My writings and experiences in America

My writings and experiences in America

Thursday, July 20, 2017 8:50 am

Okey Ndibe. Image credit: Goethe-Institut/Jeremiah Ikongio

• Biafra and its adherents have not convinced me that Biafra is the answer

Author, essayist and speaker Okey Ndibe, is currently on a tour of Nigeria, promoting his memoir, Never Look an American in The Eye and his latest novel Foreign Gods Inc., which has just been reissued by Book Craft. At a recent reading and signing session, held at Goethe Institut in Lagos, he spoke with Adefoyeke Ajao about his most recent work.

On looking Americans in the eye…

Before I went to America in 1988, an uncle of mine had told me not to look Americans in the eye. He suggested that Americans would shoot you if you looked them in the eye and so, I took his advice to heart.For my first two weeks in America, I scrupulously avoided looking people in the eye, until one day – I think on the 13th day of my arrival in America – I was stopped by a police officer who questioned me about a bank robbery because he said that I fit the description of the bank robber. When he began to question me, I believed my crime was that I had looked him in the eye, so I made a dramatic gesture of looking away.

Finally, the man asked if I knew why I was being interrogated. I thought it was about my looking him in the eye but he said there had been a bank robbery and I fit the description. I began to explain to him that I had not been inside a bank and had only just arrived, but as I was explaining I wasn’t looking him in the eye because I didn’t want to compound my trouble by doing something that would earn me a gunshot. In the end – thank God that it ended well – the police were able to ascertain that I wasn’t the person they were looking for; I wasn’t the suspect.

As I repeated the story of our encounter to my friends, and said that I thought that my crime was to look the policeman in the eye, they asked if I had looked him in the eye as he questioned me. I said no, and they said Americans will consider you shifty and a scheming, lying suspect if you don’t make eye contact. I found out that Americans insist on being looked in the eye, so I had to unlearn what my uncle had told me and I had to learn to begin to look Americans in the eye

L-R: OkeyNdibe, author and essayist; Safur at Balogun, moderator; and Congolese author JJ Bola. Image credit: Goethe-Institut/Jeremiah Ikongio

A socially-awkward introduction to American culture…

Four days after I arrived in America Professor Barth Nnaji, who was then a professor of Industrial Engineering at the University of Massachusetts, invited me to his office to meet a young woman, Karen Unaka – I call her Karen U in my book. She had just discovered from her mother (who was very sick and dying) that her father was Nigerian and she wanted to come to Nigeria to look for her father.

She sought Professor Nnaji’s advice and he told her that I had just arrived from Nigeria four days before,and I would be in a better position to advise her on what to do. So we met at his office. She had lots and lots of questions for me and I had lots of advice for her; but at some point in our conversation, she asked if I had eaten. When I said I had not, she said, “Why don’t we go to eat?” And so I assumed (as happens in Nigeria) that since she proposed that we eat, she was going to buy me the meal. I was amazed at meeting my first generous American, because I knew that coming from Nigeria, women did not buy men much. Well, we went to eat and the waiter brought our bill and put it, sort of equidistant between us as if she didn’t want either of us to have unfair reach. I said to myself that I was invited to eat and since I had fulfilled that obligation, the obligation of paying was hers.

Finally, the woman said to me ‘we’ve got to go’ and pointed at the bill. So, I looked at the bill and I said thank you to her – this actually happened twice. After the second time when I said thank you to her after she pointed to the bill, she swept it up from the table and used her finger to underscore the point. She then said to me: “you owe four dollars and change plus tip”; and I was surprised because I didn’t have money on me – I had just come in four days before and I hadn’t earned a dime in America. It was extremely embarrassing at the moment and I didn’t want to tell her that I thought she was buying me a meal, so I lied to her that I had left my wallet at Professor Nnaji’s office. I said to her, “why don’t you pay, we’ll walk back to his office and I’ll give you my portion of the bill”. She paid the bill, but she was very upset and wondered how I could come out to eat without money.

We walked back to Nnaji’s office and I called him aside and borrowed ten dollars from him. With money in my hand, I felt confident enough to teach her a cultural lesson. So, I told the woman, “where I come from, when you invite someone to go out and eat, you imply that you are going to pay for them”. She said that it was not an American tradition and I wondered what kind of people would do such a thing. I gave her ten dollars and said “I’m paying for both of us today, but please don’t ever invite me again unless you’re going to pay”. I went to Prof. Nnaji and told him what had happened. He laughed so much and said Americans called it ‘going Dutch’.

