Never fear. Never Look an American in the Eye, Okey Ndibe’s memoir of living in the United States, is not an angry, anti-American screed as its title perhaps implies. Nor was it Ndibe who initially made the observation but his uncle—before he left for the United States—who made the remark to him, adding, “Americans can’t stand any stranger looking them in the face. They take it as an insult. It’s something they don’t forgive. And every American carries a gun. If they catch you, a stranger, looking them in the face, they will shoot.”
Of course, this worries Ndibe, in his late twenties, about to depart for Amherst to become the editor of a new publication, African Commentary, for Chinua Achebe. It’s 1988, and although his uncle’s warning leads to a number of uncomfortable moments for the newly arrived Nigerian, mostly they are rendered comically (as is much of the memoir). The first night in Amherst, all alone in the house provided for him, he is frightened to death. “Some gunman, I feared, might be prowling in the dark, in absolute anonymity, scouting me out. The fear exasperated me, but I felt powerless to dispel it.” He doesn’t sleep a minute. And four days later, when he’s in downtown Amherst after he has forgotten the warning and looked a policeman in the eyes, he totally panics, convinced that the man will shoot him.
It’s all a crazy mix-up because there’s been a bank robbery, and Ndibe fits the profile of the robber. The policeman asks him, politely, “Sir, do you mind if I frisk you?” That’s even more frightful because Ndibe has never heard the word “frisk.” When asked for identification, Ndibe says his passport is at home. The policeman says he’ll drive him there, which escalates his fear that he will be killed out of everyone’s sight. At the house, two of Achebe’s children have appeared, and when they ask him why he’s come with the policeman, he responds, “I have been arrested for bank robbery,” setting off an entire katzenjammer series of ludicrous misunderstandings. Welcome to America, as Ndibe finally realizes that his uncle’s warning was based solely on watching too many Hollywood westerns. If someone looks you in the eye, you shoot him.
Just as Ndibe came to America with misconceptions about the country, he chronicles the numerous misunderstandings Americans hold about Africa. The most obvious one still persists today: Africa is one country called Africa. “How many times did Americans tell me they had an African friend I must know, their confidence based on the fact that their friend’s father was an important man in Africa, a lawyer, say, or a dentist?” Or, “How many times was I asked how it was sleeping in Africa at night, with all that racket from lions, baboons, and monkeys, to say nothing of the slithering venomous snakes and a myriad nameless gnomes and goblins?” Although he makes light of these stereotypes, Ndibe states, “Africa remains in the imagination of some Americans a vortex of disease, an area of vestigial darkness and residual mystery.” Correction: most Americans.
Ndibe has encountered numerous mix-ups because of his given name, pronounced okay. In spite of his brief three-year editorship of African Commentary (with funding for the publication so dire that he often felt he was “working week after week for groceries,”) he stuck it out in the United States, completed an MFA at UMass with the help of John Edgar Wiedman, and became an American citizen in 1996. Numerous times, he writes glowingly of being an American citizen. “Naturalization is not a loss-gain dialectic but a gain-gain proposition. In me, Nigeria and the United States don’t find a battleground. Instead, they find a new momentum, a harmonic hyphenation: I am proudly Nigerian American.” Like numerous other Nigerian writers down through the decades, he has chosen to live in the United States (and seek citizenship) rather than return “home.”
Nowhere is this gifted writer more at home with himself (and in the world he has made for himself) than in his account of his father’s nearly fifty-year correspondence with an Englishman he met when they were both fighting in Burma during World War II. For forty-eight years after both returned to their respective countries, the two men carried on an unlikely correspondence. “Theirs was a friendship that breached several barriers. The most obvious was the ironclad sense of hierarchy in the army, perhaps the most hierarchical institution invented by man. There was also the taboo of race, embodying all the historical distrust between white and black. There was the line of religious affiliation: Tucker an Anglican prelate, my father a Catholic. Then there was the salient fact that, in the late 1940s, Tucker’s country held my father’s in colonial subjugation. Were Tucker to visit Nigeria in those heated postwar years, there were many clubs in which my father would not have been able to drink with the Englishman.”
The two men never saw one another a second time. But then one day in 1994, Ndibe made the wise decision that he should arrange a conference call for the three of them (father in Nigeria, his son in the United States, and Tucker in England). What a loving gesture, especially since his father would die two years later. And still later, when Ndibe was in England, he visited Tucker and his wife. “What moved me…was to see how two ordinary men had done extraordinary things; how they had salvaged something beautiful from the ravages of history; how, transcending their own narrow biographies, they enacted a friendship that could not be quenched neither by distance, time, war, nor for that matter, by death.”
Ndibe comes across as a real mensch. I’ve men him briefly twice and regret that our frantic lives—with emails replacing letters—have become only one symptom of our impersonal times. His memoir could not be more enjoyable.