At his professor’s bidding, Okey Ndibe and eleven of his classmates taking a creative writing program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, met often at the Lord Jeffrey Inn, a watering hole where they gorged themselves on literature and drinks and food and much else that allowed the mind to think great thoughts and the creative imagination to soar to altitudes like an eagle wheeling aloft and peering down at objects below with distinct clarity. As was the norm at the weekly workshop, each student would read whole passages or chapters from his work, after which the eleven other students, and lastly the professor, would take turns to render judgement on the work. One day in 1993, Ndibe chose to read several chapters from a fiction manuscript still very much in infancy. Opinion followed. An overwhelming majority liked it. Others, agreeing it was great, offered suggestions withal. Only an insignificant number of the judges thought it was meh. On balance, though, Ndibe scored big, an outcome that should please him. Yet, there was something he found unnerving about it all.
Here’s why. One person at the gathering would not comment; or whatever opinion the fellow had formed on what he’d heard, he thought it his prerogative to disclose it only to the author on another day, and definitely not for the consumption of his eleven classmates today. Tamas Aczel was the fellow’s name, and he was one of Ndibe’s professors. A Hungarian-born writer who had published several novels, Aczel was short with a “stentorian voice” and a scholarly look to his countenance. Ndibe set so much store by the magisterial tone and sweep of his pronouncements on matters bordering on literary creativity. For, implicit in his silence, Ndibe suspected, was a possibility that the professor felt his work didn’t amount to much. In addition to be being unnerved by that, Ndibe felt a sense of “humiliation”.
“I’d like you to come see me in my office,” he said to Ndibe.
As Ndibe further narrates in Never Look an American in the Eye, a memoir which tracks parts of his life in his native Nigeria and the United States, he went to see the 71 years old man about two days later. Always unfurling his narrative hook from the opening of his stories to the very end, Ndibe grabs the reader by the soul by having him experience the events vicariously.
“Do you know why I asked you to come see me?” Aczel began once Ndibe was in his presence.
“No”, replied the student, worried.
“Well, of the stories we’ve looked at so far in class, yours strikes me as having a great potential to become a book. I want you to promise me you’ll continue working on it until it becomes a book.”
Ndibe breathed a sigh of relief, and so does the reader, too.
That work would go on to be published as Arrows of Rain by Heinemann in London. Working towards a master’s degree in International Studies at the University of Leeds, United Kingdom, seventeen years ago, I was at a book signing event sponsored by the University’s School of English where Ndibe had come to promote his newly published novel. There with me were more than half a dozen friends I had invited, among them Carol, a winsome young English lady from Birmingham studying for a master’s degree in English Literature. After the event, she said to me, “Your friend is absolutely amazing.”
Many Englishmen and women of my acquaintance in Leeds betrayed a predilection for such superlatives. But Carol was right on the money. For, Ndibe left his listeners greatly impressed both by his reading and the answers he gave to questions that immediately followed. Indeed, anyone who heard Ndibe read at that event, or who has read some of his works, might have noticed something Ciceronian about the rhythmic quality of his prose. No doubt the majority of the ears at Lord Jeffrey, including his professor’s, had caught that quality to arrive at the verdict they rendered.
Told with brutal honesty and a dash of humor that is at times self-deprecating, at other times sardonic, Ndibe’s memoir makes you laugh so much you fear one or two internal organs have been ruptured in the process. Once arriving in the United States from Nigeria, Ndibe was hosted for a night by a gentleman named Chudi Uwazurike. Notice how he describes his experience inside the man’s bathroom:
My hosts’ bathroom was so clean you could eat in it. Its air had a hint of scent. For sure, some wealthy people back in Nigeria also had such pristine bathrooms, but I had never been in one. For me, then, the bathroom seemed an advertisement of America’s power, prosperity — and excess. There were numerous bars of soap in it, different shapes, sizes, and fragrances. Which one to use? I palmed each one, relished its solidity, held it against my nose, and breathed in. I could not decide. Not to worry, I would use two or three. There were also several bottles of shampoo and conditioners. I lathered my hair with each. The showerhead gushed a jet of warm water. The shower soothed me, washed away my weariness. I overstayed in the bathroom, delighted to bask in American excess.