I came to another awkward moment where I discovered a cultural practice that was different from what I was used to in Nigeria. And so, in a lot of ways, my American sojourn, which has taken a little over 28 years, has been an experience in learning and coming to terms with these cultural differences between Nigeria and America and also finding ways to mediate.

JFK and the first encounter with winter…

I arrived at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York and Chinua Achebe had told me that a Nigerian professor at City College would be on hand to welcome me. He said that I should look for someone who would carry my name on a piece of paper. Well, I arrived and I didn’t see any such person inside the airport. It was a very sunny day – it was December 10, 1988. I imagined that this man might be outside the airport waiting for me, so I decided to push my trolley outside the airport. As soon as I stepped outside, I was hit by a swollen gust of arctic air; it was like somebody had opened a refrigerator and thrown me inside of it. I was dressed in a light shirt and a light jacket, so I quickly made a U-turn, returned to the arrival lounge and took a seat. I was determined to wait there for months if that was what it took, but about an hour later someone stood beside me and asked if I was Okey.

When I said yes, he apologised to me for being late and asked about my jacket, I pointed to my jacket and he said he meant my winter jacket. I said that I didn’t come with any nor did I know there was anything called a winter jacket. He gave me his own jacket and as we dashed for the car, he told me that I had arrived on one of the coldest days of the winter of 1988, and so I took it personally because I felt that America had an option to give me a warm reception but instead chose to give me a chilly one.

Other instances of mistaken identity outside America…

Okey is a fairly common name in Nigeria, but in America I discovered that there was a form of rarity to my name, such that it became a source of hilarity. I have had several encounters around my name, but two of them stand out and I’m going to narrate the one that happened in Norway.

I had been invited in 2009 to the Nordic Africa Days Conference, by the Nordic Africa Institute which published a book that I wrote with the late Zimbabwean writer Chenjerai Hove. The Institute’s representative had told me that her flight would arrive at Trondheim Airport and that she would wait for me. We hadn’t met and I didn’t know what she looked like, but she assured me that she would find me because there won’t be a lot of black people on the flight. She said in the event that we missed each other at the airport I should leave the airport, and take a bus to the hotel with instructions about how much to pay and where to stop.

I came in on a connecting flight from Oslo and my luggage was first to come out, so I picked it up and walked around the arrival lounge, looking at every white woman. Since none of them claimed me, I got into the bus and went and checked into my hotel.

Several weeks after the conference, the woman wrote to me and said she would like to talk to me over the phone because she didn’t want to write what she wanted to say. I sent her my telephone number and she explained that she was indeed at the airport when my flight arrived, but as soon as they announced that it had arrived, she took off to the bathroom to spruce up herself, and was still there when I picked up my luggage and made the rounds. Coming out after I had left the airport, she thought that I had missed my connecting flight from Oslo and decided to wait for the next flight. That next flight came and there was a black man on it, so she approached him and asked if he was “Okey,” to which he answered in the affirmative. He confirmed that he had missed his connecting flight and grabbed his luggage.

She’d been told that I love to tell a lot of stories, that I was very warm. But she said that this man was very glum and since she thought he was upset about missing his flight, she kept talking to him to put him at ease. When they got to the hotel lobby, she gave them her name, checked in and then told them to “check Okey in,” pointing to the man behind her. The hotel staff said Okey already checked in, and she said it was impossible since Okey was the man she had just arrived with. She asked for the manager of the hotel, who looked at the computer and affirmed that I had already checked in. It was at this point that she turned to the man and asked him to identify himself. The man responded that his name was not Okey and he answered her question because he thought that she was asking if he was fine.

Realising that she had picked up the wrong person, she apologised to the man and the hotel staff and revealed that she was so upset with herself that she couldn’t bring herself to tell me what had happened. When she returned to Sweden, her colleagues told her that I would love the story, that she should call me up and tell me. And so, she called and gave me the gift of that great story.

Switching from journalism to fiction writing…

It was a very fortuitous departure. When I went to America, I was convinced that the only thing I could do in life was to be a journalist. I had started my career, in a lot of ways, in the year I finished secondary school. I wrote an opinion piece for the state newspaper,which was published, and when I found out that they paid, I just continued to write. That was, for me, the best thing that could ever happen.

