Tuesday, July 19, 2016
Book Review: Never Look an American in the Eye: A Memoir of Flying Turtles, Colonial Ghosts, and the Making of a Nigerian American by Okey Ndibe
I love memoirs! They take me to places and into situations where I would never be, they're honest, and they encourage empathy. I haven't read much in the way of fish out of water/international memoirs but I thought this one looked good (what a great title!) and it is a book published by my new company and I will be with the author at NEIBA this fall, so I figured I'd better give it a shot! And it was quite enjoyable.
Okey has a wonderful sense of humor. I doubt I'd have been able to take half the things that happened to him in such stride and with such goodwill as he does. But I'm sure his positive outlook is a big part of what has taken him so far in life. For me, I particularly liked the first half of the book, when he is growing up in Nigeria, and his first few weeks in America. He comes here in order to start up a magazine for Africans and Nigerians specifically, founded by his friend Chinua Achebe. The funding is iffy from the very beginning and once again, his humor and positivity prove a boon as he negotiates with vendors and pleads with writers with long-outstanding invoices. Eventually it does fold, but by then he's gotten a toe-hold in Boston and a friend greases the path for him to enter into a prestigious MFA program right away.
I wasn't as crazy about the rest of the book which was more episodic and not as linear as the first two-thirds. I wish he'd told us how he met his wife and kept along with the "making of a Nigerian-American" theme of him coping with homesickness and culture clashes. He does tell funny stories about misunderstandings (several related to how his first name sounds exactly like "Okay" and therefore mix-ups occur, such as when his ride at a conference asks a stranger, "Are you Okey?" and he hears "Are you okay?" and says yes, when he is not Okey Ndibe.) These were endearing and charming, but lost the narrative thread. That said, he gives a great idea of what it's like to move from Nigeria and land in New York City in January without a coat (his family back home found the concept of "cold" as a weather description so foreign, the only way he could explain it was that it felt like living inside a refrigerator.) And I adored him talking about his first night at a mutual friend's apartment, where he used every single soap and shampoo that he found in the guest bathroom, repeatedly. It felt so gloriously decadent! This was an amusing tale that could have been fraught with terror and horror stories (he was rounded up by police from a bus station his very first week in America because he "fit the description" of a bank robber) but instead, Okey accepts his adopted country with its faults and strengths, and cheerfully gathers up more funny stories for his next cocktail party, and presumably for his next book as well.
This book is published by Soho Press, my employer.