EDITOR’S NOTE BY MEAKIN ARMSTRONG
It was midnight in mid-2008, and I was reading fiction submissions. I’d already been with Guernica a couple of years, but I was still struggling to define what an ideal Guernica story was. I wanted our short stories to shed light on clashing cultures in America and the world. And ideally, it would touch on the conflict between the Global North and South. That’s when I came across E.C. Osondu’s submission, “Waiting,” in my in-box.
I hadn’t heard of Osondu then, but by 2008, he was already considered a promising writer. From first few lines of “Waiting,” I was in love: “My name is Orlando Zaki. Orlando is taken from Orlando, Florida, which is what is written on the t-shirt given to me by the Red Cross. Zaki is the name of the town where I was found and from which I was brought to this refugee camp. My friends in the camp are known by the inscriptions written on their t-shirts.” I raced through the piece, worried that it would let me down. Would Osondu end it on some ridiculous note? The story only got better.
I remember pacing the room and getting excited. This is why I work with Guernica: to publish fiction like “Waiting.” Later, it won Africa’s top literary prize, the Caine Prize for African Writing. In many ways, that story put us on the map and I love that our magazine is associated with E.C. and his career.
“Debriefing,” which we published in 2012, is equally arresting. From its first few lines, it hooks you: “Do not buy a car. Do not drive. Ignore advice to obtain an international driver’s license before your arrival. American cops do not know what an international driving license is. Or they pretend not to know and what they don’t know makes them angry. You do not want to face an angry American cop.”
“Debriefing” uses direct address. Who is the character talking to? It’s apparently narrated by a clever man from Nigeria who has figured out how to maneuver through America. To this character, the U.S. is a tribal country that doesn’t like foreigners. Nonetheless, it appreciates the simple things, like watching baseball and listening to it on the radio. “Play it loud and let your neighbors hear what you are listening to; it will calm them and put them at ease about you.” In short, “Debriefing” is about undocumented America past the glittering boutiques and bars and shopping malls. It’s about a country made up of those just looking to survive.
Osondu has a novel coming out, This House is Not For Sale. And I’ve heard (a very reliable) rumor that it’s quite good. I can’t wait for that book to be released, because it will undoubtedly open up more worlds we previously didn’t know much about.
Senior Editor & Fiction Editor, Guernica
Do not buy a car. Do not drive. Ignore advice to obtain an international driver’s license before your arrival. American cops do not know what an international driving license is. Or they pretend not to know and what they don’t know makes them angry. You do not want to face an angry American cop. Driving is a slippery slope. Driving is trouble. Driving is tickets. Driving is a cop asking you for your license and registration. Before you know it, you are standing before an elderly grim immigration judge.
Avoid parties organized by our people. Arguments and fights break out over politics, over politicians, over girls, over anything, over nothing. Drunken arguments. Especially after imbibing a cocktail of Hennessey and Irish Cream. Neighbors call the cops. Cops ask for identification. Remember you do not have one. I know we are a party-loving people, so if you think you can’t live without it, go to YouTube, there’s more entertainment on YouTube than you’ll find at any Nigerian party. Nobody was ever arrested for watching YouTube videos.
Avoid Rashonda and Shenika and her sisters. They once married and had kids or dated and had their hearts broken by our men. They are on a revenge mission. They’ll take out their hurt on you. They’ll promise they’ll marry you to help you get a Green Card. They will not. Ignore their avowed love for our local food. They’ll tell you they love eating spicy food. They’ll eat you dry, eat you out of the house, and dump you. Besides, they smoke weed. They’ll expect you to pay for their habit. Weed is expensive in America, unlike back home where you can get it for next to nothing.
Avoid Chucks. Is that even one of our names? Anyway, that is what he calls himself. Sounds like a made-up name, neither Chuck, which is American, nor Chuks, which is ours. His name is not the only dubious thing about him. He’ll tell you he is in the auto insurance business. This is a ruse. Actually, this is what he does: he buys cars, insures them heavily, looks for a lonely road, and drives them into a tree. After which, he claims the insurance money and throws a big party. Remember what I told you earlier about Nigerian parties. He recruits new drivers at these parties. He will tell you that there is no risk involved. He’ll assure you that all you have to do is wear your seat-belt and run into a tree. One of his drivers ran into a tree and broke a neck bone. He is still wearing a neck brace. Before Chucks became a car crasher, he drove around town in his beat-up Nissan looking for unsuspecting inexperienced drivers who’d run into him so he could collect. Avoid him. He has no honest bone in his body.
