Okey Ndibe (The Bat Segundo Show #532)

Okey Ndibe is most recently the author of Foreign Gods, Inc.

Author: Okey Ndibe


Subjects Discussed: The tendency of authors to gravitate to specific locations to find a city’s identity, Ndibe’s fictitious village of Utonki, Barclay Center’s encroachment upon Brooklyn, how eating fish can help you to better understand Nigeria, whether or not people who live close to water are more equipped to deal with life, conjuring up a novel from a 1,000 page draft, writing “the Great Nigerian Novel,” the Nigerian census problem, Festus Odiemegwu’s controversial remarks about Nigeria not having a reliable census since 1816, Nigeria as the third most populous nation in the world by the end of the 21st century, what the inability to track a population does to a national identity and a fictional identity, Nigeria as a country where absurdity makes sense, the disastrous Yar-Adua-Goodluck government, Nigeria ascribing honesty to criminals and criminal enterprises that masquerade as governments, Nigeria’s “honest criminals,” Gov. James Ibori’s 13 year sentence, bribery, American vs. Nigerian corruption, why it’s so difficult to end corrupt Nigerian politicians to jail, Ndibe’s arrest at the Lagos Airport, Nigeria’s Enemies of the State list vs. America’s No Fly list, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua and the do-or-die affair, Yar’Adua’s attempts to reach Ndibe after Ndibe refused to address him as President, anonymous messages sent to Ndibe in 2009 threatening arrest, decrying corruption and crime, the state of dissident writing in Nigeria, public and private media distinctions in Nigeria, the influence of journalism upon fiction, the lengthy italicized chapter in Foreign Gods, Inc., the impact of colonialism and religiosity on Nigeria, how certain events can encroach upon a reader’s experience comparable to imperialism, how past relationships between Europe and Nigeria affects current relationships, African artifacts, fuel and oil prices, spiritual implication, religious origins for a fictitious war god, settling on the right types of allegorical men to represent Nigeria, gourmands, poetic talkers, reformed Marxists, religion and performance artists, Igbo religious innovations compared against Christianity, the human qualities of gods in Igbo culture, why orthodoxy is incompatible with Igbo sensibilities, sectarian extremism in Nigeria, jihads against western values, rogue pastors, Nigeria’s 400 to 500 languages, Chinua Achebe’s No Longer at Ease, The Complete Review‘s pedantic review of Foreign Gods, Inc., Africans with considerable educational credentials who can’t get jobs in the United States, the common experience of educated immigrants shut out of the American job market (and trying to pinpoint why contemporary narratives don’t always consider Africans), American exclusion, the role of taste and experience in the editing process, the current renaissance of African fiction, how market conditions affect translated fiction, names and cultural differences, why Nigerian immigrants do better in the States than in England, Ndibe’s debt to Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, how Soyinka saved Ndibe’s Christmas, malfunctioning tape recorders, how Achebe brought Ndibe to the United States,


Correspondent: I wanted to start off from a very odd angle. James Joyce had Eccles Street. James Baldwin had, of course, areas of Paris and southern France. I couldn’t help but notice that in Foreign Gods, Inc., in concentrating on both Nigeria and Brooklyn, you look to very specific regions. In the case of southeastern Nigeria — that’s where you’re looking at — you have this fictitious village named Utonki.

Ndibe: Yes.

Correspondent: Which was also featured in Arrows of Rain, your previous book. And then for the Brooklyn stretch, you have 99 Flatbush Avenue, this second-story flat that Ike — I hope I don’t have the ass pronunciation.

Ndibe: It’s actually Eekeh. Ike [correct] is strength. ị́kẹ̀ [incorrect] is the buttocks.

Correspondent: Okay. I’ve got that right. So Ike, he lives in this second-story flat at 99 Flatbush Avenue. And I know that because my book drop is actually not far from there. What’s interesting about that is that if you go there now, you’ve got Barclay Center there. And it’s completely different from whatever regional inspiration you had when you first decided upon it. So I wanted to talk about Utonki and 99 Flatbush Ave as the representative area for which to draw a larger idea about what Nigeria is and what Brooklyn is, and why these particular places were draws for you and why it needed to start there.

