Life Stories #94: Okey Ndibe

Life Stories: Okey Ndibe

When Okey Ndibe came to America at the end of 1988 at the invitation of fellow Nigerian Chinua Achebe to edit a magazine about African culture, nobody thought to tell him about winter. He’d read about winter in American novels, of course, but he just assumed it would be like the annual cold snap in Nigeria, when the temperature could drop as low as sixty-five degrees, and he dressed accordingly. After his flight arrived in New York City, he stepped out of the terminal to look for his escort, and quickly learned what he was in for in the months ahead.

Never Look an American in the Eye is Ndibe’s memoir of his first years in the United States, how he gradually acclimated to our climate and our culture—and, too, how he’s had to deal with American assumptions about him and his cultural heritage. (For example, although he’s an American citizen, who didn’t even begin writing fiction until after he’d been in the United States for a while, one of the first editors to see his debut novel on submission rejected it because she didn’t see how readers could be interested in an “African writer.”) It’s all shot through with Ndibe’s warm sense of humor, which we talked about for a bit before I asked him what had prompted him to write a memoir after two novels:

“I’ve lived a very interesting, rich life in America, [but] it wasn’t always like that when it was happening. When I wasn’t getting paid as an editor, when I was working for food, it wasn’t ‘interesting.’ When I had to lie about writing a novel, and had to go and write one, it was painful; it was difficult. When I was stopped by the police, it was terrifying. But as I looked back, it struck me that I had a very rich harvest of American narratives—and this is the quintessential immigrant culture in the world. I thought that the ultimate homage I could pay to America for the gifts that it’s given me… is to tell my part of this immigrant drama that is America.”

Listen to Life Stories #94: Okey Ndibe (MP3 file); or download this file by right-clicking (Mac users, option-click). Or subscribe to Life Stories in iTunes, where you can catch up with earlier episodes and be alerted whenever a new one is released. (If you’re already an iTunes subscriber, please consider rating and reviewing the podcast!)

photo: courtesy Okey Ndibe

16 June 2017 | life stories |