Hired away from The African Guardian where he held senior editorial position at the time, Ndibe had been invited to the United States to edit The African Commentary, a magazine founded by Chinua Achebe and a group of Nigerian intellectuals. But when the project that brought him to America foundered for clearly no fault of his, Ndibe was driven to despair and left to his own devices to survive. He lived meanly. For a man who had made name and reputation in Nigerian journalism (he gave the appellation “Maradona” to President Ibrahim Babangida), and to whom friends flocked in his Ilupeju, Lagos, home like moths to a flame, Ndibe must have felt truly in a funk. This clearly could not be the America he had heard and thought so fondly of. Not long before, just days after his arrival in the United States, a young man had robbed a bank in Amherst, and an Amherst police officer, clapping his eyes on Ndibe, instantly thought him the ditto of the thief. To confirm he wasn’t the thief, Ndibe must get in the police car and be taken to where he was taking up residence to show proof with his passport.
But never underestimate a man with great talents, especially if that man was Okey Ndibe. A chance encounter with John Edgar Wideman, an African-American novelist of consequence, would alter the trajectory of Ndibe’s career, lifting it steeply upwards.
In his memoir Ndibe also pokes wry fun at the misconceptions Nigerians have about Americans and Americans about Africans. The book actually derives its title from a remark the author’s uncle had made to him during an advice on how to comport himself in America in order to stay out of harm’s way. “And the first thing to remember,” Uncle Ochendu warned him, “is this: never look an American in the eye… every American carries a gun. If they catch you, a stranger, looking them in the face, they will shoot.” Now you can’t blame the uncle. Like other Nigerians back in the day, Ochendu had watched many CIA-sponsored cowboy movies in which every imaginable barroom disagreement spiraled into open brawls and sudden shootings.
However, the invidious misconceptions by Americans about Africans and their continent, are not only ludicrous, but are downright pathetic to the point of idiocy. Many in America today still talk of Africa as if it were a country. Worse, others, like that character mentioned in the memoir by Ndibe, think that Africans who come to the United States are ferried across the Atlantic Ocean to the nearest American shore on the backs of crocodiles.
Ndibe had written two novels, the second one being Foreign Gods, Inc., and also a work of fiction released to rave notices across the world two years ago by Soho Press, his current publishers. His latest effort pivots from the realm of fictive imagination to the world of reality. A visceral advocate of probity and an audacious tribune of the voiceless, Ndibe lances the boil of humbug and pomposity in columns he has kept over the course of many decades in Nigerian publications. He has a deep, and perhaps permanent, mistrust of politicians and, for that reason, maintains something of a Calvinist refusal to forgive even the least of their self-centered transactions. To him, Nigerian politicians, with very few exceptions, are irredeemable knaves, morally bankrupt actors who are up to no good. Fraudsters and sundry mountebanks known by the name of 419-ers back home who have scammed victims around the world out of their hard-earned money are not spared those deliciously envenomed arrows twanged long-distance across the Atlantic from his bow. And military rulers? They’re even worse: dangerous autocrats and hideous villains all. He remains a thorn in the side of Ibrahim Babangida long after he has left office. Nor has the long procession of years that has followed General Sani Abacha’s death dimmed his memory of the untold damage the dictator did to Nigeria as its self-anointed military leader. In a word, Ndibe takes no prisoners.
Ndibe’s’s well-regarded moral persona may have been partly forged in the fire of personal life experiences, and also framed by his Catholic faith, doubtless. But there’s also no denying the central role both of his parents had played in the entire bargain, for his father’s and mother’s deep moral values have greatly shaped his philosophical lodestar. Those who have interacted with him personally may well have heard him speak glowingly of the parents’ guiding moral hands in his life and those of his siblings.
Like the story involving his professor above, many of Ndibe’s stories in the memoir have something of an O. Henryesque twist, denouement, if you like, to them. One such interesting twist centers on Linus, his paternal uncle. Just like many other adolescents in or out of high school in the 1970s who were fainthearted captives of fashion, young Ndibe and John, his older brother, fell under the sway of the reigning outfits of that era. Badly, they wanted a pair of bell-bottom pants each. A pair of six-inch shoes as lagniappe would not be a bad idea either. Only that there was a problem. Their parents frowned on such things. As parents who firmly treasured the strict moral propriety under which they were raising their children, they preferred instead that the little financial resources at their disposal be spent on their education, not on such ephemera as two pairs of reigning pants and high-heel shoes.
