Reviews

On the Fringes of Existence: the Immigrant Question in Ndibe’s ‘Foreign Gods, Inc.’

Okey Ndibe responds to this review here.

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The immigrant question in the West has been a subject of serious literature right from Equiano’s The Travels of Olaudah Equiano to Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners. Despite the increasingly dwindling fortunes of immigrants, the influx appears unabated. In the latter novel, when one of the West Indian immigrants, Galahad, could not face the harsh realities of existence in London, he resorts to snatching pigeons in Trafalgar Square to quell the grumbling stomach. The bleak prospects for immigrants, no doubt compounded by bone-chilling racism, have inspired other diasporic literature such as Unigwe’s On Black Sisters’ Street, Azuah’s Edible Bones, Adichie’s Americanah, Bulawayo’s We Need New Names and recently Okey Ndibe’s Foreign Gods, Inc.

Though set in the mid-1990s, Ndibe’s protagonist Ike’s racially-aggravated travails in the US are as poignant as the lonely West Indians in the Selvon novel of London of the mid-1950s. Armed with a degree in economics from Amherst in 1994, Ike still has the hurdle of a green card to cross since many corporate organizations will not even bother to “interview aliens unless they produce evidence of authorization to work in the US” (p. 25). To a black immigrant in the US, a green card is the passport to be a partaker in this land of flowing milk and honey. Ndibe empathized with his protagonist’s challenges on page 27 as follows: “Wherever he moved, he brought along that stubborn dream for a green card. The card was the open sesame to a befitting corporate job.” And the quickest way to circumvent this immigration problem is by marriage to a daughter of the soil irrespective of compatibility, for “the experience had taught him one lesson: that a man chasing simultaneously after love and a green card had to contend with the elusiveness of the ideal spouse” (p. 31). This is how Ike took the huge risk and got hooked to Benita. After all, “it is a risk worth taking. With a green card in his possession, he would be in line for a good corporate job.” (p. 32). Unfortunately, he has reckoned without his peculiar accent which many would-be employers find objectionable and cannot hire him. Saddled with a nagging wife with “ever-insatiable appetite for shopping”, Ike finds it difficult to make ends meet as a cab-driver in the US. Eventually, he is left a down-and-out after the divorce, with Benita walking away with his savings.

One of the tenets of the Naturalist Movement in literature is that man is a function of his environment. So is Ike, a creation of his soul-less, capitalist society; America, their America. In his extremity, he resolves to go home and steal Ngene, the ancient war-god of his people and sell it to an art gallery in order to survive. The consequences of his action are unsavoury.

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. 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.”

One other snag in the novel is the unrealized characterization of white characters, especially the white missionary, the Reverend Walter Stanton. It is as biased as Conrad’s portrayal of the blacks in Heart of Darkness. Stanton never emerges from the pitiable and idiotic caricature of the white missionary that the author painted him in a rather reverse kind of racial discrimination. For example, on pages 107-108, Ndibe describes how Stanton’s black interpreter Jacob is ill-treated by him:

“… Stanton seemed to fly through the air before landing on Jacob. So ferocious was the rush that the Bible loosened from his grip, flew in the air, somersaulted, and then landed, bang, on a female’s convert’s head. His knuckles, knees and chest smacked into Jacob’s bent body. The interpreter reeled backward and then collapsed onto the floor. Unable to check his own fall, Stanton pitched forward and landed atop the spare-bodied interpreter. The converts let out a collective gasp and then looked on in hushed shock. Stanton gathered up himself and sat astride his splayed interpreter… Three dribbles of blood dropped in quick succession from Jacob’s nose into his shirt. He stanched the flow from his left cuff.”

Perhaps, the author’s intention above was to portray a raving mad colonial missionary driven to his death by drowning by a revengeful god Ngene. Ironically, the opposite is achieved by the following on pages 126-127:

“He was still throwing water on his body and over his shoulder when some women and children arrived to fetch water. They were astounded to find him naked. They were shocked to find his penis even smaller than they had imagined. The children directed sly glances at him until the women hushed them away. With the children gone, the women began to make heckling sounds. They sneered and leered. They groaned and moaned. They grunted and gasped in mock-amorous hunger. Stanton appeared oblivious. At any rate, he ignored them … He shut his eyes, readied, and plunged… Stanton never resurfaced.”

Undoubtedly, in the hands of a racially-sensitive European reader, Ndibe cannot escape Achebe’s label of Conrad as a “thoroughbred racist” in this work.

One of the accusations by Western critics against early African writers was that the novel was alien to them as an art form as the latter were short-distance runners like quickly-ejaculating men more acclimatized to the short story owing to their oral traditions. It appears that no generation of African writers suffers this inferiority complex than the present crop of African writers who write needlessly beyond where a full stop would have done a perfect job. The reader’s nerve is stretched to a breaking-point when Ndibe displayed a total lack of reader-consciousness to know when he has overdone the description of the conflict between the worshippers of the ancient war-deity and the extreme Pentecostalism of Ike’s mother’s church. As a die-hard protégé’s homage to his master Achebe, Ndibe allowed the chief priest of Ngene to ramble on unceasingly and boringly. This makes the novel largely over-written and lacklustre.

Notwithstanding the foregoing, Ndibe’s Foreign Gods, Inc. is a commendable snapshot on the immigrant life in the US and a subtle indictment of her racism. It also shows the inimitability of Achebe and the danger of any attempt to imitate him by an acolyte which will be as good as committing a literary hara-kiri.

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