If Chinua Achebe’s “There Was a Country” explores some historical experiences or existence on a personal and deeply felt level, then Okey Ndibe’s memoir is a sum of life that traverses certain lived memories of a writer. One would notice the growth of dreams, sacrifices, happiness and passing days of a writer’s years on a peculiar ground too. The parallelism comes from its chosen observation point: one can see that the writer admires Wole Soyinka, Tamas Aczel and Chinua Achebe. But on Achebe, the writer’s approach to the resolution that the great Achebe is capable of generosity and mistakes, as all humans, is directly felt.
As you turn the pages of “Never Look an American in the Eye”, the writer establishes himself in your mind as a weaver of words who pays attention to aesthetics too. Many outlooks on life’s experiences are captured in webs of profound yet simple articulations reminiscent of Achebe. In some instances, one finds the writer’s memories exploring a part of Soyinka and Achebe that only the memoirist is capable of showing.
A glimpse into the writer’s fascination for Britain (aka obodo oyibo), USSR, and America is taken at the beginning of this revealing memoir. A certain growth of curiosity comes with this fascination. It blends with the pages, guided and aided through many forms; every imagination, every little connection, every little reality. This touch of rising fascination for other countries is not an enigma here; it is a willing dream for the writer, the same way communism was a perfect escape from poverty for the writer’s years of young innocence. The writer, luckily with his encounter with Achebe, his failed first interview with him and then another grace from Achebe, redirected his American dream. Achebe made it possible by granting an option through a job.
For years, beginning from childhood, I had nursed a fantastical dream about living in the United Kingdom, the United States, or the Soviet Union. In 1988, it was as if, in one audacious move—and thanks to Achebe—America had outmaneuvered its rivals and emerged winner of a fierce three-way race for my affection.
If one critic’s observation that most African writers, if not all, are good at nonfiction is revisited here once again, one would see that it was an obvious case worthy of a nod. What this means is that there is a will to credit the element of truth in that assertion. There is also a need to hold back as a result of the fact that the conversation surrounding the distinct features of nonfiction or fiction is still ongoing, with the two genres getting interchanged and experimented in various forms. It comes often as a space filled with rather different but same lines. Truth holds inborn freshness to figmental thoughts or imagination. It declares African writers as truth-owners or something like that. It commands honesty, and it is easy to relate with the beauty and candor that surround this memoir. Okey Ndibe writes with pure relaxation because, in many ways, this is his truth and he is comfortable about it, more assured of his progress. A light moment of laughter sits on the chapters titled “Nigerian Going Dutch” and “On a Croc’s Back, American Bound”. Phases of humour and amusement fill most chapters. Laughing becomes a joyful need for the reader.
This book is an extraordinary work of pure fascinating moments. Having a local publisher for the book can make it an instant bestseller in Nigeria. It joins great memoirs that manage to give so much in few pages. The writer’s attempt to humanize Achebe, to bring him back to life, a kind of balanced narrative, is one of the many passages that hold great beauty and also an eye-opening account. Many illuminating passages flourish on the memoirist’s name which possesses funny stories to itself. This memoir proves to be the easiest access to the writer’s inner mind: one can either choose to measure this opportunity to fit directed path or learn to engage in this scintillating process as a reader. Either way, this is a sum of life, and every single sentence promises joy and knowledge to the reader.
When Basit Jamiu is not writing or surfing the net, he is reading J. M. Coetzee, V. S. Naipaul, Toni Morrison, Naguib Mahfouz and other greats too numerous to mention. He likes to eat, a fact you will find so hard to believe particularly if you are meeting him for the first time. He is @IamBasitt on twitter.