Image: Sola OsofisanSola Osofisan interviews author and widely syndicated essayist, Okey Ndibe, founding editor of African Commentary, a critically acclaimed magazine founded by the literary icon, Chinua Achebe. Author of Arrows of Rain, and co-editor (with Chenjerai Hove) of Writers, Writing on Conflicts and Wars in Africa, Ndibe has just published a new novel, Foreign Gods, Inc. (Soho Press). Currently a visiting professor at Brown University, Rhode Island, Okey Ndibe received his PhD in English at the University of Massachusetts, MA.
Sola Osofisan: I was at a Franklin Park, Bronx, reading where you spent quite a bit of time telling introductory stories before you delved into your new book, Foreign Gods, Inc. Many writers are private folks; I mean writing can be a very personal, lonely business. But you get across as someone who is comfortable being the center of attention, articulate and all. Did teaching give you that or you have always had a persona that’s comfortable with public appearances?
Okey Ndibe: I have always enjoyed the public aspects of the creative enterprise—the interaction with an audience of readers, the exchange of stories with an audience. I know that many writers are intensely private, deeply uncomfortable with an audience, even an audience of fans of their work. I’m different. I envy musicians the intensity and directness of their engagement with their fans. If I had the option—if there were enough hours in a day—I’d relish the experience of spending quite a bit of time with each reader of my work. I find that I learn a lot when I talk to—talk with—people. That’s part of why I treasure teaching. I love that sense of co-exploring literature with my students. The activity is so emotionally rewarding that I’d teach for free!
Sola Osofisan: At the reading when you started by telling diverse immigrant stories, it felt as if you were trying to prepare the audience by situating the characters and context of the story first. Is this something you do often at readings or were you just offering kola, so to speak? How does it benefit the reading from a book mostly peopled by characters who are “the other”?
Okey Ndibe: Offering kola—that’s an absolutely enchanting way to put it! Well, it’s like this: I find the conventional reading rather boring, sometimes insufferably dull. I’m drawn to good old storytelling, the dazzling performance of stories. When I’m at a reading and the author opens a book and reads 20, 30 pages to the audience, my response is, when’s this ordeal going to end? I doubt that anybody sustains attention when a writer is reading that many pages. It’s compounded by the fact that many writers are not particularly engaging readers, even of their own work. I truly enjoyed being read to when I was still a child, before I mastered reading. The whole idea of a reading should be a celebration, or it fails, in my estimation. I come to readings with the hope, the expectation that a writer would cast a spell with stories about her/his work—and about life, why not? And then that the writer would read no more than a small section of a work. If I’m moved, then I’d buy the book and read it myself. I’m something of an “anti-reader.” I try to seduce the audience with stories, often making sure that the stories connect in some way with some central subject or concern in my book. Then, once the audience is won over, I offer a little taste of my book. I do unto my audience what I wish other writers did unto me!
Sola Osofisan: Still on “the other”, from your experience as a college professor and writer, do you find Americans to be generally receptive to writing that’s culturally different? Or are all cultures ultimately familiar after a closer look?
Okey Ndibe: I think so. There’s a great deal of appetite in the US for the cultural experiences of the so-called “other”. That includes an interest in “other” stories as well as the narrative modes deployed by different cultures. This fascination is healthy as long as it does not breed a fundamental misrecognition of the “othered”. In other words, it should not encourage a response that the “other” is some exotic mutant, occupying a problematic or unfamiliar ethical space. The careful American reader will realize that, whatever the surface differences, the world’s cultures still do figure out ways of intersecting, of staying on respectful and speaking terms. And that, in ethical terms, these cultures share core common grounds.
Sola Osofisan: How much of Foreign Gods, Inc. did you have already formed in your mind before you started writing?
Okey Ndibe: The novel changed quite a bit, in its form, in its conception, and throughout the execution of it. It originally started out as a short story, but then morphed into a novel. The one element that was there from the outset was the idea of the heist—a stolen deity. But the angle of a New York gallery that buys and sells sacred objects, including deities poached from different, far-flung places—that came later.
Sola Osofisan: Has the book turned out pretty much how you envisioned it from the start? Or did it change considerably along the way?
