The immigrant’s journey is familiar terrain for Rudolf Ogoo Okonkwo, as shown in the Introduction to ‘This American Life Sef’, a collection of five essays and two short stories. He recounts an encounter on his first flight out of Nigeria. “Where are you going? What for? When are you coming back home?”asked a man seated next to him on the plane, who let it be known that he was tired of living in the US, and was soon to relocate to Nigeria. “These were things I dismissed with a wave of the hand before they take root in a mind that was determined to get to America,” recalls the author. He knows better now, and says of his book, “This is my little contribution to the desire by many to shine a light on this American life.”
Fine pieces of creative non-fiction, the essays open with ‘I Will Marry When I Want’ and an observation: “Everywhere I look, I see children of Africa who have become ghosts of their former selves… The only gap between their American dream and their American nightmare is their American experience.” The essay focuses on the “perennial struggle” between the African man and woman in “America, their America.” Allusions to Chinua Achebe, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o and JP Clark are not lost on the reader, as the author maps the battle of sexes which pits women against men that want to stick to outmoded ‘African’ gender dynamics. “Is America so full of only Okonkwos? What happened to the Njoroges?” the author asks.
Achebe is the greatest influence on the book; and if we ever wondered what would happen if the hero of ‘Things Fall Apart’ had gone to America, the last piece in the collection (‘The Butcher, the Surgeon and I’) gives some pointers. The protagonist, Okonkwo, has become ‘Okons’ and is banned from speaking in proverbs in his own home. As the protagonist laments, “My father would have considered my situation one in which dying would have been a better option.” The second essay, ‘Saving Mama Udoka’, is about a downtrodden Nigerian woman’s long road to liberation in America. “My life is what some will call ‘girl, interrupted’,” she says. “Her husband kept her at home and turned her into a baby-making machine. She has given birth to three kids in three years,” we learn. The unfeeling husband may have been changed by his experience with the first wife he married for a green card. But thanks to television soap operas and shows like Jerry Springer and Oprah, Mama Udoka knows she deserves better. “I, too, have my life to live. The sins of another woman should not be visited on me.”
Mama Udoka’s story is framed by the authorial voice, introduced by a community leader, and then told over four pages by the woman herself. But all three voices sound virtually the same. And would Mama Udoka go into so much detail about her life at a bus stop, to a man she has only just met? This is perhaps one essay that would have resonated better as short fiction.
Okonkwo’s wry humour is at its satirical best in ‘Just Before You Kill Your Wife’: “Ignoring that warning written on the gwomgworo 911 lorry plying the Onitsha-Nsukka road… ‘Fear Women’. You did not fear women.” The ‘You’ being addressed, is the emasculated husband of a promiscuous wife. She is “threatening to divorce you and take you to the cleaners. You have said to her that if it were Africa, you would have married an additional three wives.”
But this is America, and breaking free of a difficult wife will not be easy – custody of the children, alimony, child support, the house – he stands to lose everything. And just in case his thoughts veer towards freedom by spousal homicide, the narrator counsels: “Before you kill your wife, pay off what you owe the Igbo organisation of your city, including the Igbo House Project so that if you die in prison they may send your body home.”
In ‘This American Life’, a dentist is the grim reaper of tooth after tooth as the essay runs through the gamut of immigrant life, including a recurring trope in the book: a house built back home that the owner will only ever sleep in for a limited number of days. ‘Our Children Are Coming’ deals with the fear of losing children to the new society. The narrator’s friend, Obinna, has a harebrained solution to the dilemma: raise one family overseas and another one back home to be with, should you ever return. While not to be advocated, Mr. Okons in the last short story would wish he had thought of the idea, so a return home alone would not be such a daunting prospect.
In the story, ‘A Kernel for a Fowl’, the female protagonist embraces life in America because, “No proverbs were created around computers, iPods and GPS systems, so you accepted that all proverbs were suspended.” She comes to realise that it doesn’t quite work like that, when a relationship with a Nigerian lothario goes awry, to devastating consequences. ‘The Butcher, The Surgeon and I’ closes the book, and is the standout piece. Okonkwo has shortened his name to Okons, “To make it easy for Americans to pronounce.” He later regrets the name change because, “It was a mockery of my real name.” Alienated from his wife and grown children, Okonkwo has become disillusioned and yearns for home. “I have not always been like this. I believed in Western civilization. It saved my life. I once vouched for it.” Worse, “Georgina, my wife of forty years, is now like those monuments of Europe… Our lives, our home and our acquaintances are all in her image.”
He waxes nostalgic about life back in his village, his skills as the clan’s butcher, his love for his brother, the pogrom and the Biafran War. The story casts a sweeping eye over a whole life as recalled by an immigrant. It reminds one of Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘The Third and Final Continent’ – with a sad conclusion in this case.
The military debasement of Okonkwo and his wife during a visit home at the height of the Buhari regime and War Against Indiscipline (WAI) in 1984, makes for prescient reading in 2016, the leader’s second coming as a civilian president having come to pass, and with WAI reborn.
A reference to the “Lekki beach area of Lagos Island”, however, betrays some distancing from the local terrain on the part of the US-based author. It is also highly unlikely that a Nigerian soldier would have referred to a woman’s behind as “butt” in 1984. There are some typos, too, but mercifully few. ‘This American Life Sef’ is a worthy addition to our growing canon of immigrant tales. It is sensitively written, insightful and engaging. It evokes sadness and inspires mirth, all on the same page. Rudolf Ogoo Okonkwo has more than made up for his inattentiveness on that plane journey from long ago.
‘This American Life Sef’ by Rudolf Ogoo Okonkwo; 94 pages; Winepress Publishing (2016).