Okey Ndibe has written a novel that wrestles with bad faith and the post-colonial condition in equal measure.
Foreign Gods, Inc., of which Wole Soyinka, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature said, “We clearly have a fresh talent at work here …” releases this January from Soho Press.
Below is the second in a three-part interview with the author conducted via email (read part 1 here).
Paul Oliver: Racism and the difficulties that immigrants face in the US are major themes in your novel. Race in Foreign Gods, Inc. is particularly multifaceted. Beyond black and white, questions of race also manifest amidst the peoples of the African diaspora that populate this story, whether African, African American, or Caribbean. Ike’s African American wife is just as condescending about his Nigerian accent as the white characters he encounters. Do you think Ike has a unique vantage on race in the US?
Okey Ndibe: It can be awfully difficult to talk about race and racism in the US. The terms are often slippery, even though they are also America’s inescapable, default subjects, rooted in the peculiar history of this republic. Yet there’s so much that the words obscure, render oblique. The ubiquity of the two words paradoxically enforces certain taboos, closes off exploration of some of the unexpected ways in which racial conflict plays out. For example, there are situations where your “strange” or “foreign” accent can get you quick passage into bedrooms, whilst blocking your access to the boardroom. James Baldwin knew, as do John Edgar Wideman and many others, that race is often deftly manipulated, used to keep Africans and African Americans apart, separately garrisoned, trapped in a state of mutual distrust. Ike is enmeshed in all this. He’s intellectually sophisticated enough to grasp the ironies of his plight, even to understand the nature of the foes he’s up against, and yet he remains mostly powerless to do much about his dire condition. His experience runs the gamut; he’s possessed of a wide-angled perspective, and that, I hope, deepens the emotional gravity of the choices he makes, the impact of what happens to him. Through him, the attentive reader will be able to glimpse the varied ways in which the currencies of race and racism are furnished, deployed, deflected, cashed in or cashed out. Foreign Gods, Inc. seeks to bring some of the sly “race” moments out into the open of the fictive canvas. It tries to speak some of the taboos of race and racism.
PO: “The Empire Writes Back with a Vengeance” is Salman Rushdie’s now famous essay (and pun) describing the entry of post-colonial writers into the Western Canon. There seems to be a trend lately among writers from post-colonial states to turn an eye inward to their own political cultures, writing less out of external critique. Is the “empire” still writing back? Or have the politics of the novel left the paternalism of the post-colonial orbit?
ON: Rushdie’s essay is a provocative description. Achebe called it “four memorable words: The Empire Writes Back.” Rushdie’s formulation sought to ground that phenomenon – which has since accumulated a rather long history – of the presumably “mute” (or muted) postcolonial subjects insisting on having their say, talking back, bringing their voices into the equation of narratives. In his slim but richly rewarding book of essays, Home and Exile, Chinua Achebe used two fascinating metaphors to zero in on this Rushdian idea. One metaphor is adopted from fable of the natural world, and involves the Lion’s guaranteed disadvantage in a world where the Hunter monopolizes the narrative of the hunt. As long as the Lion doesn’t take a turn at telling the story, as long as the Lion’s account is expunged, the Hunter will always emerge, inevitably and predictably, as the sole hero. Achebe’s other metaphor is taken from the modern world, specifically the British post office. It is the location where accounts are mailed and received, what I’d call a veritable Narrative Exchange. A man of great wisdom and prudence, Achebe prescribed “the balance of stories among the world’s peoples.” We’re far from achieving that balance, but we must admit that each day brings its small harvest of progress. I see glimpses of hope – even instances of wonderful signs. Writers, storytellers from all over the world are writing, “speaking,” in a wide variety of accents. Thanks to the Internet and literary festivals, they’re communing in great fiestas to tell their stories, to listen to others’ stories. I’m willing to hazard that readers, these days, are on the whole more adventurous, more curious about the imaginative harvests of other cultures, more keen to tune in to stories forged in areas that were once deemed “mute” or unintelligible. And that rising quotient of curiosity is a magnificent development.
PO: I think that in the United States we tend to think of religious conflict as exclusively the realm of the world’s major religions, which is exactly why the conflict in Foreign Gods, Inc. is interesting. This battle between Christianity and the followers of Ngene drives an important storyline in your novel. How much do deities like Ngene play a role in modern Nigerian life? And are they in conflict with religions like Christianity and Islam?
ON: The grand narrative of the (often) bloody feud between Islam and Christianity often obscures the deeper embattlement of those who, despite all odds, still stick to traditional religious practices. In Nigeria, Christian pastors sometimes lead crusades to destroy or desecrate animist shrines. There was a former military governor, a self-professed born-again Christian, who came by the revelation that all the problems in the state he administered were caused by satanic forces. He declared war on places of traditional worship, led mini-crusades of fervent Christian warriors to lay waste to many a shrine. Traditional religious practices are not always so singularly besieged, but the antipathy toward them runs deep. Yet vestiges of traditional religion remain, stubborn and resilient. Their staying power lies, I suspect, in the fact that many a Christian or Muslim has a syncretist outlook, not beyond consulting a traditional diviner when life turns suddenly, mysteriously miserable.
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Be sure to check back for part 3 in this interview series tomorrow. Meanwhile, you can read more about Okey Ndibe’s Foreign Gods, Inc., here.