We spoke to Okey Ndibe about journalism, art and the relationship between silence and power. And his new book project of course.

Culled from AFREADA. Interviewed by Zulaikhah Agoro.

ZA: I like to start these conversations with the origin story. How did you become a writer? When, and where, did your journey begin?

ON: It’s a terribly long story, but I’ll do my best to give a short version. In a funny sort of way—funny now, but not so much when I was a kid—my beloved mother “punished” me into falling in love with stories and books. My mother, a strict school teacher, was worried sick that I dawdled away my time. To cure me of that bad habit, she often ordered me to read something—a book, magazine, or newspaper—before I was allowed to go play with my friends.

At first, reading felt like punishment. It was something one was compelled to do to earn permission to go waste time with my friends doing nothing—and occasionally getting into some trouble. Slowly, however, I began to relish the enchanting stories and ideas I encountered in books and other print material. The more I read, the keener my appetite for language and storytelling. I don’t think I was ever fully conscious of it, but reading began to transform me in wonderful ways. It was a productive activity that occupied my too restless mind and helped tame my overweening desire for adventure. It also enabled me to hone skills that have served me well in life—an interest in deploying language to express ideas, tell stories, and captivate people.

My first year in boarding school, I became something of a sensation when the senior students realized I had a way with language—and fetching handwriting as a bonus. It was long before mobile phones, personal computers, emails, text messages and the like came into play. I’d describe it as the golden age of the love letter. A bunch of senior students recruited me to compose love letters to their girlfriends! I was also invited to the editorial team of the school’s quarterly publication, elevated to the role of editor in my third year. My last year in secondary school, I had the ecstatic experience of having my opinion piece published by the Daily Star, at the time one of Nigeria’s major newspapers. That break gave this delinquent and ill-focused youngster a spark of interest in journalism as a career path.

Once I graduated from a polytechnic where I had studied business administration, I accepted a good job offer in journalism. My first major assignment was to interview the grand novelist Chinua Achebe. I’ve often told the story of the mishap that ensued in that interview. In summary, I interviewed Achebe for more than two hours. Unbeknown to me, my tape recorder malfunctioned, capturing just the whir of silence.

ZA: Oh no!

ON: But for Achebe’s grace and generosity—he gave me a chance to re-do the interview—that mistake could have doomed my career! Further along, in late 1988, the novelist offered me the opportunity to relocate to the US to become the founding editor of African Commentary, a magazine he co-founded. The publication garnered great reviews but was perennially hampered by low investment. It ultimately ceased publication in 1992, bringing me as close to despair as I’ve ever been in my life.

As I cast about, dispirited by the fewness of options and unsure of what to do next, I happened to run into John Edgar Wideman, a fascinating novelist who was then a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. We talked about the recent demise of African Commentary. He asked what my plans were, to which I answered that I hadn’t figured anything out.

Then, looking intensely in my eye, he said,

“You’re working on a novel, right?”

I wasn’t, but there was something about his intense eyes, to say nothing of the confidence of his declaration. Without knowing what I was getting into, I replied in the affirmative. He instructed me to get him fifteen to twenty pages of my manuscript, hinting that he would explore the possibility of securing a spot for me in his university’s MFA program in fiction. Let’s just say that I wrote feverishly over a long weekend, producing more than twenty pages. I wasn’t certain that what I produced was any good, but I left it in his mailbox. Two days later, he rang to tell me he loved the stuff, flattering me by stating it reminded him of the fiction of Ngugi wa Thiong’o. That story I began to write (after telling that lie) eventually grew to become my debut novel, Arrows of Rain.

I’m afraid I’ve given a rather lengthy account, but there was no other way to do justice to your question.

ZA: Wow, what an origin story! The book that came out of your ‘lie’ was eventually  published in 2000 as part of the Heinemann African Writers Series. What was the journey to publishing Arrows of Rain like? How different was that from releasing your more recent work; Foreign Gods, Inc (2014) and Never Look an American in the Eye (2016)?

ON: In 2000, American publishers seemed rather content to stick with who they knew—established African writers like Achebe, Soyinka, Nadine Gordimer, Nuruddin Farah, Ngugi, Ben Okri, etc. They tended to look askance at literary neophytes from Africa. For months, I couldn’t get much attention for the manuscript of Arrows of Rain from an American publisher. Luckily, Heinemann was quick to see its prospects and acquired worldwide rights to it. And their instincts were excellent, as it was a commercial success.

