Reviews

Isaac Attah Ogezi’s Hollow Gaze: A Rejoinder

This is a response to a review by Isaac Attah Ogezi.

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As a rule, I refrain from responding to reviews of my work. Once my work is in print and traveling in the world, it is best, I believe, to leave its evaluation entirely to the acumen of critics and reviewers—even when the occasional reviewer or critic views the work through lens that may strike more discerning readers as lacking in basic perception.

My initial reaction on reading Isaac Attah Ogezi’s review titled “On the Fringes of Existence: the Immigrant Question in Ndibe’s ‘Foreign Gods, Inc.,’” was to let it be, even though I realized that some of his comments were both patently unintelligent and mischievous. But when a friend rang to alert me that, on Facebook and other forums, I had been virtually convicted of plagiarism (and worse) on account of Ogezi’s review, I knew it was time—however reluctantly—to suspend my policy.

In his review, Mr. Ogezi asserts, ‘Unlike his confident and gritty first novel, Arrows of Rain, Ndibe in this sophomore work, toddles up to Achebe for a stamp of recognition almost to the nauseating point of barefaced lifting. In fact, a reader will be exculpated if he sees this work as the composite adaptation of the older writer’s first three novels. Right from the protagonist’s arrival in Nigeria to his departure for the US in the novel, one can detect a slavish imitation of Achebe’s works.’

Despite the seeming prudence of the word “almost,” the reviewer set out, clearly, to accuse me of the grave sin of plagiarism, plain and simple. To demonstrate that he did not level the accusation lightly, Mr. Ogezi proceeded to marshal what apparently seemed to him incontrovertible evidence. Let’s quote him at length:

‘Compare the following from the work and Achebe’s novels:Pages 202 and 262: “In long-gone days, when lizards were in ones and twos.” (P. 70, Achebe’s Arrow of God: “At that time, when lizards were still in ones and twos.”)

Page 179: “When the time comes that they look for me but I can’t be found, Ngene will speak his mind about a carrier.” (P. 134, Arrow of God: “When the time comes of which you speak Ulu will not seek your advice or help.”)

Page 202: “When a deity leaves what it was asked to do and starts doing something else, when it turns on the community it’s supposed to protect, or when it begins to taste for too much human blood, the people snatch up its body – its wooden body – and set it afire at the boundary of the clan.” (P. 28, Arrow of God: “And we have all heard how the people of Aninta dealt with their deity when he failed them. Did they not carry him to the boundary between them and their neighbours and set fire on him?”)

Page 223: “Am I speaking with water in my mouth?” (P. 4, Arrow of God: “Perhaps, I spoke with water in my mouth.”)

Page 224: “Finally,” she continued, “he told me that his dibia gave him the charm called oti n’anya afu uzo…” “It was meant to make him invisible?” (Pp. 146 – 147, Arrow of God: “He performed countless marvels but the one that people talked about most was his ability to make himself invisible…. But he never learnt this particular magic whose name was Oti-anya-afu-uzo.”)

Pages 119 and 225: “Before I could speak he slapped thunder into my eyes.” (P. 127, Arrow of God: “… in the words of Nwafo when he recounted the incident later, gave her thunder on the face.”).

Pages 276: “Something stronger than Cricket surely has gone after Cricket in its hole.” (P. 219, Arrow of God: “A thing greater than nte has been caught in nte’s trap.”).

Page 267: “He recalled how each ceremony lasted long, accommodating his people’s knack for talk – meandering, circumlocutory, proverb-laced talk.” (pp. 5 and 146, Things Fall Apart: “Among the Ibo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten …” [p. 4] “… One of the most infuriating habits of these people was their love of superfluous words, he thought.” [146])

Even the war-god Ngene in Ndibe’s novel is not original but one of the gods in the pantheon of Umuaro clan which Achebe made reference to on page 202 of Arrow of God, thus: “… in Umuaro in which a man might look to his right and find his neighbour and look to his left and see a god standing there – perhaps Agwu whose mother also gave birth to madness or Ngene, owner of a stream.’” (End of quote).

Alas, every piece of “evidence” Mr. Ogezi imagined he dredged up represents either an Igbo proverb (not one of them invented by the late sage Achebe, great as he was) or common Igbo expressions. Achebe borrowed the proverbs and expressions from the expressive heirloom of his Igbo people; and so did I. Igbo people would be astonished to learn that the proverbs they and their ancestors have always used in ritual and everyday communication are now, by Mr. Ogezi’s reckoning, the property of one writer! Achebe’s achievement lay in his inimitable ability to capture the eloquence and power of those proverbs and Igbo expressions in English. I am inspired by his genius; I am a scholar of his work—but it’s ignorance on Mr. Ogezi’s part to accuse me of stealing from Achebe proverbs and expressions that are part of our common traditional bequest!

