Ndibe: Nigeria can produce another Nobel laureate
Professor Okechukwu Ndibe, better known as Okey Ndibe, is a U.S.-based Nigerian teacher, novelist, columnist and essayist. The author is in the country to promote his two recent books: Never Look An American In The Eye (a memoir) and Foreign Gods Inc. (fiction). The tour, which started July 9, would round off on July 30, at Bookcraft, Bodija, Ibadan. Ndibe, who was at Rutam House, the corporate headquarters of The Guardian newspapers, Lagos, spoke with OMIKO AWA and MARGARET MWANTOK on his new books, and other literary issues
You have retained youthful look in spite of the years. What is the secret?
I am, indeed, as old as Nigeria, actually older than Nigeria. I was born in May 1960 while Nigeria was born October 1, 1960. So, I am a few months older than Nigeria. Well, I started writing early; in fact, my first writing for newspaper came out the last year of my secondary school. I sent a piece to Daily Star, which was then the big newspaper in my days in Ibadan and it was published. I was so excited. Besides, Daily Star actually paid me for my writing; so, I got the incentive to continue to write.
Talking about my youthful appearance, though I find it flattering, but what I try to do is to eat healthy. So, I sometimes prepare my own food, I like to cook a lot. I make sure that the quality of what I eat is consistent with my wellbeing and I do a lot of exercises. I jog, I go to the gym and I do some weights. So, I guess that has to do with what you call youthful looks.
How did mainstream writing come to you?
I grew up in Anambra State, where my mother was a schoolteacher and my father a postmaster. I did my elementary and secondary education there. It was there I began to discover literature, having read Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Elechi Amadi, Buchi Emecheta, Flora Nwapa, among others. But my evolution into creative writing happened only after I went to the U.S. While in in Nigeria, I was a journalist and I continued to write for different newspapers. I attended Yaba College of Technology, where I studied business administration and later moved on to Institute of Management and Technology, Enugu, where, again, I studied business administration. Upon graduation, I did my youth service with The Concord. I was very fortunate to be invited to the editorial board of The Concord, as a youth copper and they offered me job after I finished. From there, I came to The Guardian, worked for two years before Chinua Achebe invited me to the United States to be the founding editor of African Commentary, a magazine he and Professor Nnaji set up.
What was it like working with Chinua Achebe?
In my latest book, Never Look An American In The Eye, I tell the story of my meeting with Chinua Achebe, my encounters with him. I told two stories in the book, but I am going to tell you the second one. After I finished my youth service, The Concord gave me a job to work on African Concord, a weekly magazine, and on one of the days I went to visit a friend of mine at Ogidi, I said to her, ‘I wished I were from Ogidi, so that I would say Chinua Achebe and I belong to the same town.’ My friend smiled and said: ‘Do you know that Achebe is my uncle? He is home for the weekend and his house is around the corner.’ She asked if I would like to meet him.
So, we went to see Achebe and he was very warm. He offered me a bottle of soft drink and some biscuit. So, I told him it would be my dream to interview him; he said, ‘anytime I am ready I should come’ and he gave me his telephone number and said ‘call me.’ When I returned to Lagos, having left Concord for The Guardian to resume work as a professional journalist, I told my then editor that I have met Chinua Achebe and he agreed to give me an interview. He said I should take that as my first assignment. So, I went to interview Achebe; we retired to his office at the Institute of African Studies in the University of Nigeria Nsukka (UNN) and for almost three hours, I asked him questions.
At the end of the interview, I came back to Enugu to my hotel room in the Presidential Hotel and some of my friends in Enugu gathered to hear Achebe’s voice via my tape recorder, but they were disappointed when none of the three cassettes said a word; the cassettes were flat. I called Achebe in panic and I said ‘I am sorry; I don’t know what happened, but could you give me just 20 minutes the next day to interview you again because if I go back to Lagos without your interview I will be fired!’
Achebe said he was busy and that I should come to him in two days; he would give me as much time as I wanted. Two days later, I borrowed three tape recorders for the interview, so he saved my professional career. He was also happy with the cover story I wrote on him and we became close as a consequence. Many years later, when he was in America promoting one of his his last book, Anthills of the Savannah, he and Nnaji and some other people talked about the prospect of starting a new international magazine and Achebe proposed I be invited to be the founding editor. So, that’s how I left The Guardian for America. I was 28 years old then. So, I have lived in America for more than 28 years; I am now 57. I have lived more of my life in American than in Nigeria. My sense of what he meant to work for him is in the book, Never Look An American In The Eye.
What are you currently doing in the U.S.?