By the time I finished work on Foreign Gods, Inc. and Never Look an American in the Eye, the American publishing landscape had undergone something of a revolution. More and more publishers were open to hitherto unknown literary talent from Africa. Part of the reason, I think, is that writing by Asian authors had done very well, opening publishers’ eyes to a hunger for good writing from other parts of the world. But—perhaps more to the point—Chimamanda Adichie had exploded on the publishing scene. Suddenly, rookie or emerging African writers were no longer regarded in New York, Boston, and San Francisco as strange beings! Once Soho Press published Foreign Gods, Inc., it did so well that they approached Heinemann to acquire the North American rights for Arrows of Rain.

ZA: It’s amazing that the success of your second novel somehow managed to bring your debut into the spotlight in a new way. In a 2015 review published in the LA Times, ‘Arrows of Rain’ is described as “a strange and sometimes unwieldy book’. Why did you decide that this story was important to tell? What inspirations and motivations did you have to write it?

ON: The moment I decided that I could write a novel, the themes present in Arrows of Rain struck me as urgent, if not inescapable. For years, I had reflected on the questions of the relationship between silence and power. As a young journalist in Nigeria, I had seen too many of the country’s intelligentsia elect to be silent when speech and dissent seemed imperative. This trend was reproduced elsewhere in the world, including the America I came to know when I relocated there. Humans are possessed of moral faculty. Why, then, are they so often silent in the face of moral outrages? Moral cowardice seemed to me a primary cause of silence. Often, people wilt due to a dread of powerful entities.

In Soyinka’s prison memoir titled The Man Died, I had come across the trenchant phrase, “The man dies in all who keep silent in the face of tyranny.” In Sophocles’ drama, Antigone, I had encountered an equally tragic fealty to power and silence. Why does nobody—save for the blind seer, Teiresias—speak up for the beleaguered Antigone during her trial before King Creon? I believe that examining the troubling nexus of abusive power and acquiescent silence is a pressing undertaking for novelists and intellectuals concerned with our human condition. That’s the work I set out to do. The novel’s moral vision is embodied in the words of a wise, elderly woman to her grandson: “A story that must be told never forgives silence.”

I live by that ethos, and I recommend it to my readers.

ZA: Wise words indeed. Still on the urgency of topics, your second novel Foreign Gods, Inc. recently completed its 10-year anniversary, huge congratulations on that! Foreign Gods, Inc. seems to me to be a multilayered book that transcends one definition. It explores themes like the African immigrant experience in tandem with traditional spirituality. How do you think these topics have evolved since you wrote about them a decade ago? How would you present the discourse that transpires in the book now?

ON: Thank you! Books, like one’s children, have a way of growing up rather fast. In the process, they spring surprises on their unsuspecting parent!

If anything, I think the themes I explore in Foreign Gods, Inc. speak even more powerfully, eloquently, to our present circumstances. In the US, Europe, the Middle East, even Asia, the immigrant experience has taken centerstage than ever before. I expect immigration to significantly shape the contours of the 2024 elections in the US and determine the fortunes of rival political parties in the UK and many a European nation.

Regarding my novel’s spiritual dimensions, I think there’s both hopeful and disheartening news. There’s a trickle—a mere trickle—of purloined sacred art and objects being repatriated from Europe back to Africa. That’s a good sign, but more needs to be done in this respect. But the continuing disorder in many African countries leaves many worrying about the preservation of prized art. Besides, one sees a continuing spike in a species of religious fanaticism that regards cultural artefacts as affront to faith. Overall, my hunch is that Africa’s resources—whether we’re talking of art, oil, gold, or some other mineral—are still subject to looting by local actors and foreign agents alike.

Like many good imaginative works, Foreign Gods, Inc. has aged—and is aging—well. There’s something prescient in the way it anticipates the present day. 

ZA: In your later memoir, Never Look an American in the Eye, you heavily discuss your own struggles moving from Nigeria to the US in 1988, some of which are quite similar to the challenges that the main character, Ike, faces in Foreign Gods, Inc. How did the process of autobiographically documenting your personal journey vary from partially recreating it as fiction? How do you strike the balance between writing narrative nonfiction versus constructing fiction that mirrors the truth?  

ON: This is an intriguing question. I believe that, to a degree, writers make their lived experience grist to their fiction. But a work of fiction transcends personal experience, even when it draws from it. In a way I had to write the memoir of my life in the US because I kept getting this recurring question from many readers: whether Ike, the hapless immigrant in Foreign Gods, Inc., is a disguised stand-in for me. The simple answer is that Ike and I are not the same person.  Indeed, we’ve experienced the burden of being aliens in the US in quite different ways.

