The polar vortex thrust New York City in a frigid chill this week, weather that Okey Ndibe says reminds him of the first day in the United States twenty-five years earlier. He arrived in December, 1988, on the coldest day of the year wearing only a light jacket. Ndibe came from Nigeria, a place where cold is seventy-five degrees. Nobody warned him about winter.
This month, Okey Ndibe released his second novel, Foreign Gods, Inc, fourteen years after his debut, Arrows of Rain (2000). His publisher, SoHo Press, has sent him around the country to promote the book, and hosted Ndibe at the Jefferson Market Library in the West Village.
When he set off for the United States in 1988, his parents and uncles and aunts gathered around to give him advice. Though none of them warned him about the “strange creature” called winter, one of his uncles did caution against making eye contact with Americans. Americans carry guns, his uncle said, and making eye contact might provoke them into taking a shot. Ndibe jokes about guns in the kind of affable way that reassures the audience he isn’t expecting anyone to be armed. He survived the airport without getting shot. His bigger concern upon his arrival was how cold the United States was. He wrote home to tell his family that living in America felt like living in a freezer.
In 1988, the scholar Chinua Achebe, author of the classic Things Fall Apart (1958), had invited Ndibe to the United States to edit an academic journal. Ten days in the United States and Ndibe was headed to a meeting in Amherst, Massachusetts, when he sees a police officer drive by; at the last second, he remembers what his uncle told him about making eye contact, and looks away. The cop turns around and comes back to question Ndibe, now afraid the American with a gun is ready to shoot him.
Though he is not shot at, the cop suspects Ndibe of robbing a local bank. When Ndibe explains he has just arrived from Nigeria and he has no identification other than his passport, the officer insists on retrieving the document, left behind in Ndibe’s apartment. Achebe’s sons have were staying with Ndibe at the time. They attended Amherst. They are surprised to see Ndibe returned from his meeting early, and Ndibe tells them he has been arrested for robbing the local bank.
After the police officer checks over Ndibe’s identification and realizes that he’s captured the wrong man, Ndibe is taken back to the bus station. Ndibe neglects to inform Achebe’s sons he has been cleared and they now suspect he has been incarcerated by the Amherst Police. When he arrives for the meeting, the professor he was to meet with is missing. An hour later the man returns to his office surprised to find Ndibe waiting for him; he’d been frantically searching the local police holding cells for Ndibe, reported missing by Achebe’s sons.
Ndibe explains that he prefers to warm the audience up with stories before reading. He always feels a “profound sense of injury” when an author simply reads, at the audience, twenty or thirty pages of a book. Instead, he wants to have a conversation with the audience and give them a small sample of the book. “I want writers to give me a taste,” he says of readings. He read a short section of the book before taking questions.
In writing Foreign Gods, Inc., Ndibe set out to tackle the question of how people define themselves as native and foreign. His protagonist, Ike, has a university education but suffers from two problems: first, he needs a green card, and second, he has a thick accent. Both these obstacles lead him to becoming a taxi cab driver.
Ndibe has built a flawed character, one that suffers with alcohol and abandonment. Not content, Ike discovers a solution: an art gallery that deals in the commodity of deities and religious artifacts from around the world. Ike decides to sell the god from his home village in Africa.
The inspiration behind the idea of the book was a priest Ndibe knew growing up in Nigeria. The priest was a charismatic character and Ndibe would sneak into the shrine to listen to the man talk. He told fantastical tales from World War II and the discovery of the tower of babel, both of which the priest attended. This mythology intrigued Ndibe and his first thought was building a novel around this character, the priest. Instead, he built it around a more international idea, a clash between the native and immigrant, the old and the new.
When Ndibe went to sell his first novel, he says that American publishers had a subtle prejudice against African authors. They preferred sending American writers abroad to write memoirs or even novels about foreign places. The stories of Africa by Africans was out of favor, and he felt the publishers were saying that Americans didn’t want African writing. Eventually the first novel sold anyway, but when Foreign Gods, Inc. came around, the market had changed for the worse.
By then he had a literary agent, but the agent insisted the novel couldn’t be sold. The agent said fiction was tough to sell. Finally, a friend told him about SoHo Press, who read manuscripts without an agent. SoHo embraced him, and Ndibe can only lavish praise upon them. He suggests too that they are looking to expand their offerings of African authors. He hopes to see Nigerian literature spread more widely in the same way Nigerian music and film have.
Still, even as Nigerian culture has spread, he points to the erosion of local culture. Ndibe is ethnically Igbo, from the southeast of Nigeria. He says now though many people are all too eager to distance themselves from those traditions. Though he speaks Igbo, many young people do not. The challenge is embracing cultural influences without sacrificing themselves. Africans, as they grow wealthier want to consume the broader goods and culture of the world. By contrast, he says, Americans are so rich they want to taste the primitive.
There is still a real question of who African authors are writing for. The education system has at times favored colonial Victorian literature. Authors contextualized events like history in colonial ways. For African writers, the question of what they are allowed to write about and yet still maintain authenticity as African writers persists. Ndibe wants everything to be available for him to write about, for everything to be fair territory.
Literary culture in Nigeria and Africa as a whole is still fragile. African nations still lack some of the necessary infrastructure. Ndibe points to the rise in popularity of Asian literature a decade ago. India and Pakistan, he says, have the infrastructure to support their own publishing communities. Africa still lacks that, and so that is more difficult to grow domestic authors with a global reach. He points out that many places still limit electricity usage.
Time too is a commodity in Africa where its not uncommon to spend three or four hours commuting each way. Reading as a leisure activity is difficult to pursue with limited time and limited electric lights. As the middle-class in Nigeria has grown, so has the interest in buying books. However, for now, consumers are just buying. The middle-class want their home libraries. As for reading, that isn’t necessarily happening.
Part of the blame falls to university education, Ndibe says. The curriculums are too focused on a single topic; students in school for economics only study economics. Nobody sees any value in reading novels.
That doesn’t mean writers don’t think their books are valuable. Nigerians all think selling a book in the United States would make them a millionaire. Ndibe mentions a poet who asked Ndibe to sell his poetry books in the States saying that he would accept as little as fifty-thousand dollars each.
Ndibe spent nine years writing Foreign Gods, Inc. He would still be editing too if his SoHo Press hadn’t insisted on publishing something, he jokes. He says editing is the most important part, even if its unsexy. “Its much more gratifying knowing how much I suffered.”