I went to America and set up an international magazine which Chinua Achebe published – African Commentary – but after a while the magazine had to close shop because we were not getting any advertisements. It became a moment of despair for me because it was a dream and that dream had collapsed. I began to go to bookstores and I would spend the whole day reading. One day as I left the bookstore, I ran into an African-American writer whose name was John Edgar Wideman, and he asked me what my plans were since the magazine had ceased production. I said that I had not yet figured it out and he looked me intensely in the eye and said “you’re writing a novel, right?” I wasn’t, but I said yes because I felt if I said no, he would not walk up to me ever again. He asked me to bring him 15 to 20 pages of the manuscript and if it was good enough, he would consider getting me a fellowship to start studying fiction at the university.

I was addressing some young men and women in Athens two weeks ago, and I said in Biafra we still have to struggle for justice and insist on the accountability of our leaders. And I said, “if you think that you’re going to achieve development or justice once you have Biafra you have something else coming for you”.

I began to write furiously over a weekend, without any confidence that what I was writing was really fiction, but I had to write it and said if it was bad he would reject it but at least I would have fulfilled my obligations to him. In the event, he read it and called me back in two days and said “Okey, I find your writing really fascinating,” he said it reminded him of the writing of Ngugi wa Thiong’o. On account of that, he was able to get me a fellowship and I began my studies in Fiction.

That first manuscript that I began to write turned into my first novel, Arrows Of Rain. I went into academia and began to teach fiction and African and American literature, then I went back and did my PhD and the rest is history.

Okey Ndibe during his interview with The News Magazine

Journalism meets fiction…

Journalism is important. I realised that a lot of the most extraordinary writers that we have in the world began their careers as journalists. In Nigeria, we have Chinua Achebe, Cyprian Ekwensi, Akin Adesokan, Eddie Iroh and so on. I think there’s something about the respect for language that we find in journalism, but there is also an economy of expression that helps you to convey the message quickly so that you don’t bore your reader. To use that facility in fiction is really essential.

But also, my ethical commitment as a journalist to human rights and resistance to the abuse of power finds its expression in my fiction. You find that in fiction I tend to be interested in studying relationships of power and of memory and of the way the people who are in power try to control memory and contain the body that would resist. I would say that journalism has shaped my career as a fiction writer. However, my fiction is not reducible to my journalism because they have an interesting kind of symbiosis.

Creating Arrows of Rain

As I said, the book started serendipitously. If I had not had that encounter with someone who implied that I was writing a novel, perhaps I would not have tempted myself to start writing one. But once I began to write it, I discovered that through all the years of reading novels that I had learned the mechanics and the craft of fiction without being aware of it. And so in graduate school, I began to put in my work for critiques and I was struck by how much I grew as a writer because I had to work hard. One of the first things I learnt was that revision was of the essence; you have to revise until you are able to achieve what you want to achieve with your writing.

Once I finished that manuscript, the question became how to get a publisher. One day, Professor Wole Soyinka came to my school, University of Massachusetts (UMass). Soyinka was visiting for a week and he was going to give a lecture at Hampshire College. I printed out a copy of Arrows of Rain and took it with me expecting to beg Soyinka to read it; confident that if he read it and liked it, that he could help me get a publisher. Soyinka was then in exile being hunted by the Abacha regime, so once I got to the venue of his talk I felt guilty – it was unfair to belabour a man who was already carrying a heavy burden. He was travelling around the world trying to drum up support for the resistance to Abacha. I decided against giving him my personal burden to bear, so I left the manuscript in my car.

I went and listened to Soyinka give a fascinating talk about the struggle against Abacha and the horrendousness of his regime. When he finished speaking, I approached him and he said that one of my professors had told him that I had written a fascinating manuscript. He asked if he could read it and I said I could go and get a copy from my car. He instead asked me to send it to his office at Emory University and he gave me his address, since he was constantly on the road and could misplace it. I sent it off and every week or two, I would call his office but his secretary would say he was in Australia or France or he was in Germany or in England and so on. And he would return my calls from different parts of the world with arenewed promise to read the manuscript.

At Christmas, some American friends invited my family and me to spend the entire day with them – we were going to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner together. As we ate, I didn’t see rice or chicken on the menu. I had become accustomed to these meals because, while growing up, we ate rice on every Sunday, and definitely on Christmas you would expect to eat a lot of rice. I called my wife aside and told her that this would be the first time in my life that I would not eat rice on Christmas day. I could not let this Christmas fall into such infamy, so we made some excuses and ran home. It was too late to make chicken, but I would boil some rice and eat it. On getting home, I put on the stove and poured in just a handful of rice. The whole point was to eat some rice and ensure the continuity of this tradition of eating rice at Christmas.

