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Okey Ndibe – Reshaping the World with Words- Part 2

In a previous installment of this feature, award-winning author, Okey Ndibe, shared about growing up and becoming a writer. It as a riveting conversation which left many of our readers wanting more. In this installment, Ndibe describes his writing style, the inherent activism in his books and his upcoming work. Enjoy!


Let us talk about your writing style a little bit. You have a distinctive way of writing. Tell us about it.

NDIBE: Well, the simple secret to writing is reading. When I teach, I tell my students that reading is a vitamin to a writer, and a writer should take more and more vitamins. And the only way you acquire these vitamins is by reading widely. So, when I was young, I mentioned earlier that my mom was a schoolteacher. I had what I thought was a hellish childhood because my mother would not allow us to go out and play unless we read a book. To go out and play, whether it is soccer or what Americans would call hangout with your friends, we had to convince our mom that you have done all our work and you have done some extra reading. So, initially, I did not particularly care for that. I was a challenging, restless child. I gave my parents a lot of anxiety. They were sure I would amount to nothing.

I am an example of a person who worked hard to fail, but somehow, God was kind to me. In God’s kindness, he gave me the gift of enjoying reading and, ultimately, the gift of writing. In my memoir, “Never Look an American in The Eye,” I tell how I became a published author. Part of the story I have yet to convey is that once I came to America to edit Chinua Achebe’s magazine, there was no money. So, I needed to earn the salary I was supposed to make. But, week after week, there was no money to pay me. Finally, Mr. Bat Nnaji started to pay me by buying me groceries. Every month, I would call friends and associates of the magazine to beg for money to pay my rent. It was a bleak time for me, and I survived by going to bookstores. I had money to eat one meal a day. So, I had the option of choosing between lunch and dinner. So, I wake up in the morning and go to a bookstore. Luckily bookstores allowed you to read as much as you wanted even without buying the books. And so, I would take a pile of books and sit down somewhere and just read 50 pages from one book, put it down, read 30 pages from another, put it down, and read ten pages from another. So, I read all day until it was time to go and have my one meal. Then, I would sneak out of the bookstore and eat. If I eat lunch, I will come back, read till dinner, and go home to sleep. So, when our people say, is it a book that we will eat? I tell them yes. I have eaten and survived on books.

People have a saying, “Aku na-esi obi ike,” meaning wealth strengthens the heart. But if you look at it, in our world, knowledge supports the heart. If you look at great people in the world, people whose stories resonate through history. They are people who have contributed through their knowledge, not people who have shown a spectacular display of wealth. People like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg will continue to be important in history, not because of their wealth but because of how they have revolutionized communication. So, ultimately, their importance is tied to their brain power, not to their money. So, I have always read. When you read, you take in the power of language. Language is beautiful. I go to the shrine to listen to the Chief Priest talk because of their language’s poetic and mystical aspects. So, the same flair I have for English is what I have for languages because I want to be one of the best. 

NPM: You described reading as a vitamin for a writer. That is awesome. But there must be something else that is driving you. What is it? 2

NDIBE: Well, I talk about art as an act of seduction. When I write, I want my writing to be very sensual so that all the senses are activated in the reader. A critic said that the novel is cinematic. I seek to write in a cinematic way.

Some years ago, I was invited by a book club in Connecticut, where I live. One of the book club members remarked that, as she read my book, the way I described a smell made it present to her. That is what I try to do, and it takes a certain level of artistry to do it.

In beginner fiction classes, when we teach kids how to write, we tell them to show, not to tell. Some kids who know how fiction works will say a handsome man walked into the room. And, I say to them, I have not seen the man. You are alleging that an attractive man walked into the room. I want you to describe the man so that I, the reader, would say, wow! What a handsome man. Do not tell me.

One of the exercises I give to my students on the first day of our fiction class is to tell them that I went to a great party over the weekend. I will ask them to tell me what happened at the party. Some would say there was a lot of drinks. Some would say you met some interesting people. And some would say you danced a lot. A writer who says in writing that their character went to a great party has not fascinated the reader’s imagination. What you need to do is to describe what happened at a party. Tell me about the people, the music, the ambiance, and the sense of atmosphere there. And then I, as a reader, will say, either whoa, I wish I were at that party, or that is a boring party. So, this kind of sensual writing engages and activates the readers’ senses, whether it is a sense of touch, vision, smell, or something oral. For example, when there is a gunshot, it needs to grate the ears of the reader. So, the reader has a sense of disturbance in one’s balance that violence represents. So, again part of it I credit to my reading.

