Tuesday, January 21, 2014

An Immigrant's Tale: Ike, Rejected And Desperate

 AMBROSE EHIRIM

Foreign Gods, Inc.
By Okey Ndibe
Soho Press, 330 Pages; $25.00


Okey Ndibe signs his new book, Foreign Gods, Inc. for Ugandan Tea and Dairy farmer, James Nagenda at Book Soup Wednesday, January 15, 2013. Ehirim Files Images


I had walked into Book Soup on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood, California Wednesday, January 15, 2013, while Okey Ndibe had stepped in ahead of me; and I had called him by his first name and, he had looked back, not sure who that was. We embraced, introduced ourselves and shook hands.

I had arrived early to the 7:00 PM book signing and reading event. My early arrival was to see if I could land an interview with him, and ask him questions of what had inspired his attempt to write about Ikechukwu and his plight, umuagbara, agwuishi na amadioha. The timing wasn't there for such interview. I had kept to time and had expected a turnout huge enough to explain the fact that African literature and cultural heritage is no joke, and with praises for the book -- Ngugi wa thiong'o, Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, Chika Unigwe, Francisco Goldman and others -- that kinfolks, Nigerians and Africans in general would pop up to show their support. They did, and I was impressed.

Turning out well as it did, even though as the author narrated in his storytelling and reading sessions, and his experiences which was partly memoir, on the shores of America when he had arrived the New England states, he pointed out Nigerians are very special when it comes to being prompt at events, that they have always been on time, regardless of when they show up, and that whenever they surface, it indicates the right time, and for instance, the book signing and reading scheduled to have commenced at 7:00 PM prompt, got Nigerians coming at their own pace and time, which was indeed appropriate.

In fact, if you read through Foreign Gods, Inc., while Ike had visited home, he had held an argument with his mother about being prompt in attending church services, and on one given Sunday, Ike had made it clear when the arguments raged on and he had said: "Yes, if any people will attempt to keep God waiting, it has to be Nigerians. And since God created us that way, He's likely to show understanding."

Ndibe's point was clearly observed upon his storytelling when what he had been saying became obvious -- the tardiness and Nigerians showing up in hours behind scheduled time and, which he recalled, they have always been on time, no matter what time they had arrived, even if it's hours way too late. "They are always on time," Ndibe joked, and that would crack up the audience.

Unlike Ndibe's first novel Arrows of Rain published in 2000 which had stuff to do with the state of empire and anarchy, telling the story of a young woman who had run to the sea and had drowned, and had made Bukuru, a person of interest since Bukuru had been the last person the young woman had talked to before she committed suicide, and from Bukuru's "shocking revelations," the case took a twist turn.

In his new novel Foreign Gods, Inc., Ndibe finds himself very comfortable writing a Nigerian immigrant's story, told from a variety of instances with the plots remarkably well done.

Ndibe's protagonist, Ikechukwu Uzondu, and "Ike" as he would be known, had gone to one of the prominent schools, Amherst College, and had earned a cum laud in Economics, and as could be seen, had cleared an academic hurdle which should have him situated and solvent for the rest of his life, and the expectations of a Fortune 500 companies concretely established which was to have stood for the ideal substitute for hard work and realization of the American dream.

The story would turn out different. Ike would encounter a long spell of misfortunes from bad relationships to gambling, alcoholism and a variety of wrong choices and bad decisions.

Ndibe had pulled out a lot of absorbing characters and scene as part of the story's suspense. There was Mark Gruel, who ran the Foreign Gods Inc. gallery where Ike had looked forward to make his fortune after he had returned from his native Utonki with the deity, the god of war, Ngene. There was Big Ed Thelwell, his neighbor whom he had shared his fate with and who had always comforted him to loosen up, that it wasn't the end of the world and that, he should take things easy. There was Cadilla who ran the neighborhood convenient store Ike normally stops by for some chats and a grab of his six pack odeku, Guinness. He hated the joint for its rowdiness with the knock-around kids in the hood.

