An Interview with Okey Ndibe

Ndibe in author photo for Foreign Gods

Okey Ndibe, who teaches African and African Diaspora literature at Brown University, is the author of Foreign Gods, Inc. and Arrows of Rain. Born in Nigeria, he relocated to the US at the invitation of author Chinua Achebe. Recently, the editors of the Oxford African American Studies Center had a chance to talk with him about his work, his beliefs, the American Dream—and more.

The protagonist of your novel, a Nigerian-born taxi driver named Ike (pronounced ee-KAY), plans to steal an idol from his village and sell it to an art dealer who specializes in statues of exotic deities. Can you tell us more about how you’re using this idea to comment on materialism and globalization?

A slew of novels and plays have been devoted to the subject of materialism, the impulse to consume, often for its own sake. I think my unique contribution is to invite readers to ponder an absurdist scenario where it’s gods—the sacred artifacts and dimensions of our human heritage—that are now the objects of collection and consumption. But come to think of it, this desire to grab and privatize ritual statues and other sacred totems is not that farfetched. In an increasingly globalized world, the shopping list of more and more people with large discretionary funds is tending, it seems, in the direction of the exotic, phantasmagoria, the sacred. I thought I should bring that out in the open—in order, at the very least, to trigger a conversation.

Some of the most heartbreaking moments in your novel deal with Ike’s failed attempts to establish a normal life in the United States, despite his being determined and educated. Is his experience based on what you have seen yourself, and heard about from others who have moved here? Is there something unique about the West African experience in America that you are trying to convey? 

Ike is caught up in the whirling drama of—quote and unquote—the American dream. According to the going creed, if you batten down, work conscientiously, refrain from cutting corners (and take your vitamins), you’re going to make it in America. For lots of people in America, including immigrants, the bargain holds up, the promissory note is redeemed. But there are some Americans—and immigrants—who try to do all that’s required of them, and yet end up in failure. My protagonist, Ike, exemplifies one such case. I must emphasize that Ike doesn’t fail because he’s stuck driving a cab in New York City when he’d much rather hold down a corporate job. Many people have fulfilling lives as cab drivers. Ike’s is a failure on his own terms. He doesn’t want to be a cab driver; he will never be happy as one, even if he made a lot of money from it. So he has failed in his own eyes. He ends up making a lot of reckless, misconceived, even treacherous, decisions in order to escape from what he regards as an untenable situation, a trap.

Now, his predicament is a familiar one to many west Africans, many Africans here in the US, the UK, and elsewhere. But it’s not a uniquely Nigerian or African experience. I’ve met or heard about many Nigerians with Masters or doctorate degrees who are cab drivers in numerous American cities. A cousin of mine is a cab driver, even though he holds an MBA. But I have encountered other immigrants—several from eastern Europe, one from Lebanon—who are in the same bind. In the case of the Lebanese—he drove me from Brooklyn to JFK Airport for a trip to London—he had a first degree in mathematics, and then qualified as a lawyer. But when he relocated to America, he could not find a job that matched his qualifications. His undoing was the same as Ike’s: a strong “foreign” accent.

Readers may end up interpreting your novel’s message about religion in different ways. Some could say that it dismisses the idea of gods altogether. Others could say that it condemns the way commercialism and greed can corrupt a more authentic religion and spirituality. How would you say your book addresses religious belief, practice, and culture?

I have too much respect for religious faith to dismiss it. I am a Catholic, and profess that faith. But I am deeply appalled by all the duplicity and horrors visited on people in the name of religious faith. Belief in God ought to come with a deepened humanity, with fidelity to the idea of doing unto others as you’d wish them to do unto you. But look around: there’s all the killing, all the scamming, all the exploitation of the vulnerable in the name of God. And there’s the intolerance for those who believe in different ways, or choose not to believe.

Speaking of religion, your novel spends several chapters skewering a huckster preacher who has seduced the protagonist’s family with empty promises of riches and good health. How has the religious landscape in Nigeria changed, and what has been the impact of so-called American-style prosperity gospel, according to your experience?