I like writers who are detailed in the way they describe things and are not careless. I want to focus on minute details that count. Of course, it can become dull and humdrum. The reader might say you are wasting my time. But consistent with my belief that writing, like all arts, should arrest the reader or the audience. So, when I write, I respect my reader enough to make my writing feel like you are watching a movie. By the way, I just found out that they will bring out a special edition of my book, “Arrows of Rain” because it has been twenty years since I wrote it. So, let me tell you a quick story. Some years ago, a professor from Drexel University called me. And he said that something had happened, which had never happened in his career. And at that point, he had been teaching for 25 years. He assigned my novel “Arrows of Rain” to his students and asked them to read half the story for the first class. He said students would make excuses and rarely read the assigned book in the past. He said when he came into the class and asked the students how many read the set pages. He said that all his students, about 20 of them, read the entire book because they felt like they were watching a movie.

NPM: There is activism in your book. I saw it in your book “Arrows of God” and “Foreign Gods.” What is it that you are saying in these books?

NDIBE: Good. So, that is what good art does. Art shows you something that draws you to it. And as you are drawn in, the art begins to speak to you about its innate message. Of course, some readers cannot engage at that deeper, profound level of what you might call the work’s mission. So, they are stuck with the work’s aesthetics, sentences, and structure, but a hidden message deepens a work.

For my first novel, the central idea in the book is an examination of the tension between silence and power. So, in that novel, you find that my protagonist, a journalist as the main character, must speak and write when he encounters this prostitute Iyese, who has been raped and ultimately killed by a military officer. I chose my main character to be a journalist whose duty is to write and report abuse. But for whatever reason, he does not tell the story of this marginal character Iyese. And, because he did not write about it, there is a coup d’état in the country, and this monster becomes the Head of State. People who do not know the story are out on the street celebrating that their savior has come. Well, their savior is a rapist and a murderer. There is that silence, and suddenly, you see the personal consequences of silence in Bukuru, the main character who ultimately exiles himself out of fear of the story he has not told. He exiles himself to the beach, the farthest he can run. Then his silence catches up with him because soldiers start gang-rapping prostitutes years later, and he is arrested as the perpetrator of these crimes. So, for the first time, he begins to tell his story. He paid a personal consequence.

There is also a collective consequence. The country is now saddled with a dictator as president or Head of State. So, I was always interested in reading, and some texts interested me. Let me speak about the personal aspect. When I finished college in Nigeria, I got my first journalist job. My parents sat me down and said to me, try to be a voice for the voiceless and look for truth and always speak it. People who have encountered most Nigerians and I have engaged me through my columns. I wrote weekly columns for several Nigerian newspapers for eighteen years. Nigeria is a country; one conceived in hope but nurtured by its leaders into hopelessness. Because of my parents’ conditions, I have always been aware that silence was not an option. I believe that it is my moral duty to speak up when there is injustice. My father acquired a book when I was in secondary school in Nigeria, a prison memoir by Wole Soyinka.

When I read the line, “The man Dies in all who keeps silence in the face of tyranny,” it struck me. Soyinka’s story in that book and in his life is a story of a refusal to keep silent regardless of how oppressive the power may be. When the quotient of tyranny is high, Wole Soyinka feels the need to speak more ferociously. So, in arrows of rain, I propose my scenario where silence, because of power, has consequences for the individual who remains silent and for a broader community. In my second novel, Foreign Gods, Inc. I was interested in so many questions. I was interested in the question of the immigrant story. America has this narrative that if you come in and put your head down, and you read and acquire, you take your vitamins and all sorts of things, that you’re going to do well, and we know that in some cases, that’s good. But in many issues, people have come, and they strive. But for something ineluctable like their accent, which is considered heavy, they cannot get a job, however brilliant they are. So, a lot of people end up driving cabs doing menial jobs to get by. So, I wanted to tell the story of the anti-American Dream narrative.

NPM: We have a lot of young Nigerians who may be aspiring to be great writers. What would you say is the biggest challenge that they will encounter?

NDIBE: If you plan to be a great novelist, you might set yourself up to fail. Do not plan to be a great novelist. There is a story that must be told. In “Arrows of Rain,” I say the story that must be told never to forgive silence. The disposition of status or reputation is something that no writer has control over. The only writers who can have a measure of say in how they become perceived are those who rig it. Some writers decide to make a spectacle of themselves. But it is almost an inorganic response to your creative potential.

So, if I set up to write a book where I say African culture is savage.Africans are bush people. Caucasians should rule the world. If you write that kind of book, you might attain a certain level of notoriety. People will start following you; many people who believe the nonsense you spew will like you and follow you. Or if you are Nigerian, and we all know that we have our cultural practices, we have our ways of marrying. Let’s say a young woman says, I’m not going to go to traditional marriage because it means that a man is buying me and then write the whole book about how I am stopping the tradition of buying a woman, which is a very ignorant view. If you write that sort of thing, there is a space in the world.

