Title: Never look an American in the Eye: A Memoir
Author: Okey Ndibe
No. of Pages: 224
Publisher: Soho Press
Year of Pub.: 2016
Reviewer: Moyinoluwa Oripeloye
Never Look an American in the Eye is an enlightening book by the Nigerian-American author, Prof. Okey Ndibe. It is humorously trenchant, geographically precise and vividly holds the discomfiting realities of two centuries and countries fearlessly. Okey Ndibe’s memoir is about many things but mostly, the immigrant’s experience and assimilation in another man’s land. In fact, the first half of the title underscores one of the major issues he is faced with as an immigrant, which is ‘racism’. Set in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, it is worthy of note that all of Ndibe’s encounters with racism, the ghost of colonialism and cultural disorientation, are still common phenomena experienced in today’s world.
Never Look an American in the Eye tells the story of a spirited young boy as he grapples with the realities of the world and “drifts in and out of dreams”. He grows up with romanticized notions of the United Kingdom and later on America, shaped by testimonies of classmates who were wealthy enough to “smell” these foreign lands. Ndibe reflects on his life in this memoir as he tells the story of how through opportunities and providence, he wove his life from the poor boy that could not afford to keep up with fashion trends into the renowned literary icon he has become. This memoir takes its readers on the journey of how Ndibe assimilates American ideals against the backdrop of an America that was starting to begrudgingly accept Blacks as real people and a Nigeria held by the “egregious grasping” and “self-aggrandizement” of the then Nigerian government and how they have let the citizens down. He may also have suggested that from its leaders to citizens, corruption runs in the blood of all Nigerians.
His work is a brilliant exposé touching on issues of cultural identity and disorientation, neocolonialism, racism, African stereotypes and the immigrant’s experience amongst others. The plot, mostly linear save for the narratives where Ndibe gives a back story to the ongoing action further overstates his credibility as a great writer. Due to the expressive mix of language, the readers will instantly be transported to Ndibe’s newly independent Nigeria and the world at large at the turn of a new century. His choice of lexis coupled with brilliant renditions of dialogue is displayed with such flair only a talented author like him possibly could. He is a superb storyteller whose words in their dazzling blend take the readers on historical, political and literary discourses that would make them stop to think how much varying, indispensable life knowledge they could possibly get out of one memoir.
He as well paints an easy, breathable culture of literary connections where you could have ease of access to an Achebe or a Soyinka. His narrative style is inundated with rich inclusions of gaudy imagery that would have the reader lean in and hear as Chinua Achebe speaks in his soft voice “…as if words were fragile things liable to shatter should he raise his voice”. When his memoir is read, if nothing else strikes the reader, this does; that Okey Ndibe has to be a witty man in person and is most definitely a witty writer as his piece is dotted with numerous comical episodes that warm the readers’ hearts towards him. One of these instances of wit is the amusing mixing up of Okey and okay a couple of times by people around him and even himself at a point. As is usually the case with African writers, Ndibe selects an array of rich terms from both English, and Igbo, his native language. The readers will likewise be thrown into awe of how deftly he showcases Nigerian cultural tropes such as storytelling, myths, rituals, traditional marriage culture, the importance of familiarities and growing up in an African environment where eating of rice is part of Christmas celebration, to mention a few. Finally, it is the story of the taming of “the romantic equivalent of the floating Muhammad Ali” which in Ndibe’s case is him giving up his playboy lifestyle to settle with his love, Sheri Fafunwa.
The reader will agree that even if it is a memoir, the premise is brilliant. Any reader who appreciates literature will find it very easy to understand his sentiments, actions and inactions when he sets his eyes on Chinua Achebe for the first time or the giddiness in his heart when he is able to share his manuscript with Soyinka for an assessment. In addition, he writes himself as a relatable protagonist as what Nigerian youth has not at a point in their life dreamt of endless possibilities in Obodo Oyibo? The readers will also find his writing very exquisite and his diction creating an atmosphere where his voice can almost be heard reciting his history as they leaf through the pages of his memoir.
The narrative is dotted with complex words that could break the average reader’s attentiveness due to the fastidious endeavour required to comprehend the momentum of the story. But, all in all, if a reader enjoyed Buchi Emecheta’s Second Class Citizen, and Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah, Okey Ndibe’s masterpiece would prove a smooth read.
Moyinoluwa Oripeloye, a student of English in Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife is the co-editor of The Volunteer, the annual magazine of The Nigerian Red Cross Society, OAU Detachment. She continually seeks avenues to take up space in the literary and volunteer worlds.