Over the years I have observed the many ways in which we diaspora folk stay connected to ‘back home.’ For some it is through cooking, for others it is music and dance. There are the hours spent trawling through the websites of local newspapers and days filled with the deliciousness of Skype calls and WhatsApp messages.
Then there are the writers, the ones who keep ‘home’ alive through words. They preserve stories, ask questions and immortalize memories, creating a literary cartography; splattered ink stains forming a path between the adopted homeland and the one left behind.
Okey Ndibe is one such writer.
I first spot Ndibe leaning against a lamppost on a busy street in London, wearing a black beret that completes his trendy ensemble. He looks at ease standing in the icy cold weather that seems to be dismantling the rest of us.
I smile as I remember the chapter in his latest book ‘Never Look an American in The Eye’ in which he describes his first encounter with cold weather the day he arrived in the United States of America one December day, some 28 years ago: ‘I pushed my cart outside. I knew, instantly, I had erred terribly. Nothing in the vocabulary of my experience prepared me for this assault.’
Later, in correspondence with his family in Nigeria, he would liken winter in America to ‘living inside a refrigerator’. This description is just one of many funny, charming and thought provoking anecdotes which feature in Ndibe’s memoir, his very own ‘Coming to America’ narrative.
Author of two novels, the hilarious ‘Foreign Gods, Inc.’ and the powerful ‘Arrows of Rain’, Ndibe has long been recognised as another major literary genius hailing from Nigeria, a country which has birthed some of the greatest writers of our time.
Based in the USA where he resides with his wife and three children, he has taught at
universities across the country and has written many critically acclaimed articles and essays.
While Ndibe credits Chinua Achebe (on whose invitation Ndibe moved to America and took on the role of founding editor of ‘African Commentary’ magazine) and Wole Soyinka as being huge influences on his work, it is Nigeria itself that provides both inspiration and subject matter for much of his work.
The morning before we meet, I come across his latest column for the Nigerian online medium, ‘Premium Times,’ in which he reflects upon his recent trip back to Nigeria. Ndibe writes, ‘Our country has become an endless open toilet, overflowing with septic sludge’. Taken aback at some of his scathing comments, I ask him if he has faced a backlash for criticizing the country despite no longer living there.
‘Yes I have, and it’s silly. Every Nigerian—whether on the ground or not—has a stake in the country. I go to Nigeria regularly, I have family there and I send money there. I contribute in many ways and so should be able to comment when I see something wrong.’
In March 2015, Muhammadu Buhari was elected President of Nigeria. There was a feeling of jubilation among Nigerians as many hoped that the new leader would usher in an era of change. Was Ndibe one of them?
‘I had very modest expectations of President Buhari, and he has failed to meet even those. His anti-corruption talk had given me some hope. However, he has failed to tackle to corruption that goes on in his inner circle. I suspect that, if his predecessors had managed the oil revenues better, that Buhari may have been able to bring some measure of discipline to expenditure of the funds. That’s a suspicion. At any rate, Buhari seems to have turned a blind eye to the corruption around him. Ultimately, Buhari is an analogue man and Nigeria needs a digital leader.’
It is evident that Ndibe’s disenchantment with Nigeria does not come from a feeling of contempt but from disappointment in a nation that has failed to live up to its promise. There is both a frustration and a pain in his tone as he speaks. ‘Nigeria has been mismanaged and exploited. The country’s institutions have all failed, from roads to healthcare to education. It is no longer a functioning country and so, in desperation, people have all turned to God. We go to the pastor for healing because our medical services are below par. Since our systems no longer work, we tend to ‘leave everything to God’. And thus we don’t demand accountability from our leaders. I am dismayed by the negative impact religion has had on us as a society. Religion has been used and abused to justify all sorts of wrongdoings.’
While Nigeria is at the forefront of his mind, his other home, America, is also not far from his thoughts. A pained expression crosses his face as we discuss the new US President. ‘I find Trump disturbing. There is a particular callousness in the way he conducts his business. By the same token I believe the media has played a role in creating the monster that is Trump. My only hope is that the institutions in the US are strong enough to keep him in check.’
