Nwokem – My man, my ally, my supporter – an interview with Okey Ndibe (31 March 2005)

Introduction

Okey Ndibe is currently an associate professor of English at Simon’s Rock College in Great Barrington, MA. In 2002, he won the college’s New Faculty Teaching Award. During the 2001-2002 year, Ndibe was a Fulbright Lecturing/Research Scholar at the University of Lagos, Nigeria.

Ndibe’s novel, Arrows of Rain, has been praised by critics and authors, including the Nigerian-born 1986 Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka. The novel has been described by the Oxford, U.K-based New Internationalist magazine as “a powerful and gritty debut.” The magazine also chose Arrows of Rain as one of the most remarkable new novels in its special October 2001 edition on “New Fiction from the South.”

Ndibe was the founding editor of African Commentary, a magazine published in the U.S. by novelist Chinua Achebe, author of the classic novel, Things Fall Apart. African Commentary was named by Library Journal as one of the 16 best new publications to come out in the U.S. in 1989. USA Today, The Detroit Free Press, Utne Reader and Hampshire Gazette (among others) also honored the magazine as outstanding.

Ndibe also served as a member of the editorial board of Hartford Courant. A piece he wrote in the Courant titled “Eyes to the Ground: The Perils of the Black Student,” was chosen by the Association of Opinion Page Editors in 2001 as the best opinion piece published in any American newspaper. Another piece by him titled “Unwarranted Graphic Authentication,” was named best opinion piece by the Society of Professional Journalists, Connecticut Chapter, for 2001.

From 1997 to 2000, Ndibe was a visiting professor of English and Creative Writing at Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut. He was named by the College
Voice
, the college’s student newspaper, as one of the college’s “Five Outstanding Professors.”

Ndibe has made editorial contributions to several publications in the U.S. and England, including Hartford Courant, Transatlantimes Times, The Fabian Society Journal, Black Issues Book Review, BBC Online, and Emerge. Since 1999, he has written a weekly column for The Guardian, widely regarded as Nigeria’s stellar daily newspaper.

Ndibe is finishing work on a novel titled foreign gods, inc. An excerpt from the novel is published online by guernicamag.com (www.guernicamag.com/ndibe.htm).

It is with great pleasure that I introduce to you, Okey Ndibe.


Eric: Tell us about your passion for literature and writing, from genesis to present day.

Okey: I’d say that my passion for literature was engendered by my parents and then deepened in my high school days. Growing up at home, I read a number of local and foreign magazines my father bought or subscribed to. I also began to read the Bible–an important early literary interest. When I entered high school and became acquainted with the works of African writers, I was simply hooked. At short order, I read everything Chinua Achebe wrote, beginning, of course, with Things Fall Apart. I also read my father’s copy of Wole Soyinka’s prison memoir, The Man Died. The book amazed me…How could one man know so many words that were unfamiliar to me? How could one man have such wide intellectual references? My classmates in school flattered me with the name of “Dictionary,” but Soyinka made me feel like an empty dictionary! I fell in love with Ayi Kwei Armah, with his inimitable prose. Armah’s fellow Ghanaian writer, Kofi Awoonor, also swept me away. Awoonor’s This Earth, My Brother is one of its kind in African literature. Much later, I encountered the Americans: James Baldwin, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, and the Latin American team of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Octavio Paz, Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa…I was enchanted. For me, literature–reading–is at the heart of what it means to be deeply alive!

Eric: When did you actually develop interest in writing and how have you progressed with it?

Okey: My interest in writing began the moment I started reading columns in Nigerian and foreign magazines and newspapers. I thought that writing was magic! When I read an enchanting sentence, I repeated it for days on end, chanting it to all my friends. It was a form of blissful possession! Luckily, I had friends who shared my passion for words, for reading and writing. In high school, I wrote such thrilling love letters that my seniors hired me to write to their girlfriends! Once, when I wasn’t around, one of my customers wrote the letter himself. His girlfriend wrote back immediately and pointed out that his writing had been devalued! One day, I was on a flight from Lagos to Enugu and happened to sit next to a Nigerian publisher. It was in the mid-1980s, a few years before my relocation to the U.S. When I introduced myself to the publisher, he said he read my columns in the newspapers. Then he said to me, “You’re working on a novel, right?” I asked how he guessed. His answer was that my style was literary. I wasn’t working on a novel, but I had no choice but to lie that I was! The man had planted an idea in my head, and I’d be damned before I let that idea go to waste. I had been announced a writer, and I was determined to become one!

Eric: Is a writer an artiste, change agent, persuader/influencer, or all of them? Where do you belong?

