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Okey Ndibe: ‘If you can’t tell your story, you’re voiceless’

Nigerian-American writer on ‘Foreign Gods, Inc.’ and eating cookies with Chinua Achebe

Okey Ndibe — author, political journalist, essayist, professor, editor and current visiting assistant professor of Africana studies — is a busy man. The release of his second novel, “Foreign Gods, Inc.,” in January is part of a flurry of acclaimed fiction by Nigerian writers in the last year, including Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Americanah” and Teju Cole’s “Every Day is for the Thief.”

Ndibe grew up in war-torn Nigeria before coming to the United States in 1983 as the founding editor of African Commentary, a project of the late Chinua Achebe, former David and Marianna Fisher University Professor and a professor of Africana studies. Ndibe received a PhD in English at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and has since written the critically acclaimed novel “Arrows of Rain” and various political essays. He is currently writing an episodic account of his adjustment to life in America. Both the novels and the memoir in progress track the redefinition of identity against various political backdrops.

Ndibe will read from “Foreign Gods, Inc.” at the Brown Bookstore today at 4 p.m. He sat down with The Herald to discuss his transatlantic resume, the teaching of Africana literature and the urgency of narrative to history, politics and memory.


The Herald: Your first novel, “Arrows of Rain,” takes place in Africa, and your new work, “Foreign Gods, Inc.,” is set in Nigeria and America. Given your experiences living in both places, to what degree do you find yourself telling your own story?

Ndibe: I can’t make this as a broad claim, but I think that when you write, pieces of yourself ultimately slip into the work — bits of yourself — so a sense of the author is in the text. And it’s not just the author, it’s also the author’s brothers’ experiences. Pieces of the people I’ve met, stories that they’ve told me, ways in which I have responded to different narratives that I’ve picked up through life.  They get into the text in oblique as well as bold ways. So to that extent, I’ll say yes, there are bits and pieces of me every time I write. But I want to deny that the new book is reducible to my experience. That’s a question I’ve been asked whenever I’ve read. “Is this your story?”


Did the tumultuous political climate of Nigeria inspire your interest in writing political essays and columns?

Well I was a child when Nigeria went through its very bloody civil war, so it’s an experience in many ways that defined me and continues to resonate with my life, with my experiences. So the way that I look at Nigeria, at Africa, is colored by my experiences as a child who saw the horrors of war. So my sense of tragedy as well as of the prospect for our renewal, human renewal — those two dimensions of my outlook are shaped by my experience of the war.


Could you tell me about how you wound up in America?

Chinua Achebe invited me to this country to be the founding editor of the magazine which he founded with  some of his friends in America. I interviewed Achebe as my first assignment as a journalist. I had finished college and got hired by Concord Weekly, but had a month before (the) start, so I was doing a bit of traveling, and I went to see a good friend of mine — a woman who was from Achebe’s hometown, so I was raving about him to her. Then she said to me, “Do you know that Achebe is my uncle? And his country home is just down the street. And he happens to be in town this weekend from the university at which he teaches. If you want, we could go see him.”

So we went to Achebe’s house, and he gave me a bottle of Coke and some cookies. And here I was, a fresh college student who had read all of Achebe’s work, and I was so mesmerized. So I told Achebe that I had just gotten a job at a magazine, and I would like to interview him. But there was a mishap in the interview. I interviewed him for 3 hours, and I came back to my hotel room in the city, and I hit play on the tape — nothing.

So I called Achebe and begged him — could I just come back for 20 minutes? My paper had paid for my flight to the city and my hotel, and if I had returned with nothing, my first assignment  would have been my last. Achebe graciously said to me, “If you can come the day after, I can give you as much time as you need.”

When we finished the interview, Achebe told me that this was the most exhaustive interview that he had done. I was just in awe of Achebe as a writer. So when I wrote the piece, he so liked it that he became like a mentor to me. So in his travels around the world whenever he won something, I was the first person he told, so I would put it out in the media. So we grew close. So in 1988, he was a professor at UMass when some Nigerian professor for academics went to him and proposed to him to start a magazine called African Commentary, and Achebe told him that he knew the perfect guy to be the founding editor.


How does writing in different styles allow you to explore identity from different vantage points?

Well, my first novel is more of a political work. And it had to be my first novel. I’ve always been struck by the tragedy of Nigeria, my home country, and I have always wondered how to account for what I call a country who was conceived in hope, but matured into hopelessness.

You look at Nigeria today and it’s a narrative of disillusionment, of disappointment and of massive looting by politicians. And so I came to this country, and I had to come to terms with that story. I had to tell a story, and it became the way of seeking to understand that terror. And I wanted to create a little distance, so instead of calling the novel the country —  Nigeria — I called it “Medea,” which was also a way of evoking madness. Nigeria is a country of incredible capacity for achieving itself, but somehow it continues to achieve its nightmare day after day. And were it not for the resilience of the people — were it not for the boundless energy of the people — it would be an uninhabitable space.