Ndibe: Well, for Utonki, I wanted to set a location in Nigeria that is close to my hometown, which is Adamawa. Now in writing my first novel, I am drawn to water, to rivers and so on. And my hometown doesn’t have much by way of the river. We have a few streams. So there is a stream called Benue, which figures in this novel. So Utonki is actually based on a part of Nigeria that I had visited to see a friend of mine from years ago. And I was drawn there because this friend told me that the village is surrounded by this river and they ate a lot of fish. And I’ve always been a sucker for fish. So I went to his village and spent a whole week eating a lot of fish. So this becomes my hommage to this village where I ate fish and which is surrounded by water.

Correspondent: Where did you eat fish in Brooklyn then? (laughs) There’s a fish market downtown.

Ndibe: So in Brooklyn, I actually happened to have a cousin who lives in Brooklyn. And so the apartment and my description of it is my cousin’s apartment. But the address is different. My cousin lives on Lafayette, but I decided to name it a different address in the novel. So again, aware of having something, an image in my mind, but also inventing, as it were.

Correspondent: I’m still drawn to this idea of you in this Nigerian village eating fish and using this to zero in on what the country is about. What does fish eating allow you — and fish eating, of course, is a euphemism for something else as well (laughs) — but what does that do to get you to fixate your geographical energies in fiction? Or your sense of place on what it is to be a Nigerian?

Ndibe: Yes. Well, again, I’m intrigued by bodies of water. I’m intrigued by the ocean, by rivers, by lakes and so on. And so Utonki was, if you like — my mother in Nigeria is from Jimeta, which is on the banks of the river Niger, which is the grand river of Nigeria. And so I’ve always been intrigued by bodies of water, partly because I don’t swim a lake. I can’t swim to save my life. My wife actually was going to represent Nigeria in swimming at the Olympic Games. But I tell people that our winning record is for the fastest to sink to the bottom to any body of water. So in a lot of ways when I see water, or when I see a community with water, there is a part of me that wants to pay hommage to it. And so Utonki, which has a river but also brings me to that fish that I’ve always loved all my life. So if I have an ideal community, if I was going to make myself come from someplace, it would be a place like Utonki. So I invented it. So I would inhabit it, as it were.

Correspondent: This may seem a bizarre question, but it comes to mind in hearing you talk about being near bodies of water. Do you think that people who have a tendency to live near water tend to be more interesting than the people who live inland or who are landlocked?

Ndibe: I believe so. At least those who live close to water. Just like, for me, anybody who can swim becomes exceedingly interesting for me. Which is part of why perhaps I found my wife, Sheri, extraordinarily interesting. Just the fact that she can move with such ease, with such comfort, and with such gusto in water. So, yes, I do believe that those who inhabit the river, who live near bodies of water, are more resourceful. I don’t know if this can hold up to scientific scrutiny.

Correspondent: No.

Ndibe: But in my imaginative world, I think that this is true. Very much so.

Correspondent: It totally makes sense. I mean, I’ve lived pretty much near water in my adult life. I was in San Francisco, then New York. So I think we’re on the same level — even though I also recognize that this is a completely bizarre, tendentious principle. (laughs)

Ndibe: Yes. (laughs)

Correspondent: Speaking of location, I wanted to get into the contrast between Ike’s apartment at 99 Flatbush Ave, which you describe often very specifically. And near the end, we really know the geography of that place. Because some things happen, which I won’t give away, involving furniture. But after Ike’s first trip through the Lagos Airport, you almost avoid describing the look of Nigeria. I mean, we have a better sense also, for example, of the art dealer’s layout than the house late in the book where there’s all this basketball boasting. All these guys saying, “Hey, if you pay me that kind of money, I can go ahead and play like Michael Jordan.” I wanted to ask why that was. Do you think that Nigeria is marked more by this kind of general approach to existence? That, whether consciously or subconsciously, you’re going to just describe the country that way because there just are no specifics. I have a followup in relation to this, but I wanted to get your thoughts as to the level of self-awareness here and what it is to live and describe something that is often abstract.

