• Okey Ndibe fantasised about travelling to foreign and eventually his dreams came true.
Acclaimed Nigerian author Okey Ndibe writes that he spent much of his childhood “drifting in and out of dreams”. He fantasised about travelling to foreign countries like the former Soviet Union, Britain and America, and eventually his dreams came true.
Ndibe’s latest book, ‘Never Look an American in the Eye’, is a memoir of his hilarious experiences when he immigrated to America.
Born in 1960, the same year as Nigeria’s independence, his was a normal childhood growing in a humble Catholic family in eastern Nigeria, watching American movies and indulging in storybooks.
Even at university, he much preferred reading novels than concentrating on his studies. Nevertheless, he graduated and found a job in Lagos city as a journalist.
The doors to America open in 1988, when author Chinua Achebe offers Ndibe an editor job at his American-based magazine called ‘African Contemporary’. Preparing for the trip, an uncle misadvises young Ndibe to never look an American straight in the eye for fear of upsetting them.
Coming to America stories are well-trodden ground by African writers. But Ndibe managers to avoid the trite immigrant tale by recounting his culture shock in hilarious fashion, while making a probing review of his adopted country. There are run-ins with the police and language misunderstandings. He is the victim of foreigner stereotyping and is baffled by Americans’ fetish for pets, yet reveals his naiveté about Western weather and dining etiquette.
As for the editor job, things are falling apart as the magazine hovers on the brink of bankruptcy, leaving a penniless Ndibe dodging landlords and irate writers demanding for pay. Nevertheless, he manages to complete a Master’s degree and eventually becomes both a writer and university lecturer.
The story flips back and forth, sometimes haphazardly, between America and Ndibe’s growing up years, intermingled with references to Nigerian folk traditions. His extended vocabulary and uncommon words, though noteworthy, sometimes makes for cumbersome reading. But for the most part, Ndibe is a natural, laidback storyteller.
Intriguing to read is Nigeria’s history and colonial legacy, as seen through the eyes of Ndibe’s forefathers, and of the openly affectionate relationship between his parents, who bathed together and walked in public holding hands. Also interesting is the friendship between Ndibe’s father and an English missionary, which started in Burma in World War II and continued for decades.
“A friendship that breached several barriers,” writes Ndibe, in contrast to the racial profiling he encounters in America.
Like the book’s subtitle (‘Flying Turtles’, ‘Colonial Ghosts’, and the ‘Making of a Nigerian American’), the chapter headings are equally enthralling. Each chapter almost reads like a separate discourse, such as ‘Wole Soyinka Saves My Christmas’, ‘Will Edit for Food’ and ‘English Dreams, Communist Fantasies’. Ndibe eventually becomes an American citizen but says very little about his wife and children, so the book feels lacking in this aspect.
An entertaining memoir, ‘Never Look an American in the Eye’ has received several awards, including the Connecticut Book Award for nonfiction in 2017.