It had been a while since I read a really good Nigerian novel and I had been hearing a lot of things about Nigerian American Okey Ndibe’s sophomore novel, Foreign Gods Inc. so last weekend, I got myself a copy of the book (you can do so here) and decided to settle down to an interesting read.
First a little background on Okey Ndibe. Born in Yola in 1960, Okey lived through the Nigerian civil war and served as a journalist and magazine editor in Nigerian till 1988 when he relocated to the United States at the invitation of no one but the great Chinua Achebe himself to serve as editor for newly formed magazine African commentary. His first novel Arrows of Rain was published in 2000 and 14 years later, he publishes Foreign Gods Inc. The amount of time between both novels is fantastical in itself but so is Mr Ndibe.
Foreign Gods Incorporated revolves around a character called Ike, a naturalised Nigerian who has lived in America for ten years and is currently a cab driver in New York City, this is as far as parallels between the character and author go. Ike is dissatisfied with his current lot, he is divorced after a tumultuous marriage entered with the purpose of obtaining a green card after he is unable to gain a good job following his graduation. The systematic racism of the American corporate system has left him jobless and having to work way below his means to eke out a living. Frustrated and looking for a quick out, Ike is casually turned towards an idea, one that catches fire in his mind and is slowly stoked into a conflagration: Travel back to Nigeria and steal the statue of your local deity, while somehow appeasing the family you left for America, return and sell it to the Americans, who are rich and obsessed with owning rare curios and live happily ever after.
Not to give any spoilers, the bulk of the book revolves around Ike’s struggles with this idea and his eventual succumbing to it and the aftermath of his decisions.
This is what I loved about the book.
- Okey Ndibe is a master of characterisation. He is able to oscillate between the lilting pidgin of Nigeria, the patois of Ike’s Jamaican neighbourhood and the lazy drawl of rich America. He never stumbles in his characterization; even the transient prostitute that comes up in two pages at the tail end of the book is just as compelling as Ike himself in her role. The downside of this is that sometimes the characters fall into stereotypical ruts, but even that happens rarely and before it can begin to rub against you, there is a shift in perspective to elevate the prose.
- There is a lot of commentary in this book. It’s a novel for Africans. Okey manages to explore the dichotomy many Africans who move abroad have to face if/when they return home, a kind of regression back to a culture when the corruption is more blatant and where everyone notices you as opposed to America where you are ignored. Ike adjust quite easily when he returns to Nigeria but he is appalled with himself at how easily he adjusts. Foreign God Inc. also exposes how fickle the West with it’s ‘open’ door policy can be towards Okey. Okey has a great result from a prestigious American university, but doors keep getting slammed in his face because he doesn’t have a ‘desirable’ accent and refuses or is unable to adopt a new one. The way he pines for conversation during his shifts cab driving, the way he is ignored by customers who in a country where there should be dignity in labour see him as less.
- The language. The prose of this book is fluid, and smart. Very smart. I was wowed a lot by this book.
These were the things I disliked.
- The end. Oh my God, the end! If I could have found Mr. Ndibe after I read the last sentence, I would have shackled him to his writing table and made him rewrite. The end was a let-down for me. The whole book built and built to a climax that just wasn’t there. This was one book where for once I would have preferred the theatrical ‘Nollywood’ end that we seem to forbid our writers from using. I would have preferred anything, no matter how cliché to the non-end of Foreign Gods Inc. But I have decided to console myself that the only reason he ended the book that way was in preparation for a sequel. If that is the case, I await, viciously.
- Caricatures. For whatever reason, the American characters of Foreign Gods Inc. were fleshed out, multi-faceted people. I understand that the bulk of the book and most of the relevant backstory happened in America, but even then it doesn’t excuse how ‘text book’ Nigerian, the Nigerian characters were. Shady prostitute with a waka pass role, Illiterate corruption politician with educated wife shipped to some European country, increasingly religious mother who utterly refuses to be reasoned with, poor abused sister who made bad choices and is currently poor, dibia uncle who still worships the old gods, new-age firebrand Pentecostal pastor who is actually a crook. These characters were familiar, too familiar; I’d seen them in hundreds of Nigerian films acting out this same scenario with this same 2 dimensional exploration of who they are and their motivations. I hated the caricatures and wished he’d done more with them, even if it meant an extra fifty pages.
I would recommend Foreign Gods Inc. because despite its short comings, it’s a brilliant book from a master and I have read it twice now (skipped the end the second time sha). Totally worth your time.