Okey Ndibe: There are some writers who’re able to envision a book—and then go ahead to achieve a close approximation of their vision. I’m more of a free, restless spirit when I write. I have some kernel, some central idea that seizes me. I also have some sense of the general direction of the story. I then begin to feel my way around that idea, looking for paths to lead me to the heart of the story. I explore numerous paths, abandoning unpromising ones. Somehow, in the midst of this roving, I find the spirit of the story. And I let it guide me.
Sola Osofisan: So you’re not itching already to revise some chapters?
Okey Ndibe: I’m an incurable, obsessive reviser! If my editor didn’t snatch a manuscript from my hands, I’d revise it interminably. It’s not a good habit for a writer to have; I’m working on curbing it, on learning how to let go.
Sola Osofisan: Would you have written the same book if you were resident in Nigeria? Or you don’t think domicile plays a key role in the stories we tell?
Okey Ndibe: If I didn’t live in the US, I doubt I would have written this book—or my first novel, Arrows of Rain—in quite the same way. Certain aspects of the books, some emphases and moments of dramatic tension, might have been different. There’s no question that my particular location helped shape the conception and execution of Foreign Gods, Inc. Take my protagonist, Ike’s, desultory life as an immigrant in New York City. If I hadn’t spent such a long time in the US, it would have been harder to achieve a complex psychological portrait of Ike’s immigrant experience. It would not have been impossible, just harder.
Sola Osofisan: My favorite parts of the book are the Utonki chapters. I was mentally dramatizing the encounters, from character to character. There is something rapturous about African languages expressed in English. The language is sweeeeeeet and there is a lyrical beauty to the dialogue. It feels as if you wrote that entire sequence in Igbo first, before translating it into English. Is that what you did, even if only in your head?
Okey Ndibe: As a youngster, I was drawn to the shrine of the major deity in my hometown of Amawbia. Even though I was born and raised Catholic—and I served Mass—I went to the shrine out of a deep curiosity. I relished the ambience in the place, the unceasing feasting that went on, the eating of meat and drinking of beer and spirits, but—most of all—I was captivated by the talk. There was the ritual language, encapsulating something of the theology of this deity, and there was the sheer dazzle of the language used by the elders as they bantered. Let’s say I was fortunate to receive that bequest—to witness that deployment of Igbo as a lyrical, evocative and cadenced language. That language has stayed with me all these years. The challenge was to capture a measure of its spirit in English. And much as you like it, the fact is that some of its richness and poetry was—inevitably—lost in translation.
Sola Osofisan: I think it’s fascinating how the old melds into the new in Utonki and its real life equivalents across the Continent where a traditional priest’s chant of timeless incantations in a deity’s shrine can be interrupted by a buzzing cell phone or the hooting of a car horn. Can you speak to how things are changing in Igboland? Do folks back home still speak as many of the Utonki characters speak in the book?
Okey Ndibe: Every part of Igboland—for that matter, almost every part of the world—is swept up by radical transformations. The mobile phone and the Internet have reshaped the world as we knew it, and we inhabit a new time and space—wherever we stand in the world. In terms of Igbo language, the news is mixed. In Amawbia, I can still run into a few people who speak as eloquently as the characters in Utonki. But there’s no question: the art of enchanting talk is a waning art, with fewer and fewer people who are versed in using Igbo to cast spells. A few years ago, on a visit to Nigeria, I asked my mother and other elderly relatives to re-tell some of the folktales that we were regaled with as children. Most of the elders could merely remember fragments of one or two folktales. Television had seduced everybody, including the very old. TV had drawn them away from telling these folktales, and they had forgotten most of them. I saw it then—and I see it today still—as nothing short of a cultural disaster!
Sola Osofisan: Pastor Uka the charlatan…He reads like a character that was handed to you on a platter, complete and gift-wrapped. He’s so familiar in today’s Nigeria, isn’t he?
Okey Ndibe: Absolutely! You find all kinds of exploitation that go on in the name of religion in Nigeria, and you feel a deep sadness. Daily, some rogue imams and pastors take advantage of the desperation and superstition of sick people, of unemployed people, of poor people. It’s sickening when a young man contracts AIDS through reckless sexual adventure, and then a scam artist posing as a pastor steps in, tells the young man that his grandmother is a witch and had used some remote diabolical means to put AIDS in his body. In exchange for cash, this charlatan of a pastor then promises a miracle, leading the unsuspecting young man down a fool’s path to despair and death. It’s unconscionable! I must stress, however, that there are many true, noble people of faith out there—Christian as well as Muslim.