Ndibe: Yes. Well, first of all, when I finished this novel, it actually came to more than a thousand pages.

Correspondent: Wow!

Ndibe: So there was a lot of editing. A lot of sloughing off huge swaths of the novel. And so when Ike’s plane is hovering over Lagos, there’s a long scene in the original draft of the novel where I describe how he sees Nigeria.

Correspondent: That’s fascinating.

Ndibe: In the original draft, he actually spends a week in Lagos with a friend of his who’s become very wealthy from doing all kinds of underhanded deals with the politicians and so on. And so we get to see Lagos, through Ike’s eyes, as his friend takes him to various parties of the rich and famous in Nigeria. All of those scenes became a casualty, if you like, of this huge cutting process. But that’s going to be worked into a different novel. Because I actually cut about 300 pages from the middle of the novel. And so I had Ike stay that night in a stop-off motel when, in the original draft of the novel, he spends a week in Lagos with this classmate of his who has a lot of money. So that’s one. But once he goes to his village, I guess there’s the sense of familiarity, the sense that he’s returning to a place where he was born. And so I allowed the novel to achieve, if you like, a sense of the unstated. So again, because this is filtered constantly through Ike’s consciousness, the village changes a lot when he returns to it. And there’s this classmate of his, Tony Iba, who has become a very wealthy, local politician and who has a sense that he’s giving back to poor people by building a small room where they can watch television and daydream about American life and so forth. So that kind of absence, if you like, of this particularity in the way that Nigeria is described owes to the process of editing that entailed a lot of cutting of details. And also the fact that Ike wants this in his village, the descriptions become physical locations muted, except in areas where he notes the dramatic changes in that landscape.

The Bat Segundo Show #532: Okey Ndibe (Download MP3)

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New Mayor, New Hysteria: De Blasio and Bratton’s Insane and Secretive War on Jaywalking

On Sunday, the New York Police Department put Kang Wong, an 84-year-old man, in the hospital. Wong was left bleeding in the streets. There were cuts to his face. His crime wasn’t murder or drug trafficking or robbery. It was jaywalking.

kangwongThe New York Post reported that Wong, who did not speak English, was approached shortly after he had crossed the intersection of 96th Street and Broadway against a red light. Wong walked away when the cop tried writing him a ticket. The police tried pulling him back. There was a struggle. And the violence began.

The NYPD has launched a crackdown on jaywalkers at this intersection — still in effect as of Monday afternoon — in response to three fatal accidents over a week. (Details on these deaths can be read at DNAinfo.) The most prominent fatality was Samantha Lee, who was struck by a red Dodge Charger sedan on early Saturday morning.

But the jaywalking crackdown, and the violence directed towards Wong, is completely out of proportion with the crime or even the jaywalking “epidemic,” as Mayor de Blasio referred to it on Monday afternoon. As The New York Times reported last March, New York’s traffic fatality rates are less than one-third of the national average and half the rates of other big cities. 286 people died in New York City last year, up from 2012’s 274 deaths. Yet this is still a remarkably low figure. Indeed, 2013’s tally was only 30 fatalities greater than 2010, when Mayor Bloomberg and Transportation Commissioner Sadik-Khan announced that it was the best year for traffic fatalities in the City’s history. (The second-lowest figure is 269 in 2011, just 17 shy of the 2013 “epidemic.” Historically speaking, New York is doing much better than the 471 traffic fatalities in 1910.)

Yet Mayor de Blasio is determined to rid New York City of all traffic deaths by 2024. Aside from the fact that such a statistic is completely impossible unless the streets are purged of all cars, there’s an even bigger problem: the program that de Blasio is drawing from doesn’t actually work in New York.