Some people are eager to hear that kind of story. But a story that is not true portrays a whole people and their culture as backward. So, there are all kinds of ways. If you say I want to be a writer who is noticed, then you should be writing something other than the story should be writing. So, to any young person, do not plan to be a great writer; be passionate about writing. Some writers have made a lot of money. In the last five years, two young African women and female writers got a million-dollar advance for their books. But only write to make money if you want to make money. There are other ways to make money. Money may come but do not say I want to make money by becoming a writer. That will be the wrong motivation. Above all, if you want to be a writer, be prepared to read.

NPM: I have heard the joke that if you wanted to hide something from a Nigerian, write it down in a book. So, what can we do to get more of our people reading?

NDIBE: It is essential to get young people reading. Parents should consider it so important that their kids’ lives depend on it. What I have done with my kids is start them early. So, when my kids were young, in fact, my older son, before he was born, I was reading to him. I will put my lips to my wife’s stomach and read a story to him. When he came out, his vocabulary was terrific as a young kid. And I remember one occasion, my wife and I drove with him to Washington, DC., and he talked nonstop. And so, start early. It pains me when I go to libraries; there are story hours in libraries and events in some libraries where people come and read to children. You see Caucasian kids there; you see Asian kids there. Many of our parents were too busy, but we went to a funeral, weddings, housewarmings, and all kinds of ceremonies. Still, we don’t invest in giving our kids, who are very, very brilliant, that leg up to compete in a world that is increasingly into education. The trick is to find a book that will draw your children.

NPM: The new generation of Nigerian writers is unduly influenced by Western culture. As a result, they are not using their talents to bring attention to Nigeria’s problems. Is my assessment correct?

NDIBE: Your assessment is accurate on some level. Profoundly. But also, it is symptomatic of a larger malaise. So, it’s not just in the creative industry. It’s what you find in the larger society. Some Nigerians have the means, and they charter airlines, and they come to Las Vegas for their birthday parties. Or they go to Dubai to buy a home. And there are politicians in Nigeria who have left Nigeria all messed up. They have stolen resources from Nigeria and will go to Dubai and buy a home. They will show off their homes in Dubai, the US, and so on. They forget that if they applied, they would exercise a measure of the same vision those people have; Nigeria could be a Dubai where other people would want to buy homes.

So, there is this idea that validation exists outside of Nigeria. If you’re going to write a story, and you want an American to read it, or the French to read it, or the British to read it, then you tell as little of your Nigerian story as possible. Then you latch on to the Western narrative or Western modes of storytelling because you want to dazzle the people who are native to that language, and you think that will make them pick you up. So, that is part of it. But I’m also satisfied that there are some writers. Unfortunately, they are less well-known because of their readership. But some writers are focused on Nigeria, Kenya, Liberia, and elsewhere in Africa, telling the African story and telling it with integrity and feeling and giving it the complexity, it deserves. They project both the problems of Africa as well as the promise.  

NPM: Tell us about your new novel that is coming out and anything else that you are working on for the next few years.

NDIBE: I am writing a novel, and the working title is Native Tongues. Some of my friends who read it like the title, and some do not. So, I am considering other possible characters. But its central character is an American anthropologist at a major Ivy League university in this community, where the deity in this book was stolen. He returned to this community every year and has been doing that for 20 years. When he discovers that the gods have been stolen, he learns what it means when a society loses its god. From that community, he is supposed to go to Kyoto, Japan, to give a keynote at a conference of anthropologists, but he still needs to show up. He is missing. So, his university hires a famous private investigator, a young woman who is Peruvian American, who solves mysteries from all over the world to go and figure out what happened to this man.

Much of the novel is about what she finds out. And she gets to the community to find out that the man has lived a double life. He has a wife in the community even though he has a wife in the US who is a well-known international photographer. When you read the novel, you find out why he did not want to go to Kyoto. He would have been exposed in a big way had he gone.

And then, at some point, I would like to write a memoir about all the mistakes I made as a young man. And how through the Grace of God, I tapped into the gift I was given as a writer. I would also like to write about my relationship with my wife. I used not to be a very good man. But I have been fortunate to be loved by one of the best people in the world.

NPM: Professor Ndibe, thank you for speaking with Nigerian Parents Magazine. It is an honor.

NDIBE: It is memorable and enjoyable when you are interviewed by people who have read your work. Usually, when Nigerian journalists interview me, I quickly find out they have yet to read any of my work. Thank you for having me.

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