What to do? To have their desires executed, Ndibe and John arrived at a determination: they would enlist someone respected enough to speak to their parents. To Uncle Linus, therefore, that job fell. The parents listened as Linus methodically presented the children’s case before them. Then the mother, speaking for herself and her husband, made what amounted to a forceful, compelling response to deflate Linus’s robust plea. With terminative emphasis, she concluded there was nothing more to be said about the matter. All hope seemed to fade away for the youngsters. After all, what need of further argument once Mother had spoken? To compound their predicament, their advocate abandoned their mission and began to hew towards Mother’s side of the matter as if to rebuke the young duo for enlisting him in a cause they knew was already lost even before it had begun in the first place. Ndibe was baffled, disappointed. Clearly, he thought, the uncle’s behavior was quite out of keeping with what was expected of a normal advocate. But no, Uncle Linus wasn’t beating a forlorn retreat. A Maradona to boot and a man practiced, it seemed, in the art of deft maneuvers, Linus had something up his sleeve his nephews didn’t even know about. Dramatically, he pivoted on a dime again and tacked back to the cause that had brought him thither, eventually scoring a home run for the young nephews. The clients bubbled with happiness. They got what they wanted. Uncle Linus picked up the tab. Several weeks later, they walked into the venue of the next party in town, feeling prickles of excitement and expecting to win the approval and admiration of their peers for their outfits. There for now we leave the story…
Ndibe’s reputation precedes him. But if you’re conjuring up a vision of some elegant, flashy dresser in advance of your first meeting with him, please shed that vision in double quick time. It is not good for your health. Ndibe won’t ever be caught dead in a pair of exquisitely tailored suit and tie. In his dress habits, he’s bohemian and austere, a habit I first noticed one afternoon almost 30 years ago just as he was getting ready to relocate to the United States. But that is another story. The reader has every right to ask: Was this not the same person who had once found the garish lure of fashion attractive; who, with his older brother, had enlisted his uncle in a determined cause to have his parents get him and the brother a pair of bell-bottom pants? What changed? Well, something did indeed change, and it takes us back to the thread of our story. As the author narrates:
… my brother and I strode into a party in our new outfits, our moods buoyant. We noticed that something was amiss. Nobody else wore those bell-bottom pants or high-heeled shoes. Instead, the pants were tapered, the shirts much looser than the skin-hugging style that was reigning the last time we looked. The shoes were now stilettoes, heels modest, their pointy tips adorned with flat metal rivets. Nobody had cared to warn us that a new style had come to town, had seized the throne — however momentarily — in the ever-mercurial, fickle world of sartorial taste. Fashion had played its capricious game, sucker punched us where it hurts most, in our very egos… That day, I renounced the deity of fashion and all its sneaky, whimsical ways. It was the last time I ever paid heed to any fashion or fad.
On October 19 last year, Ndibe visited the Tampa Bay area, his second in as many weeks, but this time to promote his memoir. On my copy, he inscribed the following kind comment: “To Mudi — In admiration & celebration of your brilliance.” But such might actually have been said of him by any member of the audience, for, once again as 17 years ago, and as countless other times at all the places he has visited to read from his works since his enviable literary career took off, Ndibe put on display his dazzling brilliance and the range and precision of his learning, particularly in his response to a question on the difficulty encountered by an Igbo-born writer transmitting the idiom, language and cultural experiences of his people into the English language without shedding their immediacy, originality and profundity. A professor of English who has taught in some prestigious American colleges, including the Ivy League Brown University, I thought Ndibe was “absolutely amazing” in his response to that question, even spicing it with a pantomime of an Igbo cultural group’s dance steps for emphasis. The audience applauded with infectious enthusiasm.
Never Look an American in the Eye is a source of great pleasure. It causes us to laugh and cry. It is also something much more serious than that. It is, arguably, an MRI that enables us to see straight into the innards of the author’s soul, the humanist that he is. Not that we need it to formulate judgement on him. Without an iota of doubt, Ndibe is one of the most transparent people walking the earth today, a warrior for great causes on behalf of a beleaguered humanity. But for those undertaking textual explication of his other works for academic purposes, this memoir could be a guide-map. He is excellent at sourcing characters from real prototypes. For instance, what motives or impulses spurred him to deploy the trope of a mad man as the protagonist in his first novel? It is fascinating to read his take on the issue. And for those who may have been wondering why he dresses the way he does, well, you just found out in the memoir also.
From time to time, this immensely gifted writer and man of rare humanity has given the reader narratives that are models of great writing. “Men and dynasties pass, but style abides,” the classicist Ronald Syme once said of a Roman historian of genius. Ndibe always has great stories to tell. Of that, there can be no doubt. But it is how he tells them — his recall of granular details with digital clarity, and the mesmeric hold he maintains on his readers’ attention through adroit deployment of wit and elegant, descriptive language, among other great gifts — that compel a growing universal admiration of him as a raconteur of the first water. And it is such brilliant qualities that will surely crown his memoir, as his other works, with the tiara of immortality.