Vision Zero — a policy idea cribbed from Sweden that de Blasio was talking up last August — wishes to put an end to all traffic fatalities. But the considerable efforts by Scandinavians to curb death have had middling and often ineffectual results. Norway adopted a Vision Zero policy in 1999, but the number of traffic fatalities remained largely unchanged since. And while Sweden has seen traffic fatalities fall as low as 266 in 2010, New York is not Sweden. Sweden isn’t nearly as dense as New York. It doesn’t have nearly as much traffic. Moreover, 65% of Sweden’s serious accidents involve wild animals. Unless New York reduces its population density (not likely) and sees a sudden influx of Swedish moose hopping around the BQE, what works for Sweden is unlikely to work in the Big Apple.

Moreover, de Blasio’s attempts to enact policy predicated upon an unworkable fantasy has established a dangerous authoritarian precedent: a tactic that the newly reappointed Police Commissioner is bringing to New York from Los Angeles that is more about sponging offenders with frivolous $250 tickets and making their lives more of a hassle.

Mayor de Blasio and New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton are also working from illusory datasets for their new program. Bratton appeared at a press conference last Wednesday to promote Vision Zero, claiming, “Last year, pedestrian error — and I point this out — pedestrian error contributed to 73 percent of collisions.” The New York Times‘s J. David Goodman and Matt Flegenheimer — among other journalists — accepted this statistic without question, failing to follow up on where or how Bratton obtained this 73% figure. (On Monday afternoon, I spoke with Lieutenant John Grimpel in the NYPD’s public information about what data Bratton was drawing upon. Gimpel informed me that this came from an internal document from the Collisions Investigation Squad. I asked Lt. Grimpel if he would be releasing the data or the survey at a future date. “We’re not giving that out,” he said.)

On Friday, Streetsblog’s Brad Aaron did the work that other journalists couldn’t be bothered to perform, attempting to track the source of Bratton’s figure and reporting similar communications issues with the NYPD. Aaron pointed out that the 73% figure “doesn’t match up with any known dataset or the robust recent research into the causes of serious pedestrian issues.”

In other words, de Blasio and Bratton are using Scandinavian ideology that doesn’t work and basing their policy on statistics that they refuse to be transparent about and that look to be illusory.

When questioned by reporters on Monday about the crackdown, de Blasio stated that while there was no citywide crackdown, precinct commanders could act upon the issue. De Blasio also referred to pedestrian fatalities as “an epidemic we’re facing,” but refused to address the Wong case “until I have a better sense of it.” But if the Mayor cannot provide adequate data and transparent justification which explains why his jaywalking crackdown is a sane corrective, then he and his Police Commissioner are no better than other thugs who have persecuted the hoi polloi in the name of mass hysteria that they lacked the acumen to respond to.

As Philip Alcabes has pointed out in his thoughtful book, Dread: How Fear and Fantasy Have Fueled Epidemics from the Black Death to Avian Flu

When officials or entrepreneurs make use of an epidemic threat to create politically or financially useful lessons, they follow a long tradition. Medieval Christians burned Jews in hopes of warding off epidemics of plague; outbreaks of cholera in the mid-nineteenth century in England and America; early-twentieth century epidemics of plague in San Francisco were said to be caused by immigrants (Chinese and Mexican, respectively); and venereal disease epidemics have been attributed historically to “loose women.”

During his inauguration speech, de Blasio held up Fiorello La Guardia as “the man I consider to be the greatest Mayor this city has ever known,” citing La Guardia’s belief in the rugged individual. But his new policies against jaywalking are not only a shocking throwback to draconian police measures enacted by Mayor Giuliaini. These measures stand against La Guardia’s populist principles. (They are also a waste of police resources. When Mayor Rudolph Giuliani criminalized jaywalking in the late 1990s, pushing up the fine from $2 to $50, police rightly balked at having to waste their time. How many more manhours will be wasted because of de Blasio and Bratton’s ridiculous war?)

According to H. Paul Jeffers’s The Napoleon of New York, Mayor La Guardia stood adamantly against criminalizing jaywalking. In 1936, as the Nazi conflict escalated in Germany, La Guardia vetoed a bill passed by the aldermen that required police to arrest people for jaywalking. “I prefer the happiness of our unorganized imperfection to the organized perfection of other countries,” said La Guardia. “Broadway is not Unter den Linden.”