There was Usman Wai, the first African Ike had met when he moved to New York to continue with his cabbie business and Queen Bernita never liked Wai for a minute, accusing him of supplying Ike with "wide ass Zulu bitches." There was also Jonathan Falla, who had mailed Ike the New York magazine which originated the story. There was, too, Reverend Walter Stanton who had used his charm and wits to convert the Nd'amala

There was Nne Ochie, Ike's paternal grandmother, loathed by Ike's own mother described as a witch who had caused all the misfortunes in the family and had warned Ike to refrain from any kind of contact with his granny and uncle Osuakwu. That line of story turns out different, too, as one reads on. Pastor Uka, the evangelist had brainwashed Ike's mother converting her from the Catholic Church to the Pentecostals and had bilked most of the money Ike had sent her in the name of delivering her from the evils that had possessed her, comparing Ike's uncle Osuakwu to the Biblical Ahab and his granny, Nne Ochie, the Jezebel of the Biblical times.

When Ike was in college, there were promising times he needed to have kept his cool, going with the flow until he was grounded enough to overcome his predicaments. He could have had the break he had desperately needed when he had befriended one Penny Rose who was daughter of a medical doctor, Dr. Earl Rose, and who (the medical doctor) had cautioned his daughter over marrying an African when there were many African Americans and other nationalities out there. Ike was pissed and took it personal. He had felt the discrimination against him and the talk down on his personality and ethnicity was another blow. Years later, news would reach Ike that Penny had married then "Senegalese engineering student Diallo Dieng."

In what had begun in New York as Ndibe begins his story, and from tales about deities Ike had read from the New York magazine that whoever "acquires a deity becomes the deity's parent," and inspired with the idea to travel to his native Utonki and embezzle the deity which would dramatically turn things around for him, becoming wealthy and life full of uncertainties, a thing of the past. Ike drove a cab and had been desperate.

Ike's woes would continue apace as Ndibe tells us in what he described as "food money," the cash Ike had been sending to his mother and his sister Nkiru, but would stop abruptly when Queen Bernita came into Ike's life. Queen Bernita was just a freak. She loved sex and loved to shop, which had blown Ike's mind away. Ike kept pacifying Queen Bernita to get his legal standings straightened up. Queen Bernita was a nightmare.

While Ike's silence had bothered his mother and sister Nkiru, especially, when the "food money" stopped coming and Ike's decline to reply to the numerous e-mail letters Nkiru had sent to him on behalf of her mother, and always titled "Mama's Message" he had ignored for a long while. One of the letters moved him and he took that bold step to do something. The damning letter had woken Ike up. And, for sure, the most recent one, he opened which read;

Mama asked me to remind you, that you are your late father's only son, that your sister has gone away to her husband, and Mama doesn't know when the good Lord might call her to His glorious kingdom. Mama is sad that, at your age, you have no wife and no son to take your place if anything should happen (God forbid!). Since you don't seem to be concerned, Mama is looking into it for you (a wife). So make arrangements to come home soon, unless you don't care what happens to your father's compound and to the poor woman who gave birth to you. For a few years now you haven't sent Mama (or me, your only sister) any money...

Very typical, emotional and unquestionably a missive that takes one into the realm of reality, Ike fired back because it touched him. In between reading his sister Nkiru's e-mails, he was getting drunk and emotionally constipated. He eventually replied with a one-liner: "Dear Nkiru, Tell Mama that I will come home within a week. Love, Ikechukwu."

A typical immigrant story, Ndibe's Ike arrived Nigeria after eleven years or so, of his sojourn, and found out nothing much changed since he's been gone. Bribery and corruption was still widespread while he was shuttled from the Murtala Muhammed International Airport to his hotel room. He noticed one thing though, from his long absence. His friend from back in the secondary school days, Donatus Adi, had become wealthy enough for his kids to be borne abroad, which would make him more desperate than ever, a typical life event Ndibe had brought in.

Ndibe's story becomes achingly sad when Ike finally arrives with the agwuisi, the Ngene, to Foreign Gods, Inc., and had to plea bargain on the worth of the deity. It was not worth it and Ike did not make it.

Nobody was really sure if Ndibe was telling a real life event from some parts of the passages, or maybe partly memoir about his own self, or just a novel from his thoughts about an immigrant who had to go through stages of life's endeavors from what had struck him in childhood and the myth that accompanied it -- feeling of the storm and waves and what had gone down in between meetings at his uncle's Shrine -- is something only Ndibe can tell us.

Foreign Gods, Inc., unquestionably, is the stuff of life, the stuff of great literature and Ndibe delivered! "Isee!"
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