When acclaimed author Okey Ndibe was growing up in rural Nigeria in the 1960s, he fantasised about visiting America, Britain and the former Soviet Union.
Eventually, it was the US that became his new home. His most recent book, Never Look an American in the Eye: A Memoir of Flying Turtles, Colonial Ghosts, and the Making of a Nigerian American, maps his journey.
Like the book title, the chapters have intriguing headings such as On a Croc’s Back, Will Edit for Food and Wole Soyinka Saves my Christmas.
Ndibe begins his story in 1960 in Nigeria, the year he was born and the country attained Independence. His narration is charming interspersed with humour, a sprinkling of folktales from his youth, and a rich vocabulary.
Growing up in a strict Roman Catholic family, which he says was poor but happy, and, with few material possessions, Ndibe let his imagination run wild.
At university, he was a lukewarm business student who preferred novels and literature to classwork.
Upon graduating, he worked as a journalist in Lagos. It was during this time that he met the renowned Nigerian novelist, the late Chinua Achebe.
Achebe later invited him to become the founding editor of the US-based magazine, African Contemporary. As Ndibe was embarking on his immigrant journey to America in 1988, his uncle gave him advice that inspired the title of this book.
It is interesting to read about Ndibe’s close associations with Achebe and Wole Soyinka, the first African Nobel laureate.
Equally absorbing are the funny anecdotes about the culture shock he experiences in the US, like nearly getting arrested on suspicion of robbing a bank, Americans’ fetishes about their pets, misunderstandings about personal space, and stereotypical attitudes about Africans and Africa. Over the years, his unusual first name has caused much confusion and amusement.
The African Contemporary constantly operated at near bankruptcy, forcing Ndibe to beg for rent money and deal with angry unpaid writers.
After three years, the magazine folded. Ndibe then managed to complete both a Masters in Writing and PhD in Literature from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
The book is not in chronological order: Ndibe talks about his life through vignettes that meander between the present and past, sometimes in a disorderly fashion.
He tells of the tender yet unconventional relationship between his parents who took cold baths together and held hands in public. But we learn little about his marriage and family in America, so that side of the story feels underrepresented.
Beyond recounting his life, he reviews the reasons behind key events, questions around identity, colonialism and culture clashes.
Secretly reading letters of correspondence between his father and a retired English missionary he met in Burma during World War II are driven by his “desire to deepen his self-knowledge.”
He is a natural raconteur with an ability to make anyone understand the challenges and achievements of the newcomer in the US.
His musings on the socio-political woes of Nigeria, which informed his decision to seek American citizenship, are frank but not overly bitter.
“Naturalisation is not a loss-gain dialectic but a gain-gain proposition… I am proudly Nigerian American,” he writes.
Sometimes his contemplations become long-winded, which slows down the lively narrative. Nevertheless, there is familiarity in Ndibe’s life story that African readers who have lived in and travelled to Western countries can relate to.
Never Look an American in the Eye won the 2017 Connecticut Book Award in the nonfiction category.