Your question touches on a disturbing, pernicious aspect of religion in Nigeria. There are too many so-called men and women of God who hustle the most vulnerable, most desperate members of society out of their miserable feeding money. These ostensible holy men—among them priests, pastors and imams—specialize in selling high-priced fantasies of prosperity to the deprived and desperate. And to the sick, they vend schemes of magical release. This disheartening phenomenon—what I call deformation of faith—is terribly widespread in Nigeria. In my novel, I wanted to bring into focus some of the forms, and consequences, of this modern-day plague.

One of the most vivid sequences in your book is a flashback to the colonial era, in which a short-tempered Christian preacher from Europe tries to recruit converts from Ike’s village. Is this based on a specific event that your own hometown experienced?

You refer to the Reverend Walter Stanton, a crazed, overzealous pioneer missionary in my fictional landscape of Utonki. No, he’s not based on any particular event in my hometown. He’s a slightly heightened composite, if you like, of numerous missionaries I have encountered in fiction, history, and lore.

You have a personal connection with some of the venerable writers of Nigerian literature, including Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe. Can you tell us a little about how these writers (and others) have influenced your work?

I have been fortunate, indeed, to count on some of the best ethical and artistic models a writer can hope for. I first read Soyinka’s prison memoir, The Man Died—a tough, complex book—in high school. I’m not sure I quite grasped the tension in the book. But I was absolutely blown away—haunted, perhaps—by the phrase, “The man dies in all who keep silent in the face of tyranny.” I have gone back to reread the book numerous times—certainly more than ten times. That phrase continues to shape my artistic and journalistic stance. In my first novel, Arrows of Rain, a wise woman says to her grandson, a journalist: “A story that must be told never forgives silence.” It’s a sort of homage to Soyinka’s take on silence. I’m a huge admirer of Soyinka’s ethical stance, his intrepid advocacy for human rights. I first read Achebe’s Things Fall Apart also in high school. I remember being troubled by Okonkwo’s killing of the young lad Ikemefuna. For weeks on end, I saw apparitions of Okonkwo in every tall, bushy-haired man I saw. I’d flee from them, panting. Then one day—still a high school student—I saw Achebe at a gas station. I went close to him and said, “Good afternoon, sir.” I was ecstatic when he replied. I ran to my friends, told them about the exchange, and warned them that I would say no word to any of them for weeks—since Achebe and I had talked! A few years later, I met Achebe again at his country home. I had just graduated from college, and about to take up a job with a Nigerian weekly magazine. I told Achebe I would like to interview him. He gave me his telephone number. Once I reported at the magazine, I informed the editor that I had Achebe’s number and consent to give me an interview. Instantly, the editor asked me to proceed to do the interview—as my first major assignment. That began a relationship with Achebe that lasted for close to thirty years. In 1988, he invited me to relocate to the US to be the editor of a magazine he and another Nigerian academic founded. I was with him in the Africana Department at Brown, teaching his work as well as works by other African and African American writers, until his death in 2013. I have also benefited immensely from the friendship and inspiration of other extraordinarily gifted and generous writers: Ngugi wa Thiong’o, John Edgar Wideman, Ekwueme Michael Thelwell, Ama Ata Aidoo.

Your book not only criticizes the West, but also targets your native Nigeria for satire. What reactions have you received to this criticism, specifically from your friends and colleagues who hail from the region? 

Nobody—as far as I know—has taken any of it personally. It’s the nature of fiction that much of the “criticism” is leavened by a certain humorous stance. As Ngugi aptly said, reading parts of Foreign Gods, Inc., you laugh in order not to cry! That’s part of the beauty of art: that there’s always a filter for things. So, what you call criticism is never really raw; it hardly ever slaps the reader’s face. It’s a sublimated thing, slowly, artfully permeating the reader’s consciousness.