As we talk America I bring up the topic of racism, a theme which has featured in his books, and in particular is the subject matter of his essay, ‘Eyes to the Ground: the Perils of the Black Student,’ which was published in 2000 and explored the idea that some teachers, including university professors, set lower standards for black students. ‘I think there is, among some Americans, this perception that to be a person of colour means you’re intellectually disabled. Even liberals, who present themselves as allies, tend to lower expectations for people of colour. And I think this thinking still exists, though it is changing.
Something that has not changed is that we, as people of colour, are still held responsible for and expected to apologize on behalf of those among us who make mistakes or commit crimes. If I do something wrong, it becomes a Nigerian thing; all Nigerians are that way. Whereas, if a white person does the same, the burden of responsibility is solely on his or her shoulders rather than on the community as a whole.’
Aware of the little time we have left, our conversation turns back to Nigeria and African literature as a whole. For Ndibe, the education system in Nigeria is of particular concern. ‘The educational sector has been terribly devalued over the years, especially in comparison to the time I was at school. Universities are affected by a range of instabilities such as strikes, government interference and staff being promoted as a result of favouritism rather than merit.’
Surely the impact of a failing educational system permeates every area of society. I ask: Does this mean that we are less likely to see more Achebes, Adichies and Ndibes emerge from Nigeria?
After a long pause he responds ‘Of course it is still possible for writers that are better than Chimamanda and I and Chigozie Obioma and Teju Cole and Chris Abani to come out of Nigeria. However, this would be a fluke rather than something to be reasonably expected. A good education system is one that is designed to produce good writers, good economists, sound scientists, etc. In the case of Nigeria I would say now it is in spite of the system, rather than because of it, that geniuses emerge.’
His mention of fellow Nigerian writers leads me to mention an issue that has been the subject of debate when it comes to ‘African literature’: the expectation that an African writer must write about Africa. Does he see himself writing a book that has nothing to do with Africa? More importantly does he think it would sell, or is it the case that as a Nigerian he is ‘typecast’?
‘I definitely have the ability to write a book without a single African character or a single African setting, but why would I want to?’
I challenge this and ask ‘Why would you not?’
‘The DNA of my writing is formed by the Igbo tradition of storytelling. The language and rhetorical devices used by the elders in my hometown inform the most authentic work I do. Why would I deviate from this and write something that I personally find boring? When I write a book, the first and most important audience is myself. As for being ‘typecast,’ yes, that is an issue. When I wrote my first novel, ‘Arrows of Rain’, one [American] editor sent it back to my agent saying, it’s a good book, but we don’t think American audiences are interested in African stories. At the time many American editors were happy to read books set in Africa, written by Peace Corps members who had gone out to Africa for a few months. So, if it was difficult to get them to let me tell an African story, imagine how more difficult it would be to convince them to let me tell their own story.’
Another question that has been widely discussed in the ‘African literary circle’ has to do with the targeted audience. Is it Africans, some white readers, or Africans in the Diaspora?
Ndibe responds, ‘The ‘who do you write for’ question does not bother me and never has. I want to be read everywhere in the world. Why not? However, I am particularly keen on my books being read in Nigeria. Ultimately, Nigeria is the country that has produced me and breathed life into my art. America can stake out some claim to my writing, but I recognise that I belong, above all, to my natal space, Nigeria.
As our conversation comes to an end my final questions centre around how he has been able to reconcile his Nigerian and American identity. Where is home for him when so much time is spent physically being in one place, while writing about another?
‘I have two homes, Nigeria and America. I am most happy when I am in Nigeria, that’s where I laugh the loudest. Even so, Nigeria and I have a very testy relationship. My wife and children are in America, and while they too have links to Nigeria, to them I must always return. I live a nomadic existence in my heart. Ultimately though, despite all my criticisms, if I did not have in hope in Nigeria, I would stop writing.’
With this final statement he rushes off to his next appointment.
Much later, reflecting on our conversation, I am reminded of a quote by Suketu Mehta, which not only sums up Ndibe’s Nigerian-American romance, but also the diasporic experience as a whole: “I am an adulterous resident: when I am in one city, I am dreaming of the other. I am an exile; citizen of the country of longing.”
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Samira Sawlani is a writer/journalist specialising in politics, economy and development of East and Horn of Africa. A holder of an MA in International Studies and Diplomacy from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. Aside from journalism she has also worked in the emergency humanitarian relief and refugee care sector. Follow her on Twitter: @samirasawlani