Sola Osofisan: Isn’t it unusual for a Nigerian like Ike – who has suffered so much to get by in America – to be as gullible as he appears to be in the book? Or it is in character because the unusual is what we go to fiction to find?
Okey Ndibe: I think Ike makes several poor choices, but I don’t agree that he’s gullible. There’s a gallery in the novel that sells sacred objects for a lot of money. He reads about it in a magazine. He visits the gallery and sees for himself, even holds a conversation with the guy who runs the gallery. It’s a treacherous choice he makes—and he doesn’t come to it easily—but he elects to return to his village to steal the statue of his community’s most important ancestral deity. Many of us would make a different choice, but I don’t think that Ike’s particular flaw is gullibility. A loss of a sense of moral center—yes.
Sola Osofisan: I know filmmakers who find it impossible to watch a movie or TV show without over-analyzing the plot while subconsciously plotting alternative camera angles and shots – simply because they know the secrets of the trade. Are you like that? As a teacher and a writer, are you still able to read fiction innocently and just enjoy a story?
Okey Ndibe: I always make myself to surrender to the enchantment of a story. But, yes, if a story grips me in a particular way, I often find myself re-imagining it, teasing its plot twists in different directions. But, always, there’s first the surrender to the story.
Sola Osofisan: What do you like most about writing? Creating and shattering worlds? Making up characters and shuffling them around? The power to say pretty much anything about anything? What?
Okey Ndibe: For me, the most exhilarating aspect of writing is to see a once messy tableau come together in the end, become so seamless as to inspire the impression that it’s been wrought by some spirit with far greater flair and intelligence than any human author. There’s a sense of mystery in writing—and it lies in the achievement of symmetry out of a sometimes chaotic accretion of details. I exult in that magic!
Sola Osofisan: Is there collaboration in the works with a publisher to release the book in Nigeria?
Okey Ndibe: Two Nigerian publishers have expressed an interest in acquiring the rights to the Nigerian market. However, my publishers are making plans to sell their edition of the book in Nigeria and other parts of Africa.
Sola Osofisan: Journalism has evolved incredibly since you walked the beat. Do you think its ability to change things the way it did in the past is waxing or waning? What will it take to have that ship of change berth in Nigeria?
Okey Ndibe: The Internet has revolutionized journalism. It has brought a sense of simultaneity to the business—so that an event happening anywhere in the world is reported as it happens, not a day or hours later. That’s a defining difference. And it places certain strains on daily newspapers and newsmagazines. They must learn to compete digitally or risk death, sooner or later. The Nigerian media would benefit from an infusion of savvier talent—reporters who are knowledgeable and quick-witted, able to report and analyze events as they happen. Above all, the Nigerian media need a greater ethical muscle. Nigeria is an ethical nightmare, with politicians running around in a stealing frenzy. You need reporters and writers who need to expose this depraved culture, who can look a briber in the face and reject her/his bait. We need truth servants with a moral vision—if that’s not too much to ask in this day and age.
Sola Osofisan: Your mental state when writing a work of fiction as opposed to when writing a social commentary or a journalistic piece…What kind of mental compartmentalization do you put yourself through to keep the two separate?
Okey Ndibe: When I’m writing a political commentary, I have the sense that the issue has a certain kind of urgency. It (often) has to do with a topical issue that may not be in the news next week or in two weeks. So I delve into it in that spirit. With fiction, there’s a sense that one is engaged in a more timeless enterprise, and also a sense that, whatever my ethical or moral hang-ups, I go nowhere with a novel if you don’t make the experience of reading it pleasurable for a reader. So, art comes into a novel in a way that’s broader than mere style.
Sola Osofisan: Let me ask you – verbatim – a question Wale Adebanwi asked Sefi Atta several years ago: “Do you think literature can help solve the Nigerian riddle, given that the country itself often comes across as a great fiction, even if a violent one?”