If you must travel, travel by Amtrak. Trains are safe, buses are not. I mean safe from raids by the INS. Here’s something that happened to someone I know. He boarded a Greyhound bus that was traveling from Chicago to upstate New York. At the Greyhound bus station in Chicago, there were boisterous kids. The boys were in jeans and t-shirts, but the girls were dressed the traditional Somali way. Colorful scarves and cotton patterned wraps. It was a night trip. A few hours after the bus pulled out of the station, the bus was pulled over into a gas station by a detachment from the INS. They went from seat to seat asking people, Where are you from? Do you have an ID? Identify yourself. Soon they got to the row of the Somali kids. Where are you from? From Chicago. I mean what country? America. Do you have ID? And the kids pulled out shiny U.S. passports. Avoid the bus. It is overcrowded, overheated, over-scrutinized, and accident prone. If you must travel, take the train.
If you must go to church — I suspect you will want to go to church, because you are a man with problems, and a man with problems needs prayer. Avoid the American churches, though: they do not shout in American churches and a person with problems needs to shout loud enough to reach the heavens.
American churches do not announce jobs. The pastors do not know the places that hire those without papers. The pastors do not order people to go on “seven days dry” nor “white fasting.” They do not play loud music; they do not dance energetically and frenetically. I hear the African-American churches in the South do. But those are in the Deep South.
And while on the subject of churches: the church is not an opportunity to meet girls. The girls in the churches, the immigrant girls, are in the same leaky boat as you. They do not have papers, they are illegal, they are searching for someone to marry them for a Green Card. They’ll not tell you this fact until you happen to mention it one day when you are both in bed and then they’ll hiss like an angry snake, Why did you not tell me all this? I wasted my time cooking for you. They will leave you on the bed half-naked as they march out with righteous indignation, giving your door such a loud bang on their way out that the door is left wondering what it did wrong.
People will urge you to go to school. They’ll tell you an American education is useful. That is not true. That is 80’s. You are here to hustle. If you must get any kind of qualification, get a nursing certification or qualification in some medical field. A sick man does not care about your accent. A helpless old lady needs strong arms, not great enunciation. There are many of those schools. Get into one and you’ll qualify in eighteen months. I’ll recommend the ones run by our people. They don’t ask too many questions and you can pay on the installment plan.
If you need an immigration lawyer, never hire a Nigerian or Ghanaian lawyer. Get a white lawyer, preferably a Jewish one. He will ask you no questions, so you will not tell him any lies. Masquerades do not fear each other — I need not say more. By now you must have realized that there are tribes in America. Remember when at the port of entry you went to the black man in the booth and he called you brother — a good white lawyer will argue your case before his white brothers. Be prepared to pay a bit more. Unlike the Ghanaian and Nigerian lawyers, they do not bifurcate their payments. The only payment plan they adhere to is immediate payment. You must give them a check before every meeting and before every court appearance and before the signing of any document. I can assure you they’ll deliver. They get the job done.
If you want to understand your new society better, you should go to a baseball game. Ignore invitations to play five-a-side soccer with fellow immigrants in that obscure park in the outskirts of town. If you really hope to become a part of society, on a Friday evening go to a nearby stadium and watch a baseball game. Sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” along with the crowd. Buy a beer and a hotdog, eat some cotton candy, try to catch the ball but do not try too hard, especially if there is a kid around you trying to catch the same ball. Do not try to understand the game. It is neither cricket nor soccer. Just sit, relax, watch the people, sip your beer, and pay a little attention to the game. The good thing is that you are not obligated to stay until the end. Leave when you become bored or tired, but you bet that you’ll learn a lot more about this society from sitting at that stadium with the smell of beer and nachos and screaming kids than you’ll learn in any other place. Go on the Internet. Read up what you can find on Shoeless Joe and Yogi Berra. Learn some Yogisms. I have never met an American who hated baseball. As tea is to the Englishman, so is baseball to the American. I’ll go as far as to recommend listening to baseball commentary on the radio. Play it loud and let your neighbors hear what you are listening to; it will calm them and put them at ease about you.
