The American Dream is perhaps the most powerful element of this nation’s mythology; drawing generations of immigrants from around the world to these shores in search of what they hope will be a better life. It also lies at the heart of “Foreign Gods, Inc.,” a new novel by Nigerian-born and Connecticut-based author Okey Ndibe.
While some of the locales in Foreign Gods Inc. are strikingly similar to his own experiences in the U.S., including western Massachusetts, Okey Ndibe insists the book is not autobiographical. It tells the story of Ike Ozondu, a Nigerian immigrant who graduates magna cum laude in economics from Amherst College, but whose life is not going according to plan or expectations. In fact, his name and how it is pronounced, or mispronounced, represents the first stage of his daily tension in America.
“Ike (pronounced ee-KEH) is his name, meaning strength, power. Many Americans will call him EE-kay, which means your buttocks.” explains Ndibe. “And so, from time to time, an American character will say to him ‘how you do spell it?’ And once he says I-K-E, they’ll say ‘Oh, it’s Ike (rhymes with like). Why not call yourself Ike?’ Well he doesn’t want to be called Ike either. He wants to be called ee-KEH, strength.”
Unable to find work in the corporate world because of his strong accent, Ike takes to driving a cab in order to survive. A green card marriage to an abusive American woman ends in divorce and financial ruin. So he concocts a plan to steal the effigy of an ancient god from his home village back in Nigeria and sell it to an arts dealer who specializes in procuring exotic foreign deities for wealthy western clients. The idea highlights what Ndibe calls the consumption of other people’s cultural illusions and products, an idea that he says cuts both ways.
“When Ike, my protagonist, returns to Nigeria, he finds an obsession by people in his village with American ideas. They now want to eat hamburgers and pizzas, and drink sodas like Americans. And they’re watching, obsessed with American basketball, simply because these basketball players…as one of the villagers asks Ike ‘is it true those young men get paid bags of money, in my language there’s no word for millions of dollars, simply for throwing this ball through that hole?’ And when he says yes, they say ‘so why are you not doing it?’ They imagine that it’s easy to do. You just throw this ball through the hole and you get bags of money.”
In addition to conflicting cultural, moral and religious values, Ndibe says the novel explores family betrayal, race and ethnicity, and that elusive dream.
“The American Dream promises that once you work hard and do your work…you’re going to be okay. America can always point to a lot of people for whom this is true. But that narrative is constantly undermined by the examples of so many people who come from all parts of the world, do what they are told they must do to succeed, but somehow success eludes them. Ike becomes one of those examples”, says Ndibe.
When asked if he finds it easier to examine this narrative using fiction, Ndibe says it’s more fruitful for him to examine some of the questions raised in the novel in fiction.
“Fiction has a certain subtlety to it.” Ndibe says. “People don’t beat you over the head with the thing. As a reader, you have to come to that discovery. A reader becomes a co-creator of meaning when you read a work of fiction, as opposed to if I were writing an essay on the same subject where I have to spell everything out.”
For Ndibe, who lives with his family in West Hartford, spelling everything out has made him a controversial figure back in Nigeria. He’s been detained there several times for his newspaper columns that frequently target state-sanctioned corruption and impunity. He says reception to the book back in Nigeria has been a mystery. What few copies that have been made available have quickly sold out. But he says his publisher’s Nigerian distributor has refused to deliver more books to stores there.
“My conjecture is that it has to do with their fear of reprisals from the Nigerian government if they were to bring in my book, since I am -quote- an enemy of the Nigerian state. But I don’t think that the Nigerian government is literate enough to care about novels. They are more concerned about my weekly columns that speak directly to their corruption and depravity.”
Ndibe says even though the protagonist in his novel is from Nigeria, the issues he encounters are not specific to being a Nigerian.
“ I met a Lebanese man in New York who connected with this book. He said he received a first degree in Mathematics, and then became lawyer in Lebanon. He came to this country and could not find a job. He said it had to do with his accent. So he took to cab driving. He says he’s raised his children driving a cab as many immigrants do,” says Ndibe. “I have a former student at Brown University who read the novel and said ’wow, you’ve told my father’s story as well as my uncle’s.’ His father has an MBA, but has been a cab driver for twenty-something years, and his uncle has a Masters degree. There are so many Nigerians, Ghanaians, Somalis and eastern Europeans in this country who have advanced degrees, but who are cab drivers. There’s a way in which all of them relate to the story that I’ve told in very immediate and intense and intimate ways,” he says.
Okey Ndibe is currently working on his next project, a series of essays he’s tentatively titled “Going Dutch and other American Misadventures” that deals with some of his own true experiences as an immigrant, including his arrest in Amherst just days after arriving in the U.S.