An Interview with Okey Ndibe

  • By Joye Shepperd
  • August 16, 2014

The author of, most recently, Foreign Gods, Inc., discusses faith, superstition, and the language of home.


In Foreign Gods, Inc., protagonist Ike is a highly educated Nigerian driving a cab in New York City. Living up to his own expectations proves difficult, especially with his drinking and gambling. So Ike comes up with an idea: He must travel to Utonki, the African village where he grew up, for a communion with his own god. It’s a journey worth taking along with him, and one which originated in the fertile mind of Nigerian-born author and Brown University professor Okey Ndibe.

 

I’m intrigued by the main character, Ikechukwu, “Ike,” and his reaction to thunderstorms. His uncle has the same reaction. So many humans are afraid of the sky. But you don’t tell us exactly why or how it relates to the god Ngene. What is the cause of their spells? In Ike’s case, is it because he has a faint sense that the sky might see him?

I’m intrigued by your speculation — that Ike’s fainting spells are tied to fear that the sky might detect his scheme. Perhaps there’s a bit of that there — a novel is a mysterious universe, and no writer (at least not I) should presume to know everything in it. Still, there are hints that Ngene, the war deity Ike steals, is tied to water, specifically a river. But rainstorms are part of the deity’s repertoire of presences or emanations.

Is the Reverend Stanton story in your novel a widely believed myth, a complete fabrication, or something in between?

The drama of Reverend Walter Stanton, the first English missionary to arrive in Utonki, is very much a product of my imagination. Even so, some aspects of his story intersect with narratives of missionaries in local lore, history texts, and other novels, including Ferdinand Oyono’s Houseboy, Chinua Achebe’s early novels, Emmanuel Dongala’s Little Boys Come from the Stars, and Mongo Beti’s Poor Christ of Bomba.

Are Stanton and the character Pastor Uka versions of one another, Uka being the modern missionary man?

I don’t believe that Uka is a modern-day version of Stanton. Stanton believed in what he was doing — in the idea of saving benighted Africans by trying to convert them to Christianity. In fact, he succumbs to a form of madness partly from believing too much in that mission — and believing that he’s letting God and Crown down. Pastor Uka, on the other hand, is something of a rogue, a scam artist whose game just happens to be religion. In effect, he’s preying on his congregants.

Stanton speaks so many languages, but still can’t really communicate. At the same time, he has strong feelings about language. Do you agree with Stanton that language works best when “deployed at the pitch of battle”?

I don’t have to agree with Stanton to find his promulgation about language deeply intriguing. I’m drawn to the mysteries of any language, especially the capacity of language to bring people together and to tear them asunder, to illuminate and obfuscate, to lend itself to peaceful ends as well as to scar. I’m captivated, in that sense, both by Stanton’s experience of language, as well as his abstract stipulations on language.

Stanton sees himself as an “inept fisher of men.” What does he mean? Is this the paradigm for missionaries in Africa? Is Uka a better fisherman?

As I said before, Stanton comes into Utonki, into Africa, with the conviction that the people would quickly see the error of their ways and embrace Christianity. He doesn’t permit himself to achieve only partial or incremental success. Given his nature and passion, even if there were one or two stubborn followers of Ngene who refuse to convert, that would spell disaster. In a curious sense, Pastor Uka is a happier “fisher of men.” He’s making a good living, but without any of the spiritual agony that dogged Stanton. Besides, I see a connection between Ike, who stows away with the statue of Ngene, and Stanton, who first dreamed of erasing the deity from the space and minds of the people of Utonki.

You write that “a man must dance the dance that reigns in his time.” Can you compare your dance to that of your characters? Is yours different?

Each waking day, each lived moment, I have to figure out what my dance is. It’s all about identity, about one’s place in the world, about the accommodations one makes each day, each moment, in order to come to terms with other pilgrims one encounters in the world.

The character names Ikechukwu and Osuakwu are staccato and rhythmic. What do they mean? Not literally, but they seem to have been chosen for a reason. What is the reason?

Ikechukwu and Osuakwu are, of course, Igbo characters and had to have Igbo names. As a rule, Igbo names are imbued with meaning, always literally, but also as compounds of memories, histories, hopes, and prayers. So the names, as you suggested, have rhythm, but they also speak to memories, histories, and encounters that go back to my childhood. Osuakwu in particular: It was the name of a fascinating man who was, for years, the chief priest of deity in my hometown. That deity, incidentally, is named Ngene.

Ike doesn’t want to believe his accent stands in the way of his success. Is an accent so difficult to change? Maybe it is a metaphor for some other part of his character. His stubbornness perhaps?

It depends on individuals. Some people are better at adapting, at changing their accent. But you’re also right: There’s in my view of Ike a sense of resistance to the idea that he must acquire a different accent in order to travel well in the U.S.

If only all rivers took back what they spat out. What do you wish a river that you know would take back?

Rivers bring us all kinds of things, good, bad and indifferent — commerce, strangers, livelihood, drowning, adventure, a sense of buoyancy, a sense of sinking. In the end, I’m at peace with the rivers I have known most intimately.

Nigerians have a “knack for talk — meandering, circumlocutory, proverb laced talk.” My Lebanese friend says that there are so many words in the Arabic language that one could speak for hours without saying anything. Does meandering, circumlocutory, proverb-laced talk actually communicate anything?

Yes, it does. It’s also entertaining, often evocative and enlightening. But there are also times when I wish my people would just say things as plainly as possible and move on. If you ever went to some Nigerian meetings, you’d be maddened by the time everybody takes to make a point. If you have a lot of time to kill, it’s marvelous listening to the cascade of proverbs, to all the circuitous phraseology. But if you’re short of time, it’s maddening to see people spend four or five hours massaging an issue with adorned, flamboyant language when plainer language gets you out in an hour!

There seems to be so much rich fiction coming from Africa. It’s to be celebrated. What do you make of this cornucopia? What is so right about now?

I don’t think Africans are necessarily writing more these days. I suspect that European and American publishers are simply, for reasons that are open to conjecture, paying attention to African writing. Sadly, the publishing structures are currently weak in much of Africa. And, with economic pressures increasing, the size of leisure readers isn’t where it should be.

I think the writing coming out is varied in every department — theme, style, even quality. Africans have a lot of stories to tell — love stories as well as war ones, tragic, and funny ones, and they’re rising to the challenge of telling them. It’s altogether wonderful that many readers are also picking up works by African writers. I’d like to see more African readers, on the continent as well as in the global world, get in on the conversation.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on a series of essays based on my experiences in America. Not quite a memoir, but snippets of my life in America. It’s titled Going Dutch and other American Mis/Adventures. I’m also working on another novel titled Return Flights.

Joye Shepperd is the senior features editor for the Washington Independent Review of Books.


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