and publishers have an important role. I’d like to see a wider readership emerge in Africa to support the continent’s wealth of creativity. But all of this is tied to the expansion of a middle class that treasures leisure and recognizes the importance of their society’s cultural output and imaginative enterprise. It’s a complex problem, tied to economics and other considerations, and will take a long time to address. But we’d be indifferent to this problem at our peril.
VALENTINA A. MMAKA – Books in Africa cost, and are not affordable to the majority of the people. There’s a large diffusion of digital books which can be read on a mobile phone for example. What do you think about it and do you envision the future of the traditional book in African countries?
OKEY NDIBE – Digital technology offers great opportunities for widening readership, in Africa and elsewhere. That’s clearly the wave and trend of the future. I also think we should be thinking, for now, of ways of producing affordable print copies of books for readers. Africans must read and read, as if their lives depended on it. We must read more, or risk perishing.

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 Arrows of Rain, and has served on the editorial board of Hartford Courant where his essays won national and state awards.
His website is http://www.okeyndibe.com/
Originally Published on Authors in Africa 

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