“Nigerian Writers abroad do not Outwork those Based in Nigeria” INTERVIEW WITH OKEY NDIBE
By Halima Katun (Literature Voices)
(Okey Ndibe is the author of the novels: Foreign Gods, Inc., Arrows of Rain, a memoir, Never Look an American in the Eye (Winner of the 2017 Connecticut Book Award in nonfiction), and a nonfiction book, The Man Lives: A Conversation with Wole Soyinka on Life, Literature, and Politics. He’s just completed the draft of a new novel. Ndibe was founding editor of African Commentary, a publication founded in the United States by the novelist Chinua Achebe. He earned MFA and PhD degrees from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and has taught at various institutions, including Brown University, St. Lawrence University, Connecticut College, and the University of Lagos (as a Fulbright scholar). His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Hartford Courant, BBC online, The Guardian (UK), Financial Times, and D La Repubblica (Italy). His website is: https://okeyndibe.com/; Twitter: @okeyndibe)
Halima: Good day sir. I feel honoured to be granted this opportunity. I am just 22 and you promptly accepted to discuss your book with me. I found the book to be quite interesting and automatically a lot of questions arose in my mind. I asked Uncle Dzukogi whether you would agree and he said yes. You truly did. Do you have young writers you are currently mentoring? What is the nature of the mentoring? Who are they?
Ndibe: It’s my pleasure to chat with you, Halima. At any given time, I have several up and coming writers that I encourage in their creative journeys. Most of them are from African countries, but I also work with budding writers from the US and elsewhere. I undertake this task as a labour of love, being a beneficiary of the generosity and championship of several writers, especially Wole Soyinka, Michael Thelwell, Kofi Awoonor, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and John Edgar Wideman. It’s not my place to name the writers I have worked with. I leave such revelation to the writers themselves—if and when they deem it necessary.
Halima: That is most admirable. In Hill-Top Art Centre, where I am coming from, this is my project for the next six months, to interview Nigerian writers abroad whose books I have read, recently. I am told the interviews would be published in the Nigeria Review, an online journal, and into a book, someday. Do you have a platform for Nigerian community of writers in the US like we have the Association of Nigerian Authors in Nigeria? If you have, what do you do there? If you don’t have any, why?
Ndibe: I’m not aware of any formal association of writers of Nigerian descent who currently reside in the US. The closest we have are several online groups and listservs to which some writers subscribe.
Halima: Well, I hope something like that can be set up soon. Let’s go to your book now. Foreign Gods Inc., the title is almost essay-like for a novel, almost non-creative for a writer of your calibre. Why this title? Or you just thought you have attained a certain height in your literary art that anything you have would be accepted? Something like the arrogance of a creative writer?
Ndibe: I reject the entire premise of your question. Contrary to your assertion, the title of my novel doesn’t sound in the least essayistic. Indeed, careful thought went into the choice of that title. Since you’ve read the novel, you know that there’s an eponymous gallery in it that buys and sells the statues of deities and other sacred objects poached from different parts of the world. In that sense, the title of my novel is quite evocative. As for arrogance, those who know me—and even those who meet me casually—recognize that I have no use for arrogance at all.
Halima: Greed, desperation, selfishness and many distasteful qualities are ingrained in the main character of your book, Foreign Gods Inc. Almost everyone that has read the book disliked Ike. The book explores how far a man can go in the face of desperation and what he terms as ‘hardship’ although that word is relative. Ike’s actions mirror the life of many Nigerian youths although not literally. Does your book seek to address this get-rich-quick syndrome that plagues our youth? What is the ultimate purpose of the story?
Ndibe: Ike is far from an attractive character. He’s all the things you listed—he’s selfish and desperate and makes a terrible decision that amounts to a betrayal of his extended family, his community, his identity, and his ethos. Even so, the novel makes clear—I hope it does—that he is driven to this treacherous decision both by his personal moral weakness and other forces beyond his control. For one, he’s been failed by America. He is beset by pressures from his widowed mother and others seeking financial support. My novel invites the reader to explore the collision between such pressures and a character’s moral weakness. What would we do if thrust in Ike’s situation? Why do material desires have such a decisive impact on moral choice? These are some of the conversations I wanted this particular novel to provoke.
Halima: Indeed, they are conversations worth having. Now, the problem of Ike’s accent is one of the reasons he couldn’t secure a good job in the states. Did you ever experience this? Do you think racism can ever be truly vanquished? Why do you think the plight of black men especially Africans continues to remain the same even after so much time has passed?