In sheer ridiculousness and puerility, Mr. Ogezi’s effort to establish my “barefaced lifting” with the examples he dug up is akin to asserting that the proverb “A stitch in time saves nine” belongs to the first British writer to ever use it in a novel—and any subsequent writer caught using it is a bloody plagiarist!

In his haste to diminish my work by portraying me as a raider of Achebe’s language and imagination, Mr. Ogezi failed to realize—or to admit—that, a., my characters deploy many more proverbs that I also borrowed from my Igbo heritage (but are not found in Achebe’s works) and, b., that the contexts in which I re-used the Igbo proverbs found in Achebe’s work are always remarkably different. Here are two excerpts from my novel to illustrate the point:

First Example:

…Osuakwu waited until the laughter died down, then he addressed Ike: “Let me ask you, my son. This man who calls himself Pastor Uka, do you know anything about his God?”

Ike, drawing the glass of gin to his lips, shook his head.

“Well, I’ll tell you. You see, when I first heard what the rump was telling his followers about Ngene, I said I would go and visit his God to lodge a complaint. But when I asked where his God was, I was told that it was invisible. My son, it’s not good to have dealings with a god that is not visible. The spirit of Ngene is in the river, but its body is here, in this statue. Why did our ancestors insist that each god must have its wooden body in a shrine?”

“Tell me,” Ike said.

“Open your ears and I will. In the days of old, when lizards were still in ones and twos, our ancestors knew that gods are not far from humans in kind. Like us, gods can fall asleep, shirking their responsibilities. Their heads can swell with pride. Filled with bitterness, they can turn against the very one who feeds them. Full of spite, gods can bite both foe and friend alike. Our ancestors knew this; that’s why they insisted that gods must have bodies. You should ask me, why bodies?”

“Why bodies?” Ike asked.

“Because bodies die. Did you know that our people sometimes kill off a recalcitrant god?”

Ike had a vague sense of this practice, but he wanted to hear his uncle flesh it out. “They do?” he asked.

“Yes. When a deity leaves what it was asked to do and starts doing something else, when it turns on the community it’s supposed to protect, or when it begins to thirst for too much human blood, the people snatch up its body—its wooden body—and set it afire at the boundary of the clan. That’s one way of killing a god.”

“So there’s a second way?” Ike asked.

“Yes, in fact there’s a simpler way. A deity is like you and me; it needs to eat and drink to live. That’s why we offer sacrifices to deities. When a deity doesn’t receive the kind of sacrifice it needs, it dies.”…

Second example:

…Osuakwu smiled sadly. He addressed Ike in the reestablished silence.

“There’s no wrong your mother hasn’t heaped on my head. She said I was planning to make you the priest of Ngene after my bones have danced their last dance. I had to laugh at that one. A rump like me to choose for Ngene the man who will serve him? When the time comes that they look for me but I can’t be found, Ngene will speak his mind about a new carrier. If he wants you, you must come home to serve him—or you’ll fall into madness. That you’re in the white man’s country does not mean you can reject the call. When Ngene winks at a man, the man has no choice but to serve. When I was called, did I want to answer? No! Ask Ogbuefi Okwuego who just came in. He and I had just come back from Burma. Like other young men, my dream was to snatch one of the white man’s jobs. Then I started fainting when the sky opened up and wept its waters. When they told me Ngene had called me, I told them to go and put their ears back on the ground, that I had other things I wanted to do with my life. They laughed and went away. My son, when I began to see the things I saw at night, I needed nobody to tell me to answer the summons. Ngene chooses his own carrier. If he wants you, you must leave everything else. If he doesn’t, nobody can sneak you into the priest’s chair. I, Osuakwu, won’t dare. I can’t!”…

It’s laughable that Ogezi would assert that the deity in my novel, Ngene, is lifted from Achebe’s Arrow of God. If only he had had the humility to ask, before rushing out to the public square to expose himself. For his information, there’s a deity in my hometown of Amawbia called Ngene! Besides, Ngene is widely used in many parts of Igboland as a name for streams. The great Igbo bard, Obiligbo, invoked Ngene in several of his songs. And I can assure Ogezi that Obiligbo never read Achebe!

Mr. Ogezi’s cock-sure, but misplaced, confidence about the source of my Ngene reminds me of those who insist that the title of my first novel, Arrows of Rain, is adapted from Achebe’s Arrow of God. In fact, the title is borrowed from Sophocles, the ancient Greek poet-dramatist. My first book’s title is an exact phrase in Sophocles’ drama, Antigone.

I find it simply amazing that any serious reviewer would read Foreign Gods, Inc.—the story of an immigrant in New York City who steals the statue of a war deity from his community in order to sell it to a gallery in the US—as a composite of Achebe’s first three novels! Even without the benefit of reading my novel, those familiar with Achebe’s trilogy, Things Fall Apart, No Longer at Ease, and Arrow of God, are bound to sense that the claim is, on the face of it, ludicrous. It suffices to state that most discerning readers—to say nothing of scholars of literature—would find Ogezi’s assessment jejune.

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