Migrant experience in Julie Iromuanya’s Mr. & Mrs. Doctor
Julie Iromuanya’s novel Mr. & Mrs. Doctor could not be more relevant than in these times. It is a time when immigration and refugee crises have reached a record high and forced world powers to align themselves with open border policies. By 2016, the number of migrants seeking to settle in Europe doubled. While Germany opened up its borders to about one million people, neighboring EU countries seemed less enthusiastic to do so.
The United States recently called for a ban on Muslims, migrants and refugees coming into the country. The backlash against this policy was overwhelming. After all, many people grew up nursing a desire to live in or visit America. The idea was to go to school and make parents proud and also to behold and live the American dream. The novel, Mr. & Mrs. Doctor, falls into the “immigrant novel” subgenre. Perhaps to see America through the eyes of an immigrant is to behold the greatness of a nation, presently undermined by the wave of populism. The novel dissects salient social issues upsetting those seeking to live and settle abroad. It gives a slice of an immigrant’s tale.
This is Julie Iromuanya’s debut novel and it was shortlisted for the 2017 Etisalat Prize for Literature. Iromuanya who is an Assistant Professor of English and African Literature at the University of Arizona has earrned other accolades with this novel, including a 2016 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction, the 2015 National Book Critics’ Circle John Leonard Prize for Debut Fiction, a San Francisco Chronicle “Best of 2015” a star critics’ choice award and a finalist for the 2016 PEN/Faulkner Award.
The story revolves around Job Ogbonnaya referred at as “Mr. Doctor”. His poor parents have sent him to America to study medicine, but unknown to them, halfway into the program, Job drops out of college. What does he then do? He refuses to admit the truth to family and friends, and continues to collect his annual tuition money. He then goes on to marry Ifi. He travels all the way to Port Harcourt from Nebraska for this arranged marriage. Ifi who is a former housegirl sees Job as the only ticket of upward mobility available to a woman of her social status. She will do everything possible to succeed including, reducing her age to appear young enough to marry a doctor from America.She is so proud of herself and cannot wait to live the “Life”
Job keeps up the pretence even after they have settled down in America. He works hard at two hourly jobs with the hope of someday returning to medical school to become a doctor. He promises Ifi that he would someday open a clinic in Nigeria, where he will be doctor and she would be nurse. But contrary to all the lies, Job is not a doctor; he is a mere nursing assistant.
Ifi sees through the lies soon after moving into his rodent -infested one-bedroom apartment. The paint peels off the walls of their apartment, the remains of the extant animal parts stuck in the shower, and rodents everywhere in their bedroom, told the whole story. She had been deceived. Being a skilled liar herself, she knew when someone was not being truthful. She suddenly feels a sense of emptiness arising from disappointment which the author memorably depicts thus:
‘’ “Ifi opened her palms and let snow fall into them. She scooped it into her hands, pressed them together. She placed it in her mouth and tasted. It was cold and wet, like rain. That was all. She felt foolish.”
Even though Job is comically inept at impersonating a doctor and also poverty stricken, Ifi continues to keep his secret to his friends in Nebraska and in her letters home. One of the letters reads:“There are already four bedrooms, but because my husband is considering the inclusion of a home library to store all of his medical diagrams and journals, we are discussing with contractors the possibility of adding a fifth room.
Aunty, she concluded, you would not recognize me for the skinny girl who left home”Unknown to Ifi years down the line, Job had paid a huge sum of money to acquire a Green Card through an arranged marriage to Cheryl, a chain smoking white lady. Trouble begins when financially challenged Cheryl emerges and begins to threaten his entire life’s purpose. His best-friend Emeka, whose very presence makes Job envious, emerges to shake Job back to reality. When Ifi is about to give birth, the couple’s attention is transferred to their new son, Victor. Job decides, “I have been foolish…. For too long…. My son will be the doctor instead of me. My daughter will be the nurse instead of Ifi.”
Every reader is likely to be attracted to and drawn to the character of “Job Ogbonnaya”. Job is portrayed as a man who is very keen on convincing everybody about the veracity of the lies he has grown so accustomed to telling. He would do anything to protect his image, including wearing a lab coat and stethoscope whenever he arrives from work. Many might see Job as an unrepentant liar, but it is more apt to envision him as a man who is habitually ruled by the many indices of insecurities that threaten a man’s will to succeed. Job would rather die than go back home a failure. He would rather tell a lie, than appear to be seen as a joke by family in his homeland. He is given to believing that if he told the lie often enough, it would somehow become the truth. The more he spoke, the bigger the promises, the larger he felt. His mindset is expressed in the following:
” –you know my friend, there are three things a man must do in his native land: marry, bury and retire. America is the steppingstone. If you cannot make it here, then go home a joke
— and so they spent most free evenings in airless rooms, sweating into the yellowed armpits of their favorite topic.
Iromuanya in an interview said she appears to find completely likable characters to be unlikable and boring. It is no wonder that the narrative seems to have more flawed characters than pleasant ones. It perhaps made the story more interesting. A reader is inadvertently drawn to the depth of their human experiences. One is intrigued by the norms, beliefs, code of ethics that drove their actions. The reader ultimately comes to realize one thing; their attitudes stemmed from a genuine will to survive and be successful. Job’s reason for coming to America was to become a doctor, so he must lie to protect his reputation.