Ndibe: No, I haven’t lived Ike’s life in the least—even though I know a few people who’ve suffered humiliation and discrimination on account of their heavy accent. Of course, I’ve experienced numerous acts of racist behaviour in the US. A student once stormed out of my classroom the first day of class on discovering I was an African! There are many other instances. Even so, I never harp on these negative experiences. I’ve also found Americans—across ethnic, sectarian and other lines—to be generous, warm, receptive to other ideas, keen to learn about other cultures. That’s what I focus on. The US is of course going through a violent and fevered moment in its history, but I for one believe the country has wrestled and continues to wrestle admirably with its history. To say that the plight of people of African descent remains the same today is to discount the significant contributions and progress that these people have made—and continue to make—as US citizens or residents.
Halima: I’m sorry because I seem to be asking questions in between questions. You must excuse my inquisitiveness. Foreign Gods Inc. is one interesting book with so many dimensions worth discussing. And it’s been six years since its publication. If you could change anything about the book, what would it be? And why?
Ndibe: I don’t believe in changing anything about a book. So, no, I won’t change a thing in the novel. I leave it up to my readers to imagine and re-imagine other iterations of my work. I do the same when I read other writers. I often wonder, what if this character were developed in a different way, or this plot element was tweaked in this way? If I ever felt strongly about changing anything in Foreign Gods, Inc., I’d sit down and write another novel that incorporates what new illumination I have.
Halima: And we’ll surely look forward to more of your books. Ike was prone to passing out during storms and his grandma told him that it was a sign that Ngene favoured him. He displayed tendencies of being slightly unhinged. Perhaps he was even destined to be the next chief priest after his uncle. The irony was not lost on us as it turned out that the same man that the god favoured turned out to be the one that stole it from its abode with intention to trade for money in faraway NYC. Perhaps that was why Ike suffered intensely after the transaction. I want to understand the reason behind it all.
Ndibe: Your instinct is attuned! Yes, in an ironic twist, Ike stows away with a deity his mother is terrified might summon him to be its next chief priest. Faced with the implacable stench that overtakes his apartment in New York City, he takes to offering sacrifice to the deity. In effect, out of sheer terror and confusion, he assumes the office of chief priest.
Halima: Do you have a prior experience with a village setting like Utonki or was it purely fictional? Do you think Ike’s roots influenced his life and decisions in any way?
Ndibe: As a youngster, I had a friend whose father drove a lorry. The driver often drove to a place called Utonkon. I was charmed by the name of this unknown and (to me) mysterious place. Once I set down to write my first novel, Arrows of Rain, I wanted to set part of it in my entirely imaginary version of Utonkon. I chose the name Utonki for this locale. Of course, Ike’s roots in the community shaped his initial awe and reverence for the rituals of his community’s war deity. But America has prepared him to disregard the ties that bind and to contemplate the theft of the deity.
Halima: The approach adopted by Pastor Stanton was most unusual, as he had to resort to the use of guns and even loss of lives before he could persuade the villagers of Utonki to convert to Christianity. The man of God displayed characteristics of extreme impatience, sudden rage, racism, etc. which were not in tandem with what he preached. We were made to believe that Ngene later began to hunt him until he went into the river and never emerged. What exactly did the character of Pastor Stanton stand for?
Ndibe: Pastor Stanton stands for a certain kind of the pioneer missionary, one plagued by a mix of self-righteous rage and an inflexible sense of piety. He’s so driven to convert all the natives that he believes his own soul is imperilled should he achieve anything less than total success. Besides, as a rabid, sanctimonious evangelizer, he is absolutely blind to the beauty of the culture of the people he has come to convert.
Halima: The novel marches in its climactic scenes toward a rich grotesqueness that feels justified, even inevitable as it is transpiring. Can we replace Ngene with Nigeria, and Ike with its citizens and leaders that are always willing to exploit the nation in return for personal gains, then the exploited nation in turn now becomes the doom of the exploiter?
Ndibe: I like this take and I’m not going to stop you! A good work of art is supple, extensive, capable of speaking to different readers in an inexhaustible variety of tongues. And any adept reader can recognize fresh ways in which a novel illuminates human experiences. So, yes!
Halima: Assess, briefly, the development of the Nigerian novel after writers like Soyinka, Achebe, Mabel Segun, Buchi Emecheta, Tahir, Zaynab Alkali and yourself.
Ndibe: This question would demand a long essay, perhaps even a book, so I won’t pretend to answer it here! But I’d say this: first, I don’t belong in the generational bracket of these other luminary writers. Second, I’m impressed by the creative ferment of young Nigerian writers.