Well, the magazine failed because we could not generate enough advertisement. American advertisers felt there wasn’t enough money behind the magazine and that it was too serious. They suggested we do a lighter celebrity kind of magazine, but we said we wanted a much serious magazine that would look at Africa and the African world globally; a magazine that would look at political and economic issues. When the magazine collapsed, I had an encounter with an African-American, Professor John Edgar Wideman, who was one of our columnists. He saw me coming outside of a bookstore and said to me: ‘now that your magazine has stopped production, what is your plan?’ I told him I had not figured out what my plans were, and he looked at me intensely and said: ‘You must be writing a novel.’ Because of the way he asked the question, I answered ‘yes!’ He asked me to bring 15 to 20 pages of my manuscript to his office, to see if he could get me a fellowship to study fiction at the University of Massachusetts.
I got back that night and began to write. In a few days, I had produced 23 pages of something I didn’t know if that really resembled fiction. I left it in his office, and two days later he called me and said, ‘I have found your manuscript and it is really fascinating; I think we can get you to study fiction.’ That manuscript became my first novel. I studied on scholarship the first year; the Chancellor of the University provided funds for me to study for free the first year. The subsequent years, I got combination because I was three years through my MFA and ultimately returned to do my Ph.D. But while I was doing the MFA, I was teaching and earning salary. After my MFA, I went into teaching.
It is also important to talk about my encounter with Abdulaziz Ude, a very fascinating Igbo man, who converted to Islam. He used to be an editor in New York, and when he returned to Nigeria in the 1970s, he established a publishing company called Nok Publishers. So, when our magazine collapsed, I came back to Nigeria and ran into Ude, who invited me to his house. He said he admires my writing and when I got admission into the University of Massachusetts, he paid my fees, even for semesters when I didn’t have to pay. I was really fortunate in that way.
And now to answer your question, when I graduated, I began to teach at different American universities. Though some years I don’t teach, like this past year that my new books were published. Whenever I have a new book, I do a lot of travelling around the world, speaking and promoting the book. My publisher sent me all around the U.S., Europe and so on to do a book tour.
But this August, I will start teaching at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York, as a Visiting Professor. I am also in talks with other universities too, to be a Visiting Professor.
Do you have plans to return to Nigeria?
My wife and I came in 2001/2002 to teach, and we taught at the University of Lagos for a year. I enjoyed it, though it was frustrating at some levels, but on other levels, it was the most amazing experience for me. The United States Fulbright (USF) programme sent us to Lagos State University (LASU), but the school was on strike at that time, which lasted for three months. We were then told to do personal work, probably write another book, but we both wanted to teach. So, we went to University of Lagos (UNILAG), Akoka, and offered our services to them. They were not to pay us, as the USF was paying us.
What informed your book, Never Look An American In The Eye?
After I wrote my second novel, Foreign Gods Inc, that book has a character, Ike, who had gone to school in America in order to get a good job to take care of his mother, but he has a particularly strong accent that when he speaks people would not understand him. He has a good degree in Economics, but his accent gets in the way. Ike becomes a cab driver to pay his bills. Then he reads a journal about a gallery called the Foreign Gods that buys and sells statutes of deities. The article also states that some of the deities could be sold for about $100 and so he decides to come back to his community to steal a deity that used to be the god of war for his people during the colonial war. He expected to make a lot of money selling it to the gallery. When the book came out, my publisher sent me on a wide book tour across the globe.
Invariably everywhere I went, people that read the book would say, ‘the story in the book is so well told and so convincing too.’ They would ask if that was my own story; if I stole a deity in my community, then I will tell them about my interesting experience as an immigrant in America, but I have not dabbled in the stealing of anything, much less a sacred object. Then, I felt the need to tell my personal story so that people would separate the fiction from the reality. One of the things that happened to me in America was, 13 days after arriving America, the police arrested me for bank robbery. I was picked wrongly. It was a case of mistaken identity.
After spending 29 years outside Nigeria, do you still speak your mother tongue, Igbo?
I was fortunate that I went to America as an adult. I eat more Nigerian food; I cook it myself. I can speak Igbo for hours without much English words added to it. When I go to my village, I always surprise them. I am still very much who I was, though I imbibed some American cultures; I am a very punctual person. This is more a sense of responsibility. My wife is a Yoruba woman who cooks too, but only when I am not at home, because I love to cook.
How is the book tour in Nigeria coming on?
This is actually my first tour in Nigeria. I have been to other African countries on tour. This is the first time I am having it in Nigeria by Bookcraft. The experience has been very amazing. I have received such wonderful reception. The first venue for the presentation was in Surulere, and it was on a rainy Sunday, but I was moved at how the venue was filled to its capacity. Many people bought copies of my three books. These are young men and women who do not really have much income in their hands. Then come the UNILAG experience. In America, when you go to read in a university, the attraction is that you get paid for showing up; the students often will not buy books because they have a lot of books to read for their classes. I was really impressed by the students of UNILAG, who bought many copies of my books. I told them that a society that recognises writing, treasures literature and reading is a society that thrives. A society that is obsessed with material acquisition, especially a society that doesn’t produce much, but consumes everything is a society that is on its way to perdition. I am impressed with the quality of their response to my reading.
