AiW Guest: Pelu Awofeso
“I am a student of Chinua Achebe,” Okey Ndibe says near the end of his reading at University of Lagos’ Faculty of Arts last July. “But as a writer, my temperament is between [Wole] Soyinka, Achebe and Ngugi [waThiong’o].”
Ndibe is responding to a comment by someone in the audience that it appears he modeled Arrows of Rain, his first book, on Achebe’s 1964 novel Arrow of God. The essayist and author is in Nigeria to promote his latest books – Foreign Gods Inc. (a novel) and Never Look an American in the Eye (a memoir) – published by Bookcraft, based in the southwestern city of Ibadan, the university city where Soyinka and Achebe were shaped into world-class, award-winning writers.
Spread over three weeks, the book tour also takes him to Port Harcourt, Enugu, Awka and Abuja, rounding off in Ibadan.
The UNILAG reading is the second of four scheduled for Lagos. Two days later, at the Goethe Institut leg, Ndibe hints at some of the other renowned writers who have also impacted his writing: Ayi Kwei Armah, Kofi Awoonor, Toni Morrison and Sophocles.
“The influences are many in a lot of ways and they’re mixed up in me, and I’ve been able to distil my own unique voice in the world,” he says. “When one starts writing, there is a stage where there is a commitment to imitation, because you love a particular writer and you pattern your own writing on that writer’s writing; but after a while you come into your own and you distil a style that is uniquely yours.”
Ndibe, it turns out, has not only evolved a style of writing his own, he has also mastered the art of verbal storytelling, which endears him more to his audience. And the stories, varied and many, seem almost as if he pulls them out from under his black flat cap.
At different times he tells of how, as a reporter in the 1980s, he interviewed Achebe for hours only to playback the tape and it was blank; how, before he left Nigeria for the US, an uncle told him never to look an American in the eye; how, in 1998 and aged 28, Achebe invited him over to the US to edit a magazine (African Commentary) and the visa complications that followed; how, just 13 days after arriving in the US, he was mistaken for a bank robber and promptly arrested by the police; how, after the magazine he’d been invited to edit folded, an innocent lie (to African-American author John Edgar Wideman) led to him writing his first manuscript, which then became Arrows of Rain.
In telling these stories, Ndibe – he has taught at Brown University and other colleges in the US – weaves easily from his American-accented English to the usual Nigerian-speak called Pidgin; his audience, mostly young adults, can connect with both tongues and they laugh heartily as he plugs the occasional jokes.
“Sometimes when I do my readings, it is to involve my readers so that it feels like an orchestra,” he says, glancing across the packed bookstore.
A story Ndibe loves to share, perhaps more often than the others, is about his first culture shock, an encounter he had five days after arriving in the States. He’d been invited to lunch by an American lady, who’d then recently found out that her father was Nigerian and so wanted to discuss a planned visit to the West African country. When the bill came, the lady motioned to Ndibe to pay his share. Ndibe was mystified.
“I didn’t have a Kobo,” he says at the Patabah Bookstore, where his tour kicks off on a rainy Sunday afternoon and to a packed space. “In Nigeria, very few women would buy a meal for a guy and ask him to pay. I believed I’d fulfilled my obligation by accepting the invitation. I later learnt that it was called ‘going Dutch’.”
His second novel – Foreign Gods, Inc. – is set partly in America and Nigeria and is about a Nigerian who, at his wits’ end, decides that the best way to turn around his fortunes is to return to his hometown, steal a traditional statue and sell it to a gallery in New York.
“In a lot of ways, I became more Nigerian, more Igbo and more Amawbian (his village in Nigeria’s South-East) when I went to America,” he says at UNILAG’s Faculty of Arts, where he’d lectured in 2000/1. “Writing takes you places; and the narrative of travel is intrinsic to what makes us human. Some of the insights I share I have gathered as an immigrant travelling in America.”
But Ndibe is more known in Nigeria as a journalist than as an author, his highly opinionated columns on contemporary local issues published in at least two widely read online publications (Sahara Reporters and Premium Times) and a national daily (The Sun), so much so that they sometimes unsettle the government.
It is because, like countless Nigerians, Ndibe is an angry man (though you’ll never see that by merely looking at his cheerful outlook). “When I write a column for a newspaper, I rant about politicians who have wrecked the promise of this great country,” he says at his reading at the Goethe Institut, alongside Congolese author J.J. Bola. “It is because I want a society where citizens are treated as human beings, where corruption has consequences, where people have the opportunity to maximize their potentials – this is not that society.”
Besides corruption, he has written a chunk of pieces based on the Nigerian civil war, which he lived through as a boy, while also speaking against society’s increasing pursuit of instant wealth and not intellectual richness, a situation that he addresses on Day One of his tour.
“Our country has gone the materialist highway to perdition, to destruction, to meaninglessness,” he says. “It is important that we recognize that elsewhere in the world, even in countries that are much richer than Nigeria, what is more important is intellectual culture, not wealth.”
It was a good thing then to see that the readings were all well attended by readers thirsting for some kind of mental stimulus. And when they mass around Ndibe for his autograph, the scene feels almost like an orchestra of a sort.
Pelu Awofeso is a travel writer and culture reporter. His interests include: the stage, books, music and festivals of all shades. He is the publisher and managing editor of the arts and travel blog, wakaabout online. His latest published book is White Lagos: A Definitive and Visual Guide to the Eyo Festival of Lagos.