Okey: I don’t feel competent to legislate what each and every writer must be. What’s important is that writers try to rise to any challenge they set before themselves. I think we have a right to expect, even demand, that a writer be attentive to the tools of his or her work, to issues of craft. A writer ought to be in the business of making stories or poems or creating plays in as fine and compelling a fashion as possible. Beyond that, the writer has absolute sovereignty in deciding the end to be served by art. I think a writer who is good at what he or she does can be some or all of the above–to one degree or another.

Eric: How can a writer set societal/industry agenda, or influence the orientation of readers, a community, or a nation?

Okey: I think a writer’s proper constituency is the community of readers who are engaged in the consumption, and sometimes evaluation, of literature. If a novel is to set and meet any social goals, it has first of all to be a successful novel. If a work of art fails on that basic level, then it doesn’t matter what else the writer’s agenda might be. If you presume to write a novel that would correct some malaise in your society, but the novel is awfully written, I’d hazard that the revolutionary fervor is quite likely misconceived as well. Let’s write well always, whatever else we do!

Eric: What is the relationship between literature, culture and religion?

Okey: For me, art is, or ought to be, replete–it ought to evince plenitude, richness, layeredness, a catholic breadth and scope. Literature, the expression of meaning through words, strikes me as lending itself to spiritual exploration. At the deepest level, literature is a moral enterprise because it is so vitally connected to human interaction. In traditional society, art and religion often shared boundaries–or, to say it differently, art was permeated with religious and spiritual values. There’s no reason, really, why it should be different for us today. My writing enables me to look at the totality of experience. That means, if one must spell it out, that art is a place where culture and religion converge in wonderful ways.

Eric: How would you describe the writer in you, and what is your unique writing style and character?

Okey: A writer is hardly the best judge of himself. In a lot of ways, it’s presumptuous, isn’t it, to pronounce on one’s style and character, or to take one’s measure as an artist. But I can speak to my ambition, a goal I set for myself whenever I write. It is as follows: I want my readers to see, I want to transport them to a magical place or a frightening place or simply to a remarkable place and say to them, “Open your eyes and see!” For me, the most powerful fiction is one that takes us to unfamiliar universes and makes them palpable, or else challenges us to see what’s familiar in new light.

Eric: As an author, tell us about the books and other works you have written; your experiences, the pains, and successes? What informed your writing of them, your source/s of inspiration?

Okey:

My first novel, Arrows of Rain, was published by Heinemann (Oxford, ENGLAND) in 2000.

The novel grew out of disparate sources and readings, including Soyinka’s The Man Died and the drama of Antigone by Sophocles. I examine the question of silence and power. The fulcrum of the novel is encapsulated in words a grandmother speaks to her grandson, a newspaper reporter. “A story that must be told, never forgives silence.” I wrote three drafts of the novel. In fact, by the time Heinemann called to indicate their interest in buying the second draft, I had a third draft ready. They so liked the second draft that they didn’t even want to look at the third, but I insisted that I wasn’t going to sell the second draft. Well, they finally agreed to look at the third draft–and were blown away by it. “Thanks for insisting,” the editor said to me. That novel soon became one of their bestsellers, and continues to have brisk sales in England and the U.S. as well as in several African countries. It’s read at many universities in the U.S. and I receive lots of invitation to give readings. Once, at New York University, a student walked up to me after a visit and said, “Since high school, I never was able to finish a novel. But I couldn’t put down your novel. I went home and gave it to my parents to read–and then I read it again before class. Please promise you’ll keep writing.” It was a gratifying response. Another reader, a professor, called me one night and said, “Ask me to go take a shower.” I was stunned for a while, but she insisted that I should tell her to go take a shower. Finally I said, “Go take a shower.” “Thanks!” she shouted, and hung up. She rang me up later to explain that she’d been reading Arrows of Rain for two days and hadn’t paused to take a shower. She had only a few pages to go, but felt she would not get to the shower unless she paused. Feeling guilty about putting the book down, she thought the way to go was to ask the author’s permission to take a shower break. To have written a novel that elicits that kind of response from readers is–a blessing!

[Editor’s note: it is possible to buy this book online here: http://www.heinemann.com/shared/products/90657.asp]

I’m on the cusp of finishing my second novel. It’s titled Foreign Gods, Inc. and is set partly in New York and partly in Nigeria. It’s about a desperate chap who decides to steal a deity from his village shrine, and the spiritual turmoil and psychological trauma arising from his perfidy. A chapter of the novel is published online: www.guernicamag.com/ndibe.htm. It’s received wonderful responses. After I’m done with this, I’ll write a novel on an anthropologist doing research, and getting lost, in an African village. I mean lost in all its multiple meanings. So my calendar is going to be busy for the next few years.

Eric: Why did you relocate to the USA? Any differences from the African environment in terms of writing/teaching challenges; publishing your works; market potentials; acceptability, etc?