In the meantime, I began to play the voice messages on our home phone number and one of those messages happened to be from Wole Soyinka. He called to wish me and my family a merry Christmas and also to say that he had just finished reading my manuscript, which he described as highly evocative. I went and turned off the stove. My wife noticed after a while that the rice wasn’t boiling and asked who turned off the stove; I said that I had and that Soyinka’s message was better than rice. That’s how come on that Christmas I didn’t eat rice.

Ultimately, Soyinka actually spoke to an editor, Joe Wood, and I sent him my manuscript. Unfortunately, he died before he could make a decision whether to publish it. But I was fortunate enough to finally find a publisher.

Arrows of Rain as an inspiration for his second novel…

Arrows of Rain was my Nigerian book, giving that the setting for it was called Madia, but Madia was a thing to disguise Nigeria. Once you read the book, you’ll realise that this is Nigeria named as something else. When I sat down to write Foreign Gods Inc., I wanted to write a story that was a gesture to my second home, America. I set a portion of the story in Foreign Gods Inc. in Nigeria and part of the story within America. That was an interesting kind of gesturing towards America and having written that, I said I had to write my memoir. Since I had spent 28 years in America, I felt that I should reflect on what America means to me, some of my experiences in America. So I did that.

After Arrows of Rain came out, it became Heinemann’s best-selling book in about 10 or 12 years and Heinemann wanted me to write another book quickly. I told them that I couldn’t write another book quickly, but I could write short stories and they asked for 8-10 short stories that would form a short story collection. Foreign gods Inc. began its career as a short story – or what I thought was a short story – because by the time I finished writing it, it came to over 1200 pages.

During the war, some corrupt Biafra officials took the little food that was donated and monopolised/hoarded it for their own families or sold it in open markets. You would see bags of beans in the market, on which were written not for sale…Somebody made that decision and it wasn’t the ordinary merchant, it was somebody powerful in the government who decided to sell it to people who were suffering in war. My father, along with other civil servants, wrote a petition against that corruption and he was rounded up called a saboteur.

The other thing that was interesting about Arrows of Rain happened when I gave a reading at Jazzhole Bookstore with Femi Osofisan in the audience. Femi stood up and spoke glowingly about my novel, remarking that it did not read like somebody’s first novel, but like a very mature and accomplished work. Then he said to me, “you’re going to suffer a curse of writers who write a strong first novel, your second novel is not going to measure up”. And in a moment of hubris, I announced to him and to everybody that I was going to write a superior second novel. That haunted me, and I think that was why it took me 10 years to write my second novel, because every time I wanted to submit it I would wonder if it had risen to the stature of my first novel and I would start all over again.

Since it came out, it has done very well and was chosen as one of the top ten books in America by different publications including an editor at the New York Times. But there are still partisans who love Arrows of Rainand who think that the second novel is ‘good’ but that it doesn’t quite measure up to the first novel. When I met Professor Osofisan at the Ake Arts and Book Festival, he said to me “Okey, I told you. Your second novel is very good, but it is still not as good as the first one”. So I wasted all these years and I still lost it in the eyes of some people. But I know some critics who considered the second novel to be a more sophisticated, more mature and assured work and I really do not know where I stand on that question, I leave it up to critics.

On writing a memoir on the Nigerian Civil War…

It’s a story that I am still wrestling with. At the moment I am writing another novel titled Native Tongues. I was a child during the Biafra war. I was born in Yola and the disturbances and killings that preceded the war nearly claimed my father because he had sent my mother and us, his children to Amawbia, my hometown, while he stayed back because the government had warned civil servants against abandoning their posts. One day a mob riot broke out at the post office in Yola where my father worked and my father and other workers barricaded themselves inside while the mob proceeded to break down the door. The Lamido of Adamawa who happened to be passing, dismissed the mob and took my father and the other workers into protective custody at his palace for three weeks until things calmed down a bit. Thereafter, he helped to convey them back to the south eastern part of the country.

Some of my most poignant memories are memories of that war and I will write a book about those memories. But I am writing a novel first and when I finish with the novel, I will get to that project. It is a very important project because I think that we haven’t told enough of the stories of the war, which in my view is the most important and most consequential event in Nigeria’s post-independence history. We have to be open to examining the tragedy that was the Biafra war otherwise we’ll be haunted if we averted our gaze and attention.

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