Renowned Nigerian author Okey Ndibe is known for his journalism and his novels, but his latest book takes him into territory that combines aspects of both, while taking him into totally new territory — the memoir. Ndibe’s new book traces his journey from Nigeria to America, examining the both the myths about America that preceded his arrival, as well as the realities he discovered once there.
Ndibe will read from his new book at Bard College at Simon’s Rock tonight at 7 p.m. at Blodgett House.
Ndibe immigrated in 1988 to helm African Commentary magazine, based in Amherst, MA, though only recently had began to consider a memoir, after a book tour across the country two years ago. He met many people who wondered whether the book is autobiographical. It isn’t, but the queries allowed Ndibe to get more personal with his audience.
“I would tell them some of my stories and they were really captivated by the stories and I knew there was something there that needed to be shared in a book,” Ndibe said.
Ndibe’s journey to America was prefaced by advice from his uncle, the inspiration for the book’s title — “Never Look An American In The Eye.” His uncle reasoned that every American carries a gun and would shoot anyone who looked in their eyes. Ndibe’s uncle hadn’t gleaned this from any first hand experience, but rather from American westerns that he had viewed over the years. What surprises Ndibe as he looks back is that even though he should have known better, he took his uncle’s advice to heart.
“I had been to parties thrown by American diplomats in Lagos, where I worked as a journalist,” he said. “I made eye contact with them sometimes, but this was before my uncle said this. So I was surprised that I hadn’t recognized quickly that my uncle’s stipulation was rather silly. I should have known better. Somehow I came to America and was livid about my uncle’s stricture about looking Americans in the eye. When he said that I was really thrown. Why did they want me to look them in the eye? Did they want to shoot me? Did they want me to provoke them?”
Ndibe says that this attitude is indicative of a fairy tale America that Nigerians formed based on American movies and also stories and images sent back by friends and family who immigrate there and want to stress opportunity.
“Friends of mine came to America and one of the first things they did within a week of arriving, they would pose beside a car and they would pose in front of an apartment,” Ndibe said. “None of us realized the credit system in America, that you could actually go buy a car and pay very little down payment and pay every month.”
Nigeria had no equitable credit system, and so that cash-preferred helped perpetuate an image of America as a land of riches.
“I believed, like many Nigerians believed at the time, that American streets perhaps were strewn with dollars,” said Ndibe. “You could come and take as much as you wanted. When I arrived here, I found out it wasn’t like that.”
The first major indicator of this less than two weeks after his arrival when Ndide, while standing innocently at a bus stop, was detained by a police officer because he matched the description of a bank robber. Ndibe was at first paralyzed because of his uncle’s advice — he was sure the cop wanted to talk to him for looking him in the eye when he had earlier passed in a cruiser — and then further shocked by the real reason for the talk.
It turned out fine, but the aftermath highlighted for Ndibe a difference in attitude and perception between himself as an black African immigrant, and people he knew, native African Americans.
“If I shared with friends what had happened, my reaction was one of gratitude,” said Ndibe. “Wow, the police officer was particularly genial, he was addressing me as ‘sir’ but I noticed that the African Americans who heard this story were particularly outraged on my behalf and I didn’t get it. They were saying to me that he has no right to do this, no one would go up and rob a bank and then plant himself at a bus stop. He should have known quicker that you were not the person.”
This was an early lesson for Ndibe about the American justice system and its relationship with the black community, and it helped open his eyes to the fact there was more to America than cars and apartments. But he also approached these aspects with a sense of humor rather than just rage, and Ndibe says that is indicative of the culture he comes from. In Nigeria, Ndibe said, even a dark moment like a funeral might be accompanied by jokes about whatever tragedy lead to the ceremony.
“Humor is a way that people deal with trauma and there’s a lot of trauma in my society in Nigeria,” he said. “This is a country where you have to make do by borrowing and begging and doing whatever you have to do to put food on the table, yet Nigerians have this resilience through their sense of humor, this largeness of spirit.”
Ndibe says that journalism has also given him an important wider perspective and that has helped him when facing the unpleasant side of America, as it most recently has, he says, during the Bush administration and now the Trump candidacy, and perspective combined with humor is what makes this memoir possible.
“As a professional journalist, I have a sense of what has happened in the past, so that becomes an essential ingredient,” he said, “a thread through the social experience and shape a narrative, so when you do that kind of writing, the thing that might seem harrowing becomes in a sense deeper and more complex, and then you come back to your particular experience with a much broader tapestry of other experiences.”