Born in Yola, Nigeria and currently living in the United States and, Okey Ndibe is a novelist, political columnist and essayist. He also teaches African Literature at Trinity College on Hartford. Ndibe is the author of the highly acclaimed novels, Arrows of Rain and Foreign Gods Inc. In this interview with Africa Book Club, he talks about his new book, his two passions and the importance of creating time for family.
Tell us about your new book, Foreign Gods Inc.
Foreign Gods, Inc. is set in New York City and Nigeria, and features a New York-based Nigerian protagonist, Ike Uzondu. Despite an impressive degree in economics from a prestigious American private college, Ike is unable to land a dream corporate job, eking out a living, instead, as a cab driver. A series of misfortunes leave his spirits wrecked and bring him to the brink of despair. He hatches a scheme to return to his hometown in order to steal the statue of his community’s erstwhile god of war, which he plans to sell to an eponymous, Manhattan-located gallery. The novel follows his picaresque—in many ways, treacherous—adventure. The novel touches on the immigrant experience, on the shifting modes of identity, on the subject of greed and the absurd pathways of consumerism.
What was the inspiration behind it?
I set out to look at the grand narrative of American opportunity through the eyes and experience of an immigrant who is shut off, shunted aside, cast as an outsider—despite his best efforts to “make it” by excelling at his studies. I also wanted to spotlight the global craze for transforming everything into a commodity, including the sacred. These were some of my ambitions as I sat down to write the novel. But a novel, as you know, is a complete and replete universe, vaster in scope and meaning than its author’s largest dreams.
Foreign Gods Inc. and Arrows of Rain are books that you have written from very different perspectives. Of these two, which one did you enjoy writing the most?
Each book yields its own joy, brings its own reward. I’d be hard put to it to say that the experience of writing one was more satisfying than the other. The moment I finish work on a book, like a woman who’s endured the pangs of labor, I look back on the product of all those years of toil, of arduous work, with great exhilaration.
Arrows of Rain is set in Africa, and Foreign Gods, Inc. is set both in Nigeria and America. As a person who has lived in both places, to what extent do you tell your own story?
I think a writer—whether conscious of it or not— brings something of himself to every story. There are whiffs of me—my sensibility, my worldview, and my attitude to stories—in both of my novels. But I’d like to clarify that my novels are not autobiographical.
Foreign Gods Inc. has already received immense success since its release to the public. Did you expect it? How has the book been received in your home country?
Did I expect the marvelous critical response to the book in the US, UK, and elsewhere? Yes and no. I was confident that I’d written an important novel, and in a compelling way, too. But there are lots of writers whose extraordinary books fail, somehow, to invite critical praise. So, to that extent, no—I could not have foretold that the book would receive something approaching universal acclaim. As for Nigeria, somehow, the book hasn’t got into the country in any significant quantity. The reason is a long story, which we need not tell here. But the few copies that have found their way into Nigeria have been picked up and enjoyed by enthusiastic readers. My hope, ultimately, is that a Nigerian publisher will issue a Nigerian edition of the book. At least two such publishers have indicated an interest in doing so.
You were raised, studied, and even began your career in Nigeria. How did you end up in the United States?
In 1988, the great novelist Chinua Achebe invited me to the US to be the founding editor of African Commentary, a bi-monthly magazine he co-founded with another Nigerian, Barth Nnaji, a professor of industrial engineering who is now a Nigerian businessman. I arrived in the US on December 10, 1988 to take up the challenge of “birthing” the publication.
As a student of Business Management, you were already writing articles for national dailies. Did you at any one time feel that you should have done a course in communications or journalism instead?
Not really. I wrote my first opinion piece for a major Nigerian newspaper the year I finished high school. Even though I studied business management at Yaba College of Technology in Lagos and Institute of Management and Technology in Enugu, I spent a great deal of time reading novels and other literary works as well as writing for several newspapers and magazines, in Nigeria and London. I was fortunate to have a natural, perhaps “native,” feel for writing; so, no, I never felt a need for professional training in journalism.
Did the Biafran War experience arouse your interest in writing political essays and columns?