Halima: Well, maybe, this is a book worth writing. There is a new round of exodus to the West by young Nigerian writers after the episode of the 90s. What could be responsible for the new wave of migration? Does it grow the Nigerian literature? In your overview, are they striving better than those left at home?
Ndibe: For me, the dichotomy between Nigerian writers based in their natal country and those living abroad is hardly useful. Writers, like other citizens, circulate within Nigeria and to different parts of the world. When some of us go abroad, our stake, investment and interest in Nigeria is not diminished. I fear that lots of Nigerians relocate to other countries—be it Ghana or Canada—out of a wholly understandable desire for a more liveable, human condition! Nigeria’s so-called leaders bear most of the responsibility for the country’s wretched state. However, all of us have contributed—to one degree or another—to the disaster that’s Nigeria. We’ve acquiesced in the tragic actions of our ‘ruling elite.’ I always remind people that Nigerians work hard. Even when we focus on 419 scams, it must be noted that it takes a lot of hard work to pull scams off! No, Nigerian writers abroad do not outwork those based in Nigeria. But the outside-based writers often enjoy basic advantages. There are schools where you can get sound training about writing. There are solid publishers and brilliant editors. There are grants, writers’ retreats, literary festivals, book reviews, etc. And there’s much more. About a month or so ago, many residents of Connecticut, myself included, lost electric power for five days after an intense wind knocked down trees. It was a major news event. Yet, a writer in Nigeria wakes up day after day, for years, with absolutely no expectation of having electric power! Unless such a writer is a magician, she is likely to write less than her counterpart who’s based in Accra, Cape Town or London.
Halima: The dire situation in Nigeria is one that we hope never to lose hope upon. So, what are you working on now? What do we expect from your next book and when?
Ndibe: I just finished the draft of a novel. I’ll send it out to my agent in a day or two. What to expect from it? I hope it seduces and entertains many readers, and nudges them to reflect deeply on its themes. I intend to spend the rest of 2020 reading some books I put aside in order to focus on my creative work. In the coming year, I’ll start work on the manuscript of another novel.
Halima: I’ll look forward to that. To the pandemic, Covid-19, what is its impact on you as a writer and the literary art environment in the US or the world in general?
Ndibe: Covid-19 has been a mixed blessing. It grounded me. It enabled me to invest more time in writing, less in traveling. I have writer friends who published during the pandemic, and resorted to online readings and virtual literary festivals. I like to meet fellow writers and fellow readers in person—so I hope such interactions resume in the coming year.
Halima: Well I hope we all come out of it in one piece. I learnt you have stayed for quite a while in the US. Racism. Black lives matter. What do you have to say about racism in the US? Have you or any member of your household experienced it? How have you been able to manage the nasty tendency of race?
Ndibe: As I noted before, I’ve experienced acts of racism in my 30+ years of living in the US. There is still racism in the US, as there is ethnic and sectarian prejudice in Nigeria and elsewhere. Given its history, America can never afford to go to sleep as the monster of racism prowls about. Still, I admire many Americans for refusing to be trapped in the traumas of their history. In fact, more than most other countries, the US continually confronts its history of racial injustice. It strives to renew itself, to become better. The historical wrongs against Black lives justify the declaration that ‘Black lives matter.’ There’s an excellent case for police reforms across the board. There’s a need to invest massively in education, for too many Black students have been failed by the current educational system. I want to see the concern for Black lives extend to every facet of the Black experience. Specifically, we should feel equally outraged when Blacks kill other Blacks. All Americans, but with Blacks in the lead, ought to rise and take action to reduce that often ignored carnage.
Halima: Thank you very much sir for your indulgence. May your ink leave a permanent stain in the book of life. Cheers!
Ndibe: You’re welcome, Halima.
Halima Ahmad Katun has a Bachelor of Law Degree (LL. B) from Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria where she was an executive member of the Creative Writers’ Club, Kongo Campus. She also served as a Public Relations Officer, Secretary and finally Head of Drama and Publicity in the institution. Her work was featured in an Anthology on sexual violence: “My Name Is Sorrow”, published by the Creative Writers’ Club, Kongo. She is from Niger State and a member of the Hill-Top Creative Arts Foundation, Minna. She holds strong views on human rights, feminism, gender inequality and violence. She loves to read more than she loves to write. Email- firstname.lastname@example.org, Instagram – haleemah_katun, Facebook – Haleemah Ahmad Katun, Twitter- haleemerh_katun, WordPress – haleemerhkatun.wordpress.com, LinkedIn- Halima Ahmad.