So, never look an American in the eye. Did America look you in the eye?
Well, I think America has had its history of segregation and there are still vestiges of it. In many parts of America, people are now recognising the absolute need to co-exist with people from different backgrounds. This is the same America that elected Obama. So, I think there has been progress, but America is still far from solving its race problems. Americans are used to black people teaching them for many years. In fact, universities go out of their way to hire people of colour. Increasingly, they are hiring based on sexuality. Institutionally, I have had not many problems, but occasionally, there have been stories at a college I was teaching at. I worked into a class one day and introduced myself. One of the students got up and left because he thought I was Asian or something. There was a chill in the room. I asked the rest of the class if they were staying, and they said ‘yes.’
To this young man’s credit, the very next day he came to my office and apologised that his friends said I was a terrific teacher and asked if I could let him come back. He became one of my best students, and subsequently would take other classes that I would teach. Maybe, if you are a black person, you may not be paid quite what other influential white professors would get. But if you can provide evidence of discrimination in court, the university would be propelled to call for arbitration and add more money to your pay.
Having experienced the Nigerian and American classrooms, how much difference do you think exists between them?
There is nothing wrong with our classrooms, except that there seems to be a kind of a symmetrical relationship between the lecturers and the students. In America, students are taken seriously; you don’t give handouts to them to go and cram. When I start teaching a novel in America in a particular way, some of my students stopped me and said they don’t agree with me. If they see it differently, I can’t say ‘shut up, I am the lecturer and you must agree with me.’ I have to engage the students in a debate. A lot of times our students can bring some deeper insight to a novel that we do not have. In America, I tell my students that I am also a student with more experience, but occasionally there is a student who is always very brilliant and insightful and he says something that leads you to reconsider the way you have been understanding and reading a novel.
But in Nigeria, the lecturer is a dictator; some regard themselves as small deities. So, there is this hierarchy where the lecturer is on top throwing down bits of knowledge for the students. In American classrooms, there is a sense of deeper democracy of knowledge, an epistemology of knowledge. I was shocked as a graduate student that I will be teaching and a student would get up to challenge my understanding of a novel. But if you do that in Nigeria, you would be marked down for failure.
I remember when I was teaching at UNILAG; every time I would ask my students, ‘do you have any questions?’ I will come to a classroom and pose a series of questions about a novel and they would be looking at me, waiting for me to start talking so they can take notes. I would insist they share their own thoughts of the novel. Eventually, when I would start teaching; from time to time, I would stop and ask them for questions. On my last day in class, one student got up and said, ‘Sir, we want to thank you because you are the first person who has allowed us to ask questions.’ And I said to them, ‘don’t you ask questions in your classrooms?’ and the entire class roared, ‘N-o-o-o!’
They were not allowed to ask. I said this was wrong because the lecturers want their students to believe that they are gods. Or maybe feel the students would ask difficult questions that they may not have answers to. But a true scholar must be open to that true moment of humility, when a question is posed and you cannot answer, you would tell your students that it is a good opportunity for you to study more and get back to them in the next class.
How do you rate the current crop of African writers?
African writers are doing interesting work. For me, the success of the African writing is particularly remarkable, given the dysfunction of our system. The fact that we have many novels coming out of Nigeria is almost a miracle. We have systematically wrecked our institutions. Achebe, Soyinka and the rest of them went through an educational system that was sound; libraries were stocked with books. There were sound professors; there was investment in the educational sector and the environment for learning was well established. Today despite the odds, students passing through the system are able to produce short stories; it is actually something we ought to be amazed at because this is a society that is now conditioned to producing mediocrity, because our institutions have become mediocre.
I am impressed both by the quality of writing coming out of Africa by young men and women and the way they have taken to educating themselves. I also believe in the human capacity for surpassing achievement; so, I believe it is still possible for us to produce another Nobel laureate in Literature, but not in the sciences.
What would you like to change about the system?
We have to have systems, rather than depend on the whims of individuals. No individual can singularly fight corruption, but systems do. We have to have a system where people know that there are consequences for their actions, irrespective of who they are. In Nigeria, state governors have millions in their homes, whereas in America, Trump does not have right to one dollar of America’s money, except his salary. Buhari can arrest all the corrupt people, but is it not the same people that will go and prosecute? Buhari should create a system that will take care of pathologies.
Are our writers being sensitive to these pathologies and including them in their writings?
Representation is a very tricky task. There are people who paint a dark picture of Africa, as disease, as pathology, but is it true? Sometimes it is not entirely true. We have to be mindful in our writing. I hope in portraying Africa, we will continue to see the moments of good, progress and of dynamic representation of ourselves. Africans are great heroes because of the hardship; we are able to survive, but in a lot of ways, we are also insufferable.