I’d say the war aroused my interest in survival. It also opened my eyes to the nature and scope of evil, and to the stubborn presence of hope even in the bleakest of times. In a way, that kind of lesson, that sensibility, conduces to writing of all kinds—if one has the inclination and talent to write.
Do you hope to create a difference in the Nigerian political climate (and the rest of Africa) through these essays?
Since 1999, I have maintained a fairly regular weekly column that focuses on Nigeria—and occasionally other parts of Africa and the world. The Nigerian condition can seem overwhelmingly grim, a temptation to hopelessness. But I believe—as a wise woman tells her grandson in my first novel, Arrows of Rain—that a story that must be told never forgives silence. I try to chronicle and comment on the drama of Nigeria because, yes, I believe that the effort is worthwhile. Even if all I succeed in doing each week is offer some young Nigerian a different, more enlightened perspective on the events in our country, I count my blessings.
Ever thought of running for political office?
Hell no! God has given me two gifts—as a writer and a teacher. All my dreams, all my ambitions, are in those two directions. Any contribution I make to my society will spring from those two areas as well. I think part of the reason Nigeria is such a disaster is that too many people leave their areas of competence and jump into politics—simply because that’s where the easy money is. Well, thanks to proper moral formation from my parents, money has never fueled me. I take pride only in the money I earn legitimately.
I’d make a terrible president, minister, senator or press secretary. I simply don’t have the temperament to sit among people whose raison d’être is how to win the next election, how to steal some more, or even how to retain their posts by feeding the big ruler’s ego, proclaiming him a genius when he’s a fool who can’t lead himself out of a toilet. I’m absolutely at home in the classroom. And I’d rather be pounding out stories on a keyboard.
Other than Chinua Achebe, which other authors or books have you read that have influenced your writing career?
I have had numerous influences. Wole Soyinka’s memoirs, especially The Man Died and Ake: The Years of Childhood, as well as his plays; Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s A Grain of Wheat; Sophocles’ Antigone and Oedipus Rex; Shakespeare’s Hamlet; Ayi Kwei Armah’s Fragments, and the epic Gilgamesh—these have been tremendous influences. But I have also been shaped by the Bible, the music and revolutionary spirit of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the folkloric songs of Obiligbo, Igbo folktales, etc.,etc.
Teaching or writing: which one are you most passionate about?
I’m equally passionate about both activities, I’m afraid! I treasure the classroom which, when it works well, has a magic and energy and a robust sense of community that’s not matched by any other experience. For me, writing is so vital because it’s a way of conducting a conversation with friends and strangers, whether far or near. The best writing soars, sweeps the reader along. It’s a thing of enchantment, a veritable act of seduction. Please don’t ask me to choose between the two!
As a teacher and a writer, you must be a very busy person. How do you balance between these two and still find time for family?
My parents were even busier, but they always put family first. I admit, though, that sometimes one gets carried away to the point of almost neglecting one’s family. But I’m blessed to have a wife who helps keep me grounded, reminds me of the primacy of the family. So I make a point of paying attention, focusing on the family. We travel together when we can, and do numerous other things together. In fact, I treasure my family—my wife and children as well as my mother and siblings. Here’s how important family is to me: my literary reputation would amount to little if, in the end, my wife and children as well as siblings look back and say, What a terrible husband, father or brother he was! That would be a terrible outcome—for me. And I’m not one of those chic writers who regard their families as enemy combatants.
What books would you recommend to readers out there who are looking to discover African fiction?
If you haven’t read any African novels, I’d say, start with Achebe. Then visit Ngugi, Armah, Bessie Head, Ferdinand Oyono, Sembene Ousmane, Flora Nwapa, Nadine Gordimer, Nuruddin Farah, Lewis Nkosi, Ama Ata Aidoo. If your palate can handle more challenging stuff, then peek into Soyinka’s The Interpreters and Kofi Awoonor’s This Earth, My Brother…When you’re done with those, then call me back for more contemporary names, yes?
What are you currently working on?
I’m working on Going Dutch and other American Mis/Adventures, a series of memoir essays based on my immigrant experiences. When I take breaks from that, I scribble a few lines in the manuscript of my next novel tentatively titled Return Flights.