For Love of God, Love of Laughing

An interview with the Nigerian author and activist, Okey Ndibe, about the world reflected in his novel, "Foreign Gods, Inc."

Lagos traffic (Nick M, via Flickr CC).

It is rare for a novel to make you laugh about religion. Foreign Gods, Inc. is an exception. A young Nigerian named Ike has graduated with honors from the prestigious Amherst College in Massachusetts, but is forced to drive a taxi in New York City. He is not only broke, he is wracked with guilt, the kind that any good (or bad) Christian, Muslim, Hindu, pagan, or otherwise can understand: he has strayed from his family who sacrificed everything to send him to the United States and is regularly bothered about it via email by his sister, Nkiru. Sipping a beer, he reads “Mama’s Message”: “… For a few years now you haven’t sent Mama (or me, your only sister) any money. Mama wonders if you want us to eat sand. Also, Mama says she has been telling you that there’s an important spiritual matter she must discuss with you in person, face-to-face. It’s about your satanic Uncle Osuakwu. After killing Papa, he is now making diabolical plans against all of us, but especially you. Mama says it’s urgent that you come home as soon as possible. Then you will be fully informed of this demonic plot, and how to cancel it in the mighty name of Jesus” (45).

Ouch. So Ike hatches a plan to return to Nigeria to steal Ngene, the god of his village out from under his uncle, the shrine keeper (and servant of Lucifer, according to Ike’s mother), and sell it to Mark Gruels, the owner of the Foreign Gods, Inc. gallery in New York.

Ndibe has written a rich tragic-comedy with family drama, conflicts between old and new gods, and even history peppered throughout. He skillfully moves us from New York through Lagos (readers will relish, or shudder at, the scenes of customs) and Enugu to land at Utonki, where much of the plot unfolds. Utonki—its river, its people—becomes a living, changing, and dying entity described first through a chapter-long flashback of the encounter between villagers and the Christian missionary Reverend Walter Stanton, who arrived with a “retinue of soldiers whose guns spoke from two mouths at once” and “an interpreter whose skin was as black as the blackest person in Utonki” (99). The conversations in this triangular relationship formed between two foreigners—one white, one black—and the villagers turn on its head the idea that simple villagers accepted Stanton’s god because of worldly power. Indeed, the village women cajole and tease Stanton and his weak manhood mercilessly. Utonki villagers convert not because of Stanton but because of their own dialogue and debate over the meaning of the Word. Like his ancestors, Ike’s own skepticism begins to change as he deals with his mother, uncle, and Pastor Uka, a new missionary on the scene. Utonki has survived many a battle, but with poverty, rapaciousness, the cults of Kobe Bryant and Calvin Klein, how does the village preserve itself —through its gods, its returned sons and daughters, or history? Like anyone seeking salvation, Ike finds mystery and few solutions. But that mystery —existing alongside the basest corruption and consumerism — is what makes this novel unforgettable. The following is an interview I conducted with Ndibe about his book:

I laughed out loud when I was reading this book. From where you do get your sense of humor? Is it because the Gallup poll says Nigerians are the happiest people in the world? Are Nigerians actually the funniest people in the world?

I come from a culture — the Igbo people of southeastern Nigeria — and a country where humor is celebrated. Even when life leaves you all twisted up—indeed, especially then—you’re expected to retain this stubborn, deep sense of the world as a place of laughter. Whatever the event, then, people seem to insist on their right to have a good, resounding laugh. The only thing worse than death is to lose that gift. As a writer, reader and human, I’m always attentive to the exuberant, laugh-inducing elements of life. If I were asked to legislate for the world for one minute, I’d ordain a law that would make laughter a fundamental human right! Perhaps, then, the pollsters who, some years ago, declared Nigerians the happiest people on earth were on to something. Given all of Nigeria’s crises, the aborted promises, missed opportunities and absurd aspects of Nigerian life—a skeptic might say, these people shouldn’t be laughing so much; they have no reason or right to be this happy! To which one must respond that a sunny spirit should have no impediments—not class, gender, ethnicity, age or circumstance.

Is there anyone who is angry with you for writing this book? Because of its irreverence about faith, the American Dream, race, just about everything?

One or two reviewers—that’s all. One, a reviewer for a Christian magazine, accused me of setting out to render Christians as absurd out of a deep antipathy to Christianity. An absurd claim, since I happen to be a fairly reverent Christian. Part of my subject was to explore the various schemes and scams people conjure to exploit the unwary, the vulnerable and the gullible. I have great respect for the spiritual and sacred dimensions of the human experience. But I also know that some crooks and scam artists have refined religion into a tool for duping others.

Of all people, a young Nigerian reviewer detected racial animus in my portrayal of Walter Stanton, an English missionary in my novel! He wrote, this Nigerian reviewer, that Chinua Achebe’s indictment of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as a racist text could be applied to my work. My response to that colossal act of misreading, that species of absurdity, is—you guessed it—to laugh!

My students asked me how much of the novel was “true.” I asked them what they meant. They thought the corruption part was fictionalized and that the derisive attitude of Americans towards foreign accents was dated! I asked them what post-racial Obama world they live in?! Tell me about the world where this story happens. Who lives there—taxi drivers, wives for hire, palm wine drinkers?

