Never Look an American in the Eye

Okey Ndibe

Soho Press, £18.99

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Review by Nick Major

ALL novelists lie through their teeth to tell the truth. The sprightly Nigerian writer Okey Ndibe, author of Arrows of Rain, knows that more keenly than some. In his uplifting new memoir, Never Look an American in the Eye, he recounts his first attempt at writing a novel. In 1988 he was working as a journalist for the African Guardian. He was on a flight from Lagos to Enugu when Dillibe Onyeama, author of Nigger at Eton, sat next to him. Onyeama had read Ndibe’s journalism and said: “You must be writing a novel, right?" Ndibe, wanting to impress, answered in the affirmative. When Onyeama told him to submit the manuscript to his publisher, Ndibe decided he better write something, and quick.

It was an interesting year for the writer. Shortly after this encounter on a plane, Chinua Achebe asked Ndibe to be the editor of a new journal called African Commentary. Ndibe gave up his job as a journalist and emigrated to America. Thirteen days later he was almost arrested on suspicion of bank robbery. The policeman who stopped him suggested that he plead guilty but left out the details of the crime. Ndibe, thankfully, denied any wrongdoing. In his mind, however, the crime he thought he had committed was the sin his Nigerian uncle had told him about: looking an American in the eye.

Ndibe’s memoir is full of bizarre anecdotes like this. His writing can induce the sort of laughter that make the ribs ache. He explores the discrepancy between dreams and reality, and how contrasting cultural etiquettes can make the most normal situations seem alien. After 28 years in America, Ndibe is still baffled about why Americans plan their social engagements. In Nigeria, friends and family don’t need to make arrangements to see one another. At the beginning he writes of his native Igbo culture and his early dreams of America – influenced, oddly, by watching professional wrestling. When he matured, so did his imagination. He was intelligent enough not to study literature at university. Instead, he took a degree in Business Administration and spent his time in the library reading the great African writers, like Ngugi Wa Thiong’o and Wole Soyinka, and the American writers James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison.

This autodidactic impulse paid off. He became a great raconteur. He may approach life with a mischievous look in his eye, but after finishing this book you know Ndibe is a deeply serious writer. He is all too aware, for instance, of how difficult it is for a black person to survive in the new world. He had some strange notions of America before he went. They were nothing compared to the ignorance he encountered on arrival. Tired of hearing stereotypes about "the dark continent," Ndibe once told a colleague he rode across the Atlantic Ocean on the back of a crocodile to get to The States. How else would an African travel? It was a lie he didn’t think would ever be mistaken for the truth. How wrong he was.