This second novel has more of a playfulness about it. I decided that I wanted to tell a story that would be a kind of homage to my new homes, my two homes —  Nigeria and America. And a kind of way of looking on two homes at once. So you have one home, America, that is fascinated by exotic deities taken from places like Africa and Asia. And then you have Nigeria, where the Americans contemplate the taking away of an ancestral deity to celebrate the almighty God. So there is a lot of plague there. Underlying my new work is a very dark and sad and treacherous narrative in the trafficking of deities and of the spirit.


As you explained, writing your first work allowed you to come to terms with your past. But with this new, playful novel, what made you want to write each next page?

Well, part of what leads you to finish any novel — for me — is that you are desperate to read it. I write a book that I am desperate to read myself. And part of what sustains that interest is day after day it, in itself, surprises you. So a lot of times, I project about where a story is going — I have a particular trajectory of its movement — but then I sit down to write it, and the character says something that I didn’t know the character was going to say or wants to go to some place that I didn’t want him to go, A lot of times, you find that a story is taking you into a richly mysterious and enchanting territory and so you travel with it, in that direction. So there is a constant sense of play and adventure taken that is in the creative process. Because I like to be with friends, I like to joke, I like to drink wine with friends and tell stories rather than sit down in solitude and write them. It is that constant incessant surprise and adventure that become part of the creative process that sustains me and so I say, “Wow, who knows which friend I’m going to find today, or which character is going to take me today.”


Right now you are working on a memoir, a work that by definition will include inextricably personal experiences. How has writing this been a different experience than writing fictional pieces and writing political pieces?

The working title is “Going Dutch, and Other American (Mis)Adventures.” But it is more a collection of short essays. This is why I don’t quite call it a memoir, because a memoir has a kind of thread and this doesn’t have that. The thread that holds this together is that these essays are all experiences that I have had in what I call my drama with America.


With this in mind, what do you think is the importance of connecting the history of a country and the memory of the person who is experiencing it?

Extremely important. I exemplify it. I came to this country heavily read. So I went (in) with history of the enslavement of Africans in this country and also of the narrative of prayer — their struggle to achieve their full humanity and their right as citizens. And that had moved me so much and was such a source of inspiration for me. As an American I am still always aware of that history, but my memory of Nigeria shapes my own being and resonates in my experience as an American citizen, as a scholar.


As professor of AFRI 1955: “History and Memory in Africana Literature,” how do you teach the importance of this idea of memory and past experience to your students?

I teach what I call Africana literature, which can be reduced to literature of African descent. I take the work that looks at how a number of African-American writers use the resources of memory and history in their fiction — the way in which African and African-American writers are engaged in very important conversations in which history and memory become central handles.

I also think that memory is essential. First of all, good students are called upon to be aware of their history and to have a memory of their location and of their time. And so in every class that I teach, the first thing that I do is I tell one or two stories to students that shape who I am, and I invite each student to tell their own story as a way of introducing themselves. Having a voice in class by telling me a story is the minimum condition for citizenship in the class. If you can’t tell your story, you’re voiceless.

I don’t really care for people who put stickers on cars, but there is a particular sticker that I saw on a car that I fell in love with, and that sticker says, “Speak even when your voice shakes.” The day I saw it, I was so moved and struck by it, I thought, especially then, especially when your voice shakes, you have to find the courage to speak. So in every class I teach, I say, “We are all going to speak. And it’s not just by names. You have to announce your name and tell us something about you that is important. Frame your narrative, speak, even when your voice shakes.” And that is so important.


You started teaching after you started writing. Did your exploration of the importance of identity and finding a voice in your works at all influence the way you run your classroom and teach your students?

Part of my discovery of the importance of speaking came from my terror of speaking. I was a journalist in Nigeria. And people were invited to give talks. But as a journalist, I was never invited anywhere to give a talk. Then I came to this country to edit African Commentary and suddenly colleges and high schools and radio and television stations were inviting me for interviews, and I wasn’t used to speaking. I was terrified. I would become sick.

And then, one day, I was in a green room with Jesse Jackson and they came and told him that he would be going on in 5 minutes, and he got up and started pacing and wringing his hands.  And he said to me, “Wow, I’m so nervous.” And I said to him, “You?” Because in Nigeria, I had watched him at the Democratic Convention speak to millions of people on live television. And I thought, this man has found the magic of speaking. But he said, “Oh yeah, I’m always nervous. When I speak I have a way of channeling that nervousness into nervous energy. When I speak, actually, if I’m not nervous it means I don’t take the audience seriously.” And I was no longer ashamed. So now whenever I go to speak, and they introduce me, I say, “I’m nervous.” The fact that I’m going to announce to the audience that I am nervous gives me strength. It’s as if you express your vulnerability and so you become stronger. I want every student of mine to know that if they are scared of speaking that it is not uncommon, and to know that they can transcend it.


This interview has been edited for clarity and length.


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