The characters in the novel are memorable and not easily forgotten. From the nosy and judgmental neighbor who encourages Ifi to leave Job; to Emeka and Gladys, also Nigerian immigrants to America, whose competitive nature fractures their friendship with Ifi and Job; to Cheryl, the red-headed American woman with raw, knobby knees who Job married for citizenship (and quickly divorced). Their lives weave in and out of each other’s in a reclining narrative, yet always remaining tightly written. Iromuanya’s ability to invent and depict such characters is one of the significant strategies that make the novel a narrative tour de force.
The novel’s yarn is woven by a writer with a great deal of empathy. The tone of the story takes on a comical and sometimes sadistic voice of the characters. Iromuanya born to Nigerian migrant parents and raised in Midwest USA, has rendered a significant artistic service by mirroring the thoughts and driving motives of a migrant character’s actions. She handles the characters with such tenderness that what emerges is an often funny, but ultimately tragic story of the modern immigrant experience.
A comic element in the novel begins when Job attempts to “recreate a scene from American pornography, slamming his new wife to the wall and shouting “You-are-the-dirty-slut-girl!” Ifi punches him in the gut with a sandal, and decks him with a haymaker to the ear”.
The novel explores the themes of deceit, immigration, marriage, family, ambition, and the American dream. The relationship between Job and Ifi is premised on deception. Ifi had high hopes about marrying an American doctor and she looked forward to it, until she finds herself in a rodent infested apartment. Job’s struggles to migrate landed him in a tangle with a white woman who he had paid a large sum to help him secure a green card. All the characters have ambitious expectations from life. This is actually what they become hostage to in America.
The theme of the American dream is fully dissected in the novel. It makes the reader wonder about the myth of the American dream and ask, “What really constitutes the America dream? Is the American dream truly attainable or is just a hoax? Does the American dream truly relate to people of all classes and races? What is there for immigrants presently striving in the American society?” A reader would like to believe that in America a little diligence, determination and focus can make any dream come true. Unfortunately this novel portrays the near impossibility of achieving the American dream, especially for immigrants and minorities. It dissects social issues regarding, race, immigration, poverty, sexism, etc.
When Job is assaulted outside the petrol station by a group of African American teenagers, the police interrogate him as if he is a criminal or a drug dealer and not as a victim which he truly is. When he is asked to describe his assailants, the officer tutors and manipulates him as follows:
“So they were African American, like you?”
“Yes. I mean no. Not African American. I am not African American. I am from Africa. I am a citizen. I am an American, but I am no African American.”
“I see.” In apparent confusion, the officer frowned. “But they were black, though. Black like you?”
“No. Not like me.”
“Were they my color, then?”
“No.” Job glared at the officer’s pinkish flesh. Then his. He stared for a long time. “They were this color. One maybe a little lighter. Two maybe the same.”
“Black, like you.”
The language deployed in the novel is deliberately handled in order to make it easy to read and understand. The Nigerian reader will find it easy to understand while the foreigner will discover and learn about many aspects of the struggles immigrants have to contend with. Job’s and Ifi’s thoughts and dialogue are written in a Nigerian-American dialect, and while the narrative and description are presented in more conventional English, the rhythm of their speech permeates the text. The writing is natural and familiar thus drawing the reader into the narrative.
The novel recreates many scenes in Nigeria as well as others with Job’s only friends in the United States, another Nigerian couple Emeka and Gladys. Emeka has followed a completely different trajectory in America, and probably imagines himself more as an expatriate than an immigrant. He has earned multiple degrees and is thriving as an engineer, while Gladys works as a CPA. Both characters carry the banner of the realization of the American dream. Job’s observation about them is summed up here: “Always there was a look in her eyes that complemented that of Emeka’s, a look that said, this is the American Dream.”
The novel, Mr. and Mrs. Doctor, is not only an interesting narrative, but it is also highly insightful. It is probably not the racy suspense filled story, but it has a way of enveloping the reader as if he or she is entangled in the narrative scheme. The subtle and skilful manner the author portrays the gradual unfolding of the tragic fate of the characters makes the reader determined to follow the story’s resolution to the last page. Iromuanya tries to make the characters approximate people in real life situations, but the reader will also realise that some of the encounters with them do not ring true. The reader can understand that Job has been able to fool his wife about his medical degree, but how plausible it is that he is also able to fool Emeka (a university professor) and Gladys for a much longer time, as well as keeping them in the dark about the slum apartment where he lives. These are minor queries that should put the author under critical inquiry.
In Conclusion it is apt to draw a statement from a 2016 Esquire Magazine article on immigration. The relevant excerpt reads“At the very heart of the American idea is the notion that, unlike in other places, we can start from nothing and through hard work to have everything”. The writer further asks, “What if that’s just a myth? What if the truth is something very different? Through Julie Iromuanya’s Mr. and Mrs. Doctor, we can deduce that realising the American dream could be hugely undermined by issues regarding racism, anti-Semitism, and sexism. The story highlights the harsh realities of immigration.
The “Fake it till you make it” syndrome portrayed by people like Job in the novel, has depicted the American dream in unflattering testament. Job and Ifi represent the reality of immigrants who have no path forward in America, but no lifeline back in their homeland. Eventually, they come to realize that even if they cannot accept who they really are (two Nigerian citizens who have lost touch with their homeland) one thing was sure, they would never fully belong in America.
Jennifer Nagu is a Lagos based writer and literary critic.