Okey Ndibe: I’ve often described Nigeria as a tragedy-in-progress. I’d insist, however, Nigeria’s great tragedy is that it’s never been fully imagined. The British who cobbled the territory together did not imagine that they were creating a cohesive community. A huge market, yes, but not a community. And, once we got the so-called Independence, we set about eating Nigeria, cannibalizing the whole thing, “sharing the cake,” with nobody to say, wait a minute, when do we bake the damn cake? In other words, Nigerians have never contemplated—or imagined—a robust Nigeria. We fought a horrific civil war, and then staunchly refused to pause and learn any lessons from the war! I don’t think about Nigeria with any optimism. The country has been on a slide for far too long, and it’s become a space where—as a lawyer friend once told me—absurdity makes sense! But here’s a short, direct answer to your question. If Nigeria’s to have any chance at redemption, it must, first, be re-imagined. There’s no better tool for re-imagining it than literature.
Sola Osofisan: You once said in an interview, “My parents raised me to understand that any form of stealing is unacceptable”. Were your parents different from the parents of the leadership Nigeria has been infested with for decades, because they don’t seem to have any problem stealing the country dry? Didn’t their parents teach them the same thing? Aren’t those parents seeing what they’re doing to Nigeria? Tell us about your parents. How come we don’t have more of them in Nigeria, because parents today seem to encourage their children to steal?
Okey Ndibe: My four siblings and I were fortunate—blessed is actually a more appropriate word—to have parents who set high moral standards for us. My father was a postal clerk, my mother a school teacher. They were devout Catholics. We prayed together, twice, each day. And once or twice a week, they sat all their children down after prayers and talked about our lives, about moral choices. They had little money, but they constantly helped many much poorer people. And they taught us, in words and in deeds, that money illicitly acquired could bring no happiness. They evinced a moral nobility that I refused to admire when I was younger—I really wished for wealthy parents then! But as I matured, I came to look back with a sense of deep gratitude for my parents’ moral bequest. A relative of mine once went to my mother to complain that I had shunned a huge bribe from a politician. My mother told him that she and her late husband had formed their children well—and that she would be appalled if I ever fell for an inducement.
Sola Osofisan: Your weekly commentaries are often scathing indictments of the state of our nationhood, and it has gotten you into trouble with those who wish you would just go away. Achebe says in an interview with The Atlantic, “there’s no moral obligation to write in any particular way. But there is a moral obligation, I think, not to ally yourself with power against the powerless.” Does this kind of thinking influence your point of view when you craft the columns that seem to consistently seek to empower the powerless?
Okey Ndibe: Absolutely. When I started out as a journalist in Nigeria after college, my parents sat me down and gave me two principles to live professionally by. One was to always speak truthfully about any situation; the other, to strive to be a voice for the voiceless. Those two ideas have since animated my journalistic writing.
Sola Osofisan: As a widely traveled Nigerian-American, have you had to deal with some of the baggage of being a Nigerian outside Nigeria?
Okey Ndibe: I have been luckier than many other Nigerians in this regard. But I’ve had a few occasions when, in the middle of a conversation, somebody asked where I was from originally. The moment I said Nigeria, the person I was talking to either turned and fled—or quickly made some excuses and left.
Sola Osofisan: How does teaching – having a constant audience full of pliant, emerging minds – help you adjust, if not correct some of the age-old misconceptions about Nigeria and the African continent?
Okey Ndibe: There are more than 150 million Nigerians. Whatever the negative notions are about Nigerians, I’d like to think that most of us are decent, honorable women and men. A good percentage of the Nigerians abroad, including those in the UK and US, are highly educated and versed in various professions and vocations. They provide a corrective to the image of Nigerians as crooks staking out gullible victims. So it’s not just me, it’s also you and hundreds of thousands of other Nigerians who, by dint of personal example, demonstrate that we deserve to be treated with respect, rather than being regarded as scam artists looking for prey.
Sola Osofisan: Can you give us an advance reading of your memoir, “Going Dutch and other American Mis/Adventures”?
Okey Ndibe: As I stated earlier, I came to the US twenty-five years ago. In that time, so much has happened to me, some of it hilarious, some terrifying. On the hilarious side, there are so many stories around my name Okey, which sounds close to Okay. On the terrifying side, ten days after I arrived in the US, I was arrested as a suspect in a bank robbery! I’m currently writing a series of essays based on these and other experiences as an immigrant in the US.
Sola Osofisan: Your wife is also a lecturer, like you. Is it hard on the kids? Do they think life is one long unending classroom?
Okey Ndibe: Not in the least. Our kids understand that we have high expectations. But we also trust that they are interested in recognizing their gifts, finding their passions, and shaping their lives.
Images: Sola Osofisan