For Two Ghanaian Siblings, the American Dream Is Poisonous
In DK Nnuro's novel "What Napolean Could Not Do," America's racist immigration system forces difficult life choices
Not having to think about the American immigration system is a privilege far less publicly acknowledged or understood. Even to me, who spent a good year and a half away from my partner because of American immigration, the weight of this truth didn’t hit as much as it does to the average Ghanaian made to endure a far opaquer, unnecessarily long and arduous process to (hopefully) obtain a visa. I realized this in my conversation with DK Nnuro.
Born and raised in Ghana, Nnuro tells me he’s been fascinated by how the West complicates Ghanaian love in its different forms, and how the desire for America compels people to negotiate love and in what ways when confronted with the demands of U.S. immigration. It’s not surprising then that Nnuro’s debut, What Napoleon Could Not Do, is an unflinching interrogation of American privilege, and a complex and nuanced exploration of the farce of the American dream.
The novel follows siblings, Belinda and Jacob, as they pursue different pathways to the land of opportunity. For strong-willed, studious Belinda, the route is easy—she first secures a spot at a reputable school in Connecticut, then goes on to attend law school and eventually marries Wilder, a rich, Black businessman. Jacob on the other hand is not even close to reaching the US—his visa denied twice, his marriage in shambles because he’s unable to reunite with his wife in Virginia. What’s worse is that Jacob cannot move out of the family home and must live there in the shadow of Belinda’s brilliance, constantly reminded as he is by their dad Mr. Nti that Belinda has done “What Napoleon Could Not Do.” What Jacob or Mr. Nti don’t know is that America isn’t all that glamorous. Belina is lonely, her longing for home exacerbated by the delay of her green card, and by the tragic disintegration of her romanticized idea of America spurred by her husband’s experience of being Black in America.
DK Nnuro is currently the curator of special projects at the University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art. He and I spoke over Zoom about immigrant parenting, the nuances of the colonized mindset, contending with white supremacy, privilege and more.
Bareerah Ghani: I find this sibling rivalry between Jacob and Belinda very compelling. I wondered how much of their tussle was caused by their dad, Mr. Nti playing favorites, often unknowingly because he was enamored by how Belinda had seemingly achieved what he considered impossible. I’m curious about your thoughts on parents unconsciously pitting children against one another. Do you think it can ever be a healthy catalyst for self-improvement or will it always be a deterrent to intimacy in sibling relationships as we see in the novel?
Derek Nnuro: Well, yes, in my novel it certainly doesn’t foster any kind of love between these two characters. I think Belinda’s just naturally competitive. Jacob and her are polar opposites in terms of their ambitions, and how they go after their ambitions. Now their being opposites doesn’t necessarily mean they were going to have an antagonistic relationship, which is to some degree what they have. But I do believe that as a result of their father favoring Belinda that antagonism is engendered in Jacob. And he also exists in a patriarchal culture that says that as a man, in comparison to his sister, he should chalk up all the successes. It should be him who’s celebrated. So it’s especially wounding for him that he isn’t able to meet the demands of society—this society that says as a man, you should be the one who’s the star in the family, because there’s not much expectation from the other man amongst the children, Robert, because he’s deaf and mute. So all of this expectation rests on Jacob’s shoulders, and the fact that he cannot meet them is enough for him to to be as wounded as he is, and as a result hate his sister as much as he does. But I think it’s taken to a whole other level because of the special awe his father has for his sister.
I do believe that every parent has their favorite. But I think a good parent knows how to not make it obvious. Unfortunately, Mr. Nti has just made it obvious. But I don’t think he’s rare in the fact that he has a favorite child.
BG: Honestly I feel like, in what I’ve read and seen in my own family and around me, that picking a favorite is more of an immigrant thing.
DK: I think you’re right. This is the thing. In America, there’s the “participation trophy”, we don’t have that outside of the U.S. We certainly don’t have that in Ghana. And I think the participation trophy is exemplary of how much this country expects parents to treat their children with equal pride. In Ghana, it’s either you win, or you lose. I think it’s an analogous metaphor for exactly what you’re saying. Why immigrant parents really are not that shy about exposing who their favorites are, because they come from places where there is no such thing as the “participation trophy.” The expectation is win, win, win.