Avoid buying your groceries from the African store. Their stuff is overpriced and they’ll rip you off. Train your palate to adjust to American food. There are affordable alternatives in the grocery store if you know what to look for. Eat lots of kale and spinach and collards. Winters are long. Your body will miss all those tropical vitamins but the vegetables will help compensate. Do your own cooking, not only is it cheaper, it is healthier. As you’ll soon find out, burgers and fries will not do you much good. Your cholesterol level will rise, your blood pressure will hit the roof from all that salt and fat, you’ll sicken. You are not likely to have any health insurance, so eat healthy. Exercise moderately, but stock up on Theraflu and Vicks VapoRub in case you fall sick. The mosquitoes here do not carry malaria so you do not have much to worry about.
Dress well. Dress properly. Dress the way you wish to be addressed. Ignore that entire pants on the nape of the butt thing. Leave that to Lil Wayne and all those guys on rap videos and the guys in prison. I am not saying you should spend all your money on clothes. What I am saying is that you should spend a little money on the right kind of clothes. Dress preppy. These are not my words but sage advice someone gave me many years back. Chinos pants and button down shirts. It is in your own interest to dress this way. It is reassuring. It makes you less suspicious. If you don’t believe me, walk into your local Walgreens in sagging black jeans, a black hoodie, and sneakers and watch the security guy follow you all over the store. Go back the next time dressed preppy and watch him smile and greet you with a Hello buddy.
Since you’ll not be driving, I suggest you invest in a good winter coat. Do not stint on this. You can buy one on a layaway plan. London Fog is a good brand. You do not want to suffer from any cold-borne illness. They do to the black man what tropical illnesses do to the white man.
Riding the bus is a big hassle in winter. The schedules are crazy because the auto companies want every American to drive a car. What makes the buses worse are bus people. Your first thought will be that the buses are great. You’ll think the buses are clean. You’ll think the buses are not that bad. This is because you are still making the transition from the public buses back home. I remember them with their mobile pastors who pray for everyone in the bus and then pass little envelopes around for donations. With their medicine hawkers whose little pills cure TB and gonorrhea and chickenpox. And if you aren’t lucky, you can get your pocket picked while rushing to board or struggling to alight.
American buses do not have those. American buses are filled with crazies who may not bother to wash themselves or brush their teeth. They feel compunction to lean into your face and start a conversation with you. I am a user, you know. Not proud of it but not for nothing, you know, it is what it is. Buy an ipod and blast your music. Do not engage in conversation. Do not smile.
To join or not to join? Village associations, town associations, state associations, country associations, continent associations. They have them all here. They meet once a month or once every three months. They have different names but the same parole. You pay a membership fee. You pay a monthly contribution. Someone hosts the meetings. The host provides food and drinks. There is usually a Christmas party. In the event of a birth you get a cash gift. In the event of the death of a parent you get a cash gift. In the event of your own death they are responsible for flying your body back home for burial. Quite frankly, you’ll be better off with life insurance.
Take accent reduction classes. Many people will tell you they don’t know what this is, but I do. I took one and it did help me a lot here. When I speak, people can hardly differentiate between me and a native-born speaker. Not speaking the way Americans speak is like a dead man refusing to speak in the language of the dead. Don’t be deceived by all that false cooing by old ladies, Oh that’s a lovely accent, where are you from? Some lady once told me that when you speak with an accent people pay more attention to what you are saying. What she failed to add was that they also speak to you very slowly, having concluded that you are an idiot.
Buy a $1 lottery ticket every Friday. You are not likely to win but, hey, as they say here, You never know and You have to be in it to win it. Avoid the casinos. They have the saddest people in this country. Do not be deceived by their inviting names. I know a guy who started going to a casino out of loneliness. He couldn’t wait to get out of work and head up to play the slot machines and blackjack. He had not yet heard the expression, The house always wins. He would win a few dollars and put it back in. He was soon taking payday loans to gamble. He promised himself he was going to stop. One evening he drove straight home from work. The first time in many months. He made dinner, poured himself a drink, watched a little television and went to bed. He said at first he thought he was dreaming. He saw flashing lights, then dings, tings, and bings. He jumped out of bed, picked up his car keys and drove straight to the casino. He got money from the ATM and began to play. He lost everything. He lit a cigarette — back then the casinos still permitted smoking — he smoked the cigarette halfway and dropped it on the thick rug. He drove home. The next morning he turned on the TV hoping to see the news that the casino had burned down. No such luck. Once again the house had won.
I wish I could guide you through this maze of a country but, as you well know, I’ll soon be gone. Voluntary deportation, that is what I took instead of prison. Voluntary indeed, an oxymoron. But as they say here, It is what it is.