But maybe under de Blasio and Bratton, it is.


Operating Instructions (Modern Library Nonfiction #99)

(This is the second entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: Melbourne.)

mlnf99It is easy to forget, as brave women document their battles with cancer and callous columnists bully them for their candor, that our online confessional age didn’t exist twenty years ago. I suspect this collective amnesia is one of the reasons why Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions — almost an urtext for mommy blogs and much of the chick lit that followed — has been needlessly neglected by snobbish highbrow types, even when hungry young writers rushed to claim transgressive land in the Oklahoma LiveJournal Run of 2006.

Lamott’s book, which is a series of honed journal entries penned from the birth of her son Sam to his first birthday, was ignored by the New York Times Book Review upon its release in 1993 (although Ruth Reichl interviewed her for the Home & Garden section after the book, labeled “an eccentric baby manual” by Reichl, became a bestseller). Since then, aside from its distinguished inclusion on the Modern Library list, it has not registered a blip among those who profess to reach upward. Yet if we can accept Karl Ove Knausgaard’s honesty about fatherhood in the second volume of his extraordinary autobiographical novel, My Struggle, why then do we not honor Anne Lamott? It is true that, like Woody Allen in late career, Lamott has put out a few too many titles. It is also true that she attracts a large reading audience, a sin as unpardonable to hoity-toity gasbags as a man of the hoi polloi leaving the toilet seat up. Much as the strengths of Jennifer Weiner’s fiction are often dwarfed by her quest for superfluous respect, Anne Lamott’s acumen for sculpting the familiar through smart and lively prose doesn’t always get the credit it deserves.

Operating Instructions — with its breezy pace, its populist humor, and its naked sincerity — feels at first to be a well-honed machine guaranteed to attract a crowd of likeminded readers. But once you start looking under the hood, you begin to understand how careful Lamott is with what she doesn’t reveal. It begins with the new baby’s name. We are informed that Samuel John Stephen Lamott’s name has been forged from Lamott’s brothers, John and Steve. But where does the name Samuel come from? And why is Lamott determined to see Sams everywhere? (A one-armed Sam, the son of a friend named Sam, et al.) There are murky details about Sam’s father, who flits in and out of the narrative like some sinister figure with a twirling moustache. He is six foot four and two hundred pounds. He is in his mid-fifties, an older man who Lamott had a fling with. We learn later in the book that he “filed court papers today saying that we never fucked and that he therefore cannot be the father.” Even so, what’s his side of the story?

This leaves Lamott, struggling for cash and succor, raising Sam on her own with a dependable “pit crew” of friends. Yet one is fascinated not only by Lamott’s unshakable belief that she will remain a single parent for the rest of her natural life (“there is nothing I can do or say that will change the fact that his father chooses not to be his father. I can’t give him a dad, I can’t give him a nuclear family”), but by how the absence of this unnamed father causes her to dwell on her own father’s final days.

Lamott’s father was a writer who “died right as I crossed the threshold into publication.” His brain cancer was so bad that he could barely function in his final days. Lamott describes leaving her father in the car with a candy bar as she hits the bank. Her father escapes the car, becoming a “crazy old man pass[ing] by, his face smeared with chocolate, his blue jeans hanging down in back so you could see at least two inches of his butt, like a little boy’s.” It is a horrifying image of a man Lamott looked up to regressing into childhood before the grave, leaving one to wonder if this has ravaged Lamott’s view of men — especially since she repeatedly chides the apparent male relish of peeing standing up — and what idea of manhood she will pass along to her growing boy.

Part of me loves and respects men so desperately, and part of me thinks they are so embarrassingly incompetent at life and in love. You have to teach them the very basics of emotional literacy. You have to teach them how to be there for you, and part of me feels tender toward them and gentle, and part of me is so afraid of them, afraid of any more violation. I want to clean out some of these wounds, though, with my therapist, so Sam doesn’t get poisoned by all my fear and anger.