Okey : I relocated to the U.S. in 1988 at the invitation of the Nigerian novelist who asked me to be the founding editor of African Commentary, a magazine he and some friends published. It received wonderful critical attention–named by Library Journal as one of the best 16 new publications to come out in the States in 1989–but it had a short life. Magazine mortality is high in the States, and we never received much advertising revenue.

The U.S. has provided me with the creative space and a measure of comfort to pursue my writing career. There are things I can take for granted here, including regular power supply, that are absent in Nigeria. There are, of course, more books, and access to more fellow writers, editors, and publishers. Altogether, the U.S. is a more hospitable environment–in practical terms–for creative work. But I must say that I maintain a vital and revitalizing contact with my natal roots. I spent a year teaching at the University of Lagos as a Fulbright Scholar. My creative inspiration and fount–my idea and source of stories–are still largely tied to Nigeria. My sense of the importance of stories as well as my example of sheer eloquence are shaped by the experience of growing up in my village of Amawbia in Anambra state.

Eric: Tell us about your experiences as a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Lagos, Nigeria in 2001-2002, and how it has affected your writing style and perception of your audience and market?

Okey: Let me just say that the year I spent teaching in Nigeria gave me enough material, good and bad, for several books. I came face to face with a multitude of problems plaguing the Nigerian society–students who tried to offer me money or their bodies in exchange for good grades; students who prostitute themselves in order to pay their way through the university. I had several encounters with police officers seeking bribes from law abiding citizens; on one occasion, I was detained for almost two hours by four police officers at a bustling bus stop. They accused me of stealing the car I was driving, which was my father-in-law’s car. Despite all the officers’ ploys, I refused to offer a bribe. An hour and forty minutes later, the most senior officer told his subordinates I should be let to go. “He’s crazy,” he said of me, no doubt comforting his colleagues who were upset that they couldn’t intimidate me into turning over money.

On the positive side, I also discovered something about the boundless energy and charm and irrepressibility of the Nigerian character. I was moved by the sheer resilience of many impoverished Nigerians, and by their true thirst for something deeper, stronger and more enduring than the crass materialism and opulence that have been enthroned by the nation’s narrow-minded, contemptible elite–to paraphrase Frantz Fanon.

I particularly cherished the opportunity to spend some time in my village, attending funerals and weddings and child naming ceremonies, sitting at the feet of elders and listening to the poetry and eloquence as well as wisdom of their speech.

Nigeria is a paradox: It could overwhelm you with despair or else reinforce in you the idea of being deeply alive and connected to other human beings–and to a more ineffable dimension of existence. I focused on the hope, and it enabled me to deal with the disappointments.

Eric: What has been the challenges and joy of your teaching career in the USA? Do your teaching and writing reinforce each other, how?

Okey: I found my way into teaching quite by a serendipitous path. I used to imagine that the only thing I could do was journalism. Then, in 1996, a college invited me to teach Creative Writing and African Literature. I have since discovered that I’m gifted with a flair for teaching. I have also seen how, yes, teaching can provide some fuel for my creative work. Even so, teaching–in its sheer demand of time and nervous energy–can also function to stultify writing. The trick is in knowing how to balance things, and I’m still a student of that art.

Eric: As a writer, author, reflect on your experiences in working and living in Africa and in the USA: Any advice for budding African/Asian writers? Is Afro/Asian literature making any impact on the worldโ€™s literary market?

Okey: America is one of the most cosmopolitan markets in the world. Americans are hungry to read good books wherever the books come from. There’s something of a ferment in African literature. Over the last five or so years, new exciting writers have come out from Africa and Asia, and I think Americans are quite receptive to their work.

Eric: How can the business of writing and storytelling be elevated to command more impact, authority, recognition, market, and income for storytellers?

Okey: Writers and storytellers must continue to produce excellent works, to engender a desire for their products, and to popularize the culture of reading and storytelling. Such gifts are sorely needed in a world in danger of being spiritually starved. Stories are indispensable to human culture. If we, as writers and storytellers, took our craft more seriously, if we thought of magnificent ways to tell our stories, the readers and listeners will, I’m confident, come to us.

Eric: Should storytellers network?

Okey: Absolutely! In different ways.

Eric: What is your vision for African literature?

Okey: Africa has great stories to tell. African writers have the challenge of rising to the stories. It means they must master the tools and equip themselves with the idioms for telling their continent’s stories. We have stories that must be told, stories that won’t forgive silence!

Eric: Thank you for sharing with us your story and I wish you success with the new book.

Okey: Thank you.


This piece may NOT be freely reprinted. Please contact editor @ howtotellagreatstory.com for reprint rights.

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