BG: Looking at this family’s dynamic, we see how at different points Mr. Nti undermines Jacob, whether that’s his intellect, ambition or drive to find a woman for himself. In some places, it’s cruel but in others, it appears to be tough love and maybe an expression of Mr. Nti’s desire to see Jacob succeed. What do you think of tough love and to what extent is it justified, especially in the context of Ghanaian culture?
DK: If there’s a concept such as tough love in Ghana, it’s imported. I guarantee that if you hear a Ghanaian parent talking about tough love, they’ve been influenced by some Western idea. I don’t think the concept of tough love is indigenous to Ghana. I don’t think Ghanaians know any other love than toughness. A lot of my African immigrant friends and I talk about the difficulty fathers have in just showing love, hugging you, saying I love you. And I think this is probably true for immigrants in America, at large. Speaking specifically from my upbringing, and what I’ve observed to be true about Ghanaian parents, in their mind, of course they love you. Now how they practice love is different from how love is practiced in the West. In the West, it’s known as tough love, but it’s tough because surviving in Ghana is not easy. I think a lot of Ghanaian parents operate with this idea that I’ve to prepare you for this extremely tough world that I’ve brought you into, and if I’m going to be all huggy, huggy, lovey dovey, I’m stalling this necessary preparation. They feel like it’s their responsibility by virtue of being your parent. This is what love is: I’ve got to make sure that when you leave and enter the world specifically, the world that is Ghana, you have the skin that’s either going to be able to endure the inevitable pain and punches that are going to be thrown up at you or the kind of skin that allows them to just bounce off. Either way, the way they feel they need to cultivate that skin in their children is what we call toughness. It’s just the environment that shapes how parents raise their kids in Ghana and yes, in a lot of non-Western nations.
BG: Yeah, I can relate to that. You know what really annoys me sometimes about mainstream narratives around immigrant novels and experiences, is just oh, it’s not universal, but it’s like—no, it is. Because I’m here talking to you and being able to relate to so much of what you’re saying even though we’re not from the same place.
DK: It’s not universal, it’s code for it’s not white. I have got to the point where I just reject that.
BG: I love that. You know I found it so interesting that at the heart of your novel is this desire to achieve the American dream, this colonized mindset of the siblings and Mr. Nti, how they see America as this land of opportunity. It’s a phenomenon quite prevalent across former colonies but it ignores the ugly side of American supremacy such as slavery, exploitation and oppression. How do you contend with this perception of American supremacy and the idea of the American dream? To what extent do you think it can be eradicated within formerly colonized communities?
DK: Eradicated, huh. Let me give you this context. So everybody says 2020 was an inflection point in this nation. It was actually an inflection point worldwide, particularly in a country like Nigeria, where people were resisting police brutality which is very much a thing in West Africa as well. So 2020 inspired nations like Nigeria to fight against their own condition of police brutality. There were mass protests everywhere. I remember I went to Ghana not too long after that, in 2021. So it’d been a little over a year. And what I started to realize was that that inflection point had started to wear off, where people were starting to characterize (to some degree) 2020 in America as an anomaly. From what I saw it looked to me like people in Ghana were starting to see that America’s not all it’s cracked up to be because of these long reasons that you’ve touched on—white supremacy, slavery, imperialism,—and perhaps that colonized mind was starting to turn, thankfully. So I went back in 2021 but to my surprise, that eye opening that I thought had become of Ghanaians was wearing off. Why? Because the colonized mind had been restored. This pursuit of America, as this generous, kind country, where you can go and be all that you were born to be, had still won out. So I don’t know how we’re going to eradicate it, because America is the most well-branded country in the history of mankind. And if you brand something well enough, it’s very difficult for anybody to come in and taint that brand. It will take a force of nature, I really believe this, to taint that expertly achieved brand that is America. I mean the way the Constitution was drafted, ignoring the fact that this country was enslaving people and saying that all men are created equal. Okay, you can put that on paper and you can publicize it, and that publicity campaign worked. And continues to work. A lot of countries, when they turn to democracy, they model it after America.
But at the end of the day you know, Ghana is not an easy country to survive. And there’s a way that as human beings, we just need something to hope for. It just keeps us going. For a lot of people who are having to contend with these difficult nations that they live in, America is just something to hope for, and that keeps them going, and to some degree I can’t begrudge them that because we all need something to hold on to.