Having made such a categorical claim, I must enter a caveat. I know about Ike’s struggles because I can imagine it, and I can imagine it because so many folks I know had gone through the same ordeal, even if the particulars differ. When I’m writing or reading fiction, I am constantly aware that it can be truer than a news report. In the same vein, I reckon that a work of narrative nonfiction can taste like an imaginative elaboration. I mean, why not? When we attempt to recall events as they transpired, we deploy the facility of memory. Now, memory can invest (or infect) factual recollections with a gloss here and there, even full flights of fancy. It all comes down to the writer’s honesty. Writers fictionalize their lives all the time, but it’s key to level with the reader if the question comes up.

ZA:  I’d like to discuss a bit about your technique now. In a 2014 panel discussion at the University of Sussex, you described your writing process as “a one night stand where I am not sure I brought that sentence home last night” — hence why it took 14 years for you to release your second book. Has your routine changed since then? How do you approach writing these days?

ON: There’s a certain frenetic trend in contemporary writing—where writers feel they must churn out a new book every couple of years. It’s splendid if the writer can maintain a high standard of writing. It’s awful when this compulsion leads to a glut of mediocre work. I keep fantasizing about someday writing a book in a month or two—a feat that some extraordinary writers have managed. The dream lives on, but I tend to hold on to a manuscript, wrestling with it until some good Samaritan pulls it from my grip and says, stop!

ZA: Haha!

ON: Here’s an important change in my routine: I used to hoard a manuscript until I was certain that it would not foment consternation in any cultivated reader, or otherwise cause me embarrassment. I’ve since learned the virtue of sharing work-in-progress, albeit with a small group of first readers. My one criterion is that they respond with candor. I think my writing has benefited immensely, in terms of momentum and quality.   

ZA: In that vein, when can we expect your next book? Can you share what you are working on at the moment?

ON: I am about finished work on a new novel that I’m quite excited about. It’s a milestone in my writing, with a #MeToo twist. The narrative is set in Utonki, a bucolic community in Nigeria that features in my previous novels, but two of its main characters are American: one a renowned scholar who has gone missing; the other a private detective who travels to Nigeria to help search for him. The quasi-detective novel, with subtle echoes of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, dramatizes the missing scholar’s transformation from a kindly “white savior,” a man lavishly credited by his academic peers and fans with putting Utonki on the global map, to an epitome of duplicity. 

ZA: That sounds very intriguing, I am certainly looking forward to it. Final question we always ask, what is one piece of advice you would give to an aspiring African author today?

ON: The best answer to this question is one that Achebe gave me years ago when I first interviewed him.

“To an aspiring writer, one must say, “Write.” A writer need never ask for permission.”

I’d add two other stipulations. One, if you want to write and write well, better cultivate the habit of reading. A would-be writer who doesn’t read—sadly, one has met quite a few of that ilk—is a contradiction. Such a writer is not open to learning. The odds are that a writer who hardly reads is likely to be disastrous at the craft. Two, write with heart. In other words, write fearlessly, as if your life depended on it.

Okey Ndibe is the author of two novels, Foreign Gods, Inc. (named one of the best books of 2014 by, among others, Janet Maslin of the New York Times, National Public Radio, Philadelphia Inquirer, Cleveland Plain Dealer, and Mosaic magazine), and Arrows of Rain. He has also published a memoir, Never Look an American in the Eye (winner of the 2017 Connecticut Book Award for non-fiction), and The Man Lives: A Conversation with Wole Soyinka on Life, Literature, and Politics. He is also co-editor (with Zimbabwean writer, Chenjerai Hove) of Writers Writing on Conflicts and Wars in Africa. His career as an author began after he affirmed African American writer John Edgar Wideman’s hunch that he was working on a novel.

Ndibe was a 2015-2016 Shearing Fellow at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. He earned MFA and PhD degrees from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and has taught at St. Lawrence University, Brown University, Trinity College, Simon’s Rock College, Connecticut College, and the University of Lagos (as a Fulbright scholar). He was the founding editor of African Commentary, a US-based international magazine published by the novelist Chinua Achebe. He was a member of the editorial board of Hartford Courant, the oldest continuously published newspaper in the US, where his journalism won national and state awards.

Ndibe’s essays and reviews have appeared in the New York Times, BBC online, Financial Times, The Guardian, Al Jazeera online, The Mail & Guardian (South Africa), Fabian Society Journal, and saharareporters.com. For more than fifteen years he wrote a widely syndicated weekly column on Nigerian politics and culture. He is currently working on a novel titled Native Tongues.

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