Author: Okey Ndibe
Title: Never Look and American in the Eye: a memoir of Flying Turtles, Colonial Ghosts and the Making of a Nigerian American
Publisher: Soho Press
Reviewer: Karabo K. Kgoleng
Okey Ndibe is ‘proudly Nigerian American’ having obtained his American citizenship several years after arriving in that country after a life that began in his hometown of Amawbia, where he spent his childhood perpetually dreaming about food and rich lands faraway. Okey and his friends initially dreamed of living in London, after which they overheard the adults talking about the promise of universal access to everything that one desired as promised by the idealised version of communism. Ndibe was fortunate enough, (unlike many school-going youth in South Africa today),in his impressionable youth, to be exposed to and inspired by the works of Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka and Ngugi wa Thiongo alongside western Classics by Shakepeare such as the likes of Bertrand Russel. This awaked the young Okey’s inner story teller and this lead him to the world of journalism and the literary arts. This gave him access to one of the greats, Achebe, and this paved his way to the United States of America.
I won’t go further in this writer’s biography as that would be giving away the contents of this funny memoir whose vocabulary includes word like synecdoche (come on, do you use that in your everyday language?) Ndibe drops names of literary celebrities all over the place and this gave me a sense of this man being one who may not be quite so confident in who he is as an eminent African writer in his own right. Perhaps this may have something to do with the fact that he has assumed two identities, American and Nigerian, and in my opinion, African memoir, more than fiction, tends to be mostly fraught with the issue of identity.
As a personality Okey Ndibe comes across as a bit of a paradox for me. While he portrays himself as one who has faced obstacles to becoming a writer by vocation, he often downplays his suffering, choosing, in my estimation, to write about how his luck by association landed him in what is an enviable life for many writers around the world. That notwithstanding, this is an easy read and although the language and style are a bit old school, you will zip through his life and want to start all over again.