BG: When Belinda comes to the U.S., her husband, Wilder, is the one who challenges her perception of America. That part is where I saw the novel making a commentary against the mainstream narrative that glorifies the American Dream and is speaking to the necessity of decolonizing your mind to better understand your privilege. I’m curious about your thought process when bringing Wilder’s character into existence and on how people of color can decolonize themselves and navigate white centered spaces?
DK: Wilder could’ve been the angry Black man, and of course I think he could be argued to be that stereotype. But what I found very interesting about Wilder, what drew me to him as a character is that he represents Black wealth. He represents Black resilience. He represents to a significant degree at least superficially, Black dignity. I’ve always been fascinated by Black, generational wealth like, wow! You know there are dark stories about Black people having owned slaves, which is how they came into their own money. That’s not Wilder’s family history. There are Black people who made money from oil and real estate, and all kinds of diversified portfolios, like Wilder’s family. What fascinates me most about them is that they represent Black resilience. That wealth represents a Black resilience because they didn’t achieve that wealth in isolation. They achieved that wealth despite white supremacy’s several attempts to end that wealth. And you know the idea of the angry Black man–that stereotype–is usually associated with maybe a working-class Black man. Certainly not a rich Black man. I believe, because I’ve seen it, that being Black in America and enjoying all the trappings of “good” that America has to offer you doesn’t mean that you’re immune to the rage that you’re going to find yourself filled with by virtue of being a Black body in this country. I’ve always had a hard time with such statements like, oh, get over it. Oh, it’s been so long! Like, no. The pain is especially there because there are different manifestations. They’re not as overt or as perverse as they were during the time of slavery, but dammit, they’re still as wounding. Something like microaggressions are still as wounding as anything else. It’s going to be very difficult for non-white people in this nation who are conscious of the perniciousness of white supremacy to exist without rage.
Now, we exist in these white spaces with our rage, whatever degree of rage it is. How do we navigate it? I think we have been, by merely surviving. By virtue of the fact that Wilder Thomas exists with all his wealth and in all his Blackness, is evidence of the fact that he has survived it. He’s just a small example of how Black and Brown bodies have survived, continue to survive, will continue to survive. It is not without pain. It is not without rage. But somehow, we figure it out, and we keep going. And that was what I really sought to render or capture in Wilder.
Just because we keep going with dignity, by holding our heads up, doesn’t mean we’re not angry, we’re not observing things. It’s incumbent on the purveyors of white supremacy, the practitioners of white supremacy to do the work for us to be less angry, to be less filled with rage. It’s not our job because we’re doing our job despite all the things being thrown at us. We’re still surviving. We’re doing what Napoleon could not do. So now, it’s your job. It’s been your job.
BG: I want to ask about a lack of resources for the deaf in Ghana which makes its way into the novel. It’s poignant to see Robert trying to start a deaf camp but failing to attract students because their hearing parents could not see the merits of it. I would love for you to share how you came to write deaf characters with such nuance and care and how you contend with this issue—which is universal—of the hearing world’s need for conformity and a lack of understanding of what the deaf community needs?
DK: Well, a beloved uncle of mine is deaf and mute. My mother is one of thirteen, and he’s the fourth child. His wife’s also deaf and mute. I’m able to communicate with him, but not expertly. So I think, having grown up with him has allowed me to cultivate more empathy, and understand the condition of deafness with more nuance. I’ve known him all my life and that has shaped me in profound ways so much that it made its way into my first novel.
One of the things that has always struck me is how inhospitable Ghana is to not just deaf people, but differently abled people writ large because there are very few resources to go around. Ghana has come to the understanding that only if we have a surplus upon surplus can we start to think about our differently abled populations. And this impacts how such people experience Ghana and why their experience is a difficult one. I’ve always been confronted with that fact, because again, he’s a dear uncle of mine, and I love him so much. So what hurts him hurts me. If there was any mission driven aspect of my novel, I think that’s it. I was desperate to make some noise.
And I think it’s true of human beings that we have to be made to pay attention to certain injustices that don’t directly affect us. And even when we’ve been made to at least recognize it, a lot more work has to be done for us to take it to heart so that we can put it into practice in order to curb the perpetuation of this injustice. And I think that’s a human condition that’s very much amplified in the relationship between the hearing world and the deaf community. It’s incumbent then on people like me, who have been affected by it, who have been paying attention to it from day one, to do the work to bring more attention to it. Otherwise it’s just not going to happen. And I take that responsibility very seriously.