That’s a fascinating question. In one sense, one could say that fiction is always “true” in its own way, but not in the same sense as a newspaper account of an event. Good fiction often reflects experience and recreates or projects social realities. It gives us the illusion, as we read, of being cast in the midst or hub of lived life. But it isn’t a simulacrum of life. A former student of mine at Brown University rang me after reading Foreign Gods, Inc. “You’ve written my father’s and my uncle’s stories,” he said. Then he informed me that his father earned an MBA, his uncle a masters degree, but both have driven cabs for more than twenty years—and not by choice. So, that was an interesting response. Yet, almost everywhere I read, especially in the US, some reader inevitably objects that one’s accent—however strong—would not put one in any disadvantage in America. I always tell such objectors to open their eyes and ears more. I challenge them: When next you’re in a big city in the US or Europe and your taxi driver happens to, quote and unquote, have an accent, initiate a conversation. In many cases, you’d find that the driver—who may be Asian, African or East European—has a degree or two—sometimes a doctorate. Often, you’d hear that they took to driving because their accent imperiled their efforts to get a corporate, teaching or government job. The scenes of my novel set in Nigeria demonstrate the same vital links between lived life and imaginative recreation. Those familiar with Nigeria are unlikely to argue that the Nigeria in the novel is unrecognizable. But I’m the first to stipulate that fiction, even when it deeply mirrors society, should not be viewed as an attempt to hand the reader a photocopy of some society. That would be to reduce fiction to an uninteresting map or manual, a false proposition. Fiction engages us deeply both because it reflects and projects experience at once. Fiction’s imaginative faculty is a powerful piece of equipment. It both affords the reader moments of affirmation, of recognition of the familiar (albeit powerfully recreated or rendered) and moments of transport to strange, unfamiliar, enchanting places and times.

Big Ed is a philosopher. And Ike is often dumbfounded. Which characters do you like in Foreign Gods, Inc.? Who did you love to hate along the way?

You’re right about Big Ed and Ike. I actually have varying degrees of affection for all my characters—because, whatever they’re doing, I find them fascinating. I find hypocrites and scam artists of all sorts revolting, so a part of me finds Pastor Uka repellent. But I love him as a character qua character.

I remember being a child visiting family in India, driving past white people dressed in Indian clothes and instantly registering them as missionaries. Do you think the postcolonial world can ever escape them? Are tales about missionaries in Nigeria bedtime stories? Why are they so deep in our consciousness?

It’s no exaggeration to say that missionaries reshaped us, remapped our lives, and changed our sense of space, time and identity. In Nigeria, missionaries remade indigenous gods into strange deities, supplanted in their originary spaces by a new, capital G God. Missionaries established the first formal schools, thus ushering in or imposing a certain kind of modernity—a time linked with the European world. Missionaries softened the ground for the emergence and flowering of colonialism. They saturated—and saturate-our lives, our sensibility, our literature—and our counter-hegemonic discourse.

I love this book because it doesn’t moralize. But is there a moral here? Should we be scared of Pastor Uka? Or Mark Gruels

I am extremely reluctant to instruct a reader on what moral lesson to draw from a text s/he’s read. All I can speak to are my own passions, interests, fascinations. I’m interested in the subject of greed. I’m fascinated by the ways in which relationships, ideas and values are repackaged as commodities for consumption. The human desire for hoarding, for accumulating more and more of what, in the end, we don’t need—I find that a terribly interesting subject. I had fun exploring these issues—and more—in Foreign Gods, Inc. And I explore them without—as you rightly noted—moralizing. Often, when a novelist moralizes, it’s out of an absence of confidence that the reader has the requisite acumen to get the point. I trust my readers to laugh and cry their way to whatever moral vision they discover in my work.

What do you make of religion and religious attitudes in Nigeria today? In a recent op-ed piece in the NY Times, the author says Southern Nigerians are disconnected from events in the North, namely the Boko Haram crisis. What do you think about the “North-South” divide that is often cited?

Boko Haram represents a particularly grave crisis for the Nigerian state. Unfortunately—in fact, I’d say tragically—some Nigerians have adopted the reductionist attitude that Boko Haram is an Islamic issue, a “northern” problem, even an exclusive plague for the residents of Nigeria’s northeast. Boko Haram represents a much more broad, certainly national challenge. It goes beyond the perversion of religion—the idea that God would mandate egregious, mindless acts of destruction and death to advance some vague divine program. I see Boko Haram as a quasi-religious facet of a larger, endemic crisis: the very deformation and incoherence of the space called Nigeria. I don’t think many Nigerians are ever able to articulate what their country means or stands for. Nigeria is an idea that’s largely vaporous, perhaps even vapid, and—for most Nigerians—an oppressive imposition. Two of Nigeria’s most important writers, Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe, have insisted on the unformedness of Nigeria. Paradoxically, Nigeria is most meaningful to those who run — or misrun — its affairs. And for them, Nigeria simply means a space they exploit and impoverish for their own aggrandizement and self-enrichment. Such an idea can’t sustain a viable, vibrant polity. If Boko Haram disappeared today, there is bound to emerge another violent movement that repudiates what Nigeria stands for — which, for now, is little if not nothing. Part of the antidote to Boko Haram, then, is that Nigerians must begin, seriously, a discussion around the idea that animates their aspiration for a national identity. Unless this discussion takes place, in an unfettered way, unless Nigerians determine the value of their shared experience and figure out the terms of their relationship, Boko Haram and other insurgent groups will continue to menace our lives.

Further Reading

Independence Day

The labor and political organizing of Somali immigrants in the US Midwest should inspire more Americans to join the broader movement for worker rights and racial equality.

The two Sudans

During the Cold War, Khartoum was very successful in frustrating international solidarity, especially by other Africans, for South Sudan’s independence struggle.