Never Look an American in the Eye: Flying Turtles, Colonial Ghosts and the Making of a Nigerian American by Okey Ndibe; Bookcraft Ltd, Ibadan; 2017
At last Okey Ndibe, the inimitable author of the groundbreaking novels Arrows of Rain and Foreign Gods Inc., has followed them up with an even more haunting memoir. At first take it kind of attempts to, in a way only he possibly can, unravel his many metamorphoses en route to a life of letters. Remarkably, he was just but a journalist in Lagos, Nigeria his country of birth after higher and lower polytechnic diplomas in business administration embarked on against the tug of words in two different institutions. Midway he was gifted the offer to edit African Commentary an international magazine the late writer Chinua Achebe, his chief benefactor, was co-founding in the USA with a couple of his academic friends. The dream was to go kaput no sooner after its birth early in 1992, thusly setting him free to placate his literary demons elsewhere as it were.
Well, somehow Okey aided by a female lie ended up studying for an MFA at the University of Massachusetts, a prequel to the publishing of his first novel. Never Look an American… catalogues this and other-like tales that progressed to shape his life before and after that historic turning point. Like the sub-title suggests, though some of them are as hard to believe as the pregnancy of a man, the telling makes them come so alive that we cannot but swallow them hook, line and sinker out of their sheer vivacity. All inclusive of how a not-too-okeydokey him in time had gate-crashed a party to the warm embrace of his future wife. Now, beat that if you can.
Basically a kind of laugh upon these turns that characterised his life over time, they do come in such uproarious, poignant and nerve-wracking shibboleths that has them appearing as though they just came to pass for the sole purpose of their inclusion in the book. Stand outs include the tale about a girl that took him out to dinner and a near arrest for a bank robbery all in his yet early hours in the States. Appropriately, most of these close shaves all came to pass before he had the chance to Americanise and as well re-educate his hosts about things as African as the difference between his first name and the word okay. Significant in his own education – that is apart from the one learnt the harder way in the supposed dinner date – was the deep relationship between his hosts and their pets. And perhaps what it takes to be a Nigerian American.
All in all, though, the book can only be surmised as a testimony to the unravelling of Ndibe’s unique prose style acquired – perhaps serendipitously – over these years of toil in literary vineyards. There to be seen by all and sundry, in black and white is how his earlier beginnings as a journalist in Nigeria and rapid transmutation into a fiction writer in the USA served to sharpen his syntax. Without doubt this could only have been possible from insights gained from working actively in either genre all these years. It is this underlying symmetry that transforms the book into a lyrical as well as factual evidence of a life more than half of which was spent close to the construction of words into phrases and sentences for the delight, entertainment and the education of humanity at large.
Ndibe who also earned a Doctorate from Massachusetts has taught at Brown University, Providence in Rhode Island; Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut; Simon’s Rook College in Great Barrington, Massachusetts; Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut and as a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Lagos.
It is with a bated breath that this reviewer awaits the novel he is currently working on. Tentatively titled ‘Native Tongues’, it is hoped that by then his American publishers will make for a simultaneous release here and over there unlike the earlier titles had to cope with. Perhaps by that time too, this inherent dualistic counterpoint in his factual and fictive rendition of words would have hit enough critical mass to make the world take even a better note of his abiding abilities.