This is an astonishing confession for a book that also has Lamott tending to Sam’s colic, describing the wonders of Sam’s first sounds and movement, and basking in the joys of a human soul emerging in rapid increments. Motherhood has long been compared to war, to the point where vital discussions about work-family balance have inspired their own “mommy wars.” Operating Instructions features allusions to heroes, Nagasaki, Vietnam, and other language typically muttered by priapic military historians. Yet Lamott’s take also reveals a feeling that has become somewhat dangerous to express in an era of mansplaining, Lulu hashtags, and vapid declarations of “the end of men.” Men are indeed embarrassing, but are they an ineluctable part of motherhood? It is interesting that Lamott broaches this question long after Sam’s father has become a forgettable presence in the book. And yet months later, Lamott is more grateful for the inherited attributes of the “better donor” in “the police lineup of my ex-boyfriends”:

He’s definitely got his daddy’s thick, straight hair, and, God, am I grateful for that. It means he won’t have to deal with hat hair as he goes through life.

Throughout all this, Lamott continues to take in Sam. He is at first “just a baby,” some human vehicle that has just left the garage of Lamott’s belly:

The doctor looked at the baby’s heartbeat on the monitor and said dully, “The baby’s flat,” and I immediately assumed it meant he was dead or at least retarded from lack of oxygen. I don’t think a woman would say anything like that to a mother. “Flat?” I said incredulously. “Flat?” Then he explained that this meant the baby was in a sleep cycle.

But as Sam occupies a larger space in Lamott’s life, there is an innate ecstasy in the way she describes his presence. Sam is “a breathtaking collection of arms and knees,” “unbelievably pretty, with long, thin, Christlike feet,” and “an angel today…all eyes and thick dark hair.” We’re all familiar with the way that new parents gush about their babies, yet Lamott is surprisingly judicious in tightening the pipe valve. Even as she declares the inevitable epithets of frustration (“Go back to sleep, you little shit”) and trivializes Sam (“I thought it would be more like getting a cat”), Sam’s beauty is formidable enough to spill elsewhere, such as this description of a mountain near Bolinas:

So we were driving over the montain, and on our side it was blue and sunny, but as soon as we crested, I could see the thickest blanket of fog I’ve ever seen, so thick it was quilted with the setting sun shining upward from underneath it, and it shimmered with reds and roses, and above were radiant golden peach colors. I am not exaggerating this. I haven’t seen a sky so stunning and bejeweled and shimmering with sunset colors and white lights since the last time I took LSD, ten years ago.

Being a mother may be akin to a heightened narcotic experience, but that doesn’t have to stop you from feeling.

* * *

I suggested earlier that Operating Instructions serves as a precursor to the mommyblog, but this doesn’t just extend to the time-stamp. There is something about setting down crisp observations while the baby is napping that inspires an especially talented writer to find imaginative similes, especially in commonplace activities which those who are not mothers willfully ignore or take for granted. Compare Lamott and Dooce‘s Heather Armstrong (perhaps the best-known of the mommy bloggers) as they describe contending with a breast pump:

“You feel plugged into a medieval milking machine that turns your poor little gumdrop nipples into purple slugs with the texture of rhinoceros hide.” — Anne Lamott, 1993

“I end up lying on my back completely awake as my breasts harden like freshly poured cement baking in the afternoon sun.” — Dooce, February 23, 2004

Armstrong has sedulously avoided invoking Lamott’s name in more than a decade of blogging, but, in both cases, we see just enough imagery squirted into the experience for the reader to feel the struggle. Both Lamott and Armstrong have rightly earned a large readership for describing ordinary situations in slightly surreal (and often profane) terms. (Both writers are also marked in ways by religion. Lamott came to Christianity after a wild life that involved alcoholism. Armstrong escaped Mormonism, eluding to a period as an “unemployed drunk” before meeting her husband, who she subsequently divorced.)

Next Up: Ian Hacking’s The Taming of Chance!