REVIEW: Foreign Gods Inc. by Okey Ndibe
Electric Lit is 12 years old! Help support the next dozen years by helping us raise $12,000 for 12 years, and get exclusive merch!
Contemporary writers who climbed the ladders of colonialism to Britain and America’s publishing meccas have spread African literature — Nigerian, in particular — to growing audiences. From Teju Cole to NoViolet Bulawayo, these descendants of Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka share tenuous relationships with their new homes, evoking history-less surroundings and a quickly-shed naiveté. Yet, a common flaw is the tendency to gloss over and presume basic survival needs, such as finding a job that enables social and personal growth; meanwhile, straightforward racial and cultural commentaries are often employed to do the narrative heavy lifting. Nothing, however, is quite so obvious, or easy, in Okey Ndibe’s, Foreign Gods, Inc.
Ndibe takes the story of a Nigerian immigrant and advances it nearly ten years. Laid before Ikechukwu Uzondu’s (Ike) unrest and desperation from having failed to acquire a role in corporate America (despite a college education),
Ndibe transforms the American Dream into a barren minefield of temptation and manipulation.
In doing so, the linear and concise plot becomes a lesson on moral and cultural relativism that’s nuanced and visceral.
Ike is a struggling, though not faultless, cab driver. His attempts to breach a higher social class are thwarted by prejudices embodied in reactions to his Nigerian accent. Ike also throws money away at casinos, convinced he is owed big winnings with each new trip, and is taken advantage of by his sex-obsessed and shopaholic green-card wife, Queen Bee. At one point, Ike’s seemingly only American friend scoffs, bemused at the fact that Ike has not been able to sustain a comfortably bare-bones life as a cab driver, like most other African immigrants in the city.
With Foreign Gods, Inc., a shop that flips relics, making millions on the commercial vitality of ancient idolatry, Ike sees an opportunity to attain status and wealth in one fell swoop.
In contrast to his other vices, he describes the store in discreet terms, saying it has a “tactful anonymity,” and, once inside, the upstairs, appropriately called Heaven, is guarded by a sign that reads, “Please do not ascend unless escorted.” We learn of his desperate plan to steal his village’s ancient idol, a small statue of Ngene, God of War. As he struggles to pull himself together financially and mentally for the trip home, he suffers catatonic spells during rainstorms and anxious, allegoric dreams — foreboding omens as he prepares to trade in his old heritage so that he can buy a new American one. His hometown’s religious politics intertwine with wealth and consumerism to not only reflect Ike’s American idols, but, naturally, they also complicate his planned theft of Ngene.
The success of the story relies largely on Ndibe’s ability to create a sparkle of innocence and sympathy around Ike, despite the fact that he has fallen far from the idyllic hopeful narrator.
This advanced approach is undoubtedly due to Ndibe’s significant personal experience in dealing with fraught circumstances. As a young boy, Ndibe suffered his family’s displacement due to civil war in the late ’60s. After years of defying the government through his reporting, and well on his way to becoming a pariah, he escaped to America with a personal invitation from Chinua Achebe to edit a new African-American publication. That opportunity was short-lived, however, and he soon found himself adrift. Using these experiences for emotional context, he is able to blur some of the more obvious social and political commentaries available to immigrant writers in order to create a haze of distress and addiction. While Ndibe himself never struggled with quite the same lows, his ability to personify nine years’ worth of cultural, racial and class frustration is sublime.
As one would guess, a story wrought with vice and religious power play deals a heavy dose of cynicism, which presents a potential pitfall for Ndibe himself: Trying to relate a story that doesn’t wallow in misanthropy. To his credit, such sentiments bubble under the surface but never escape. The concise description and invisible hand of the narrator, as well as the emotional connection to Ike mentioned earlier, prove strong enough to contain all the social, racial, cultural and psychological subtext. The novel’s final scene then functions as a reminder that it’s not necessarily the ability to identify such injustices that counts, rather, it’s the ability to maintain perspective and never fall for the book’s definition of idolatry: false hope.
by Okey Ndibe