The young Nigerian writer believes that a story that must be told never forgives silence
By Ayeta Wangusa
Bravery, is the word that describes a writer who tears up a manuscript and starts anew.
This is what Okey Ndibe, Nigerian-born writer did to his first-born manuscript.
Today, Ndibe regrets the impulse, and wishes that he had kept that hand-written manuscript to reflect upon how he has grown as a writer. But he is glad that feat charged him with the creative energy to write the story he had to tell, Arrows of Rain, now published by Heinemann.
His parents who introduced him to African Literature while in secondary school sparked off Ndibeâ€™s creative juices. He was intrigued by the magical world that Chinua Achebe created in Things Fall Apart. When he finally met Achebe at a fuel station in Nigeria and exchanged greetings with him: â€œ It was as though God had spoken to me!â€ Ndibe says with a glint of nostalgia in his voice.
For Ndibe, Coming to America (A title of one of his essays) was a door that opened him to Afro-American writing. â€œWhile in Nigeria, I had never read people like Toni Morrison and when I looked at my manuscript, I realised that it was inferior. I had not written the story I wanted to write. I thought somebody had to tell the story of Africa which blends the contrast of power abuse, that grim reality and the resilient spirit that speaks of hope and love.â€
Ndibe believes that it is only in Africa that you find a smile, inspite of the tyranny. It is that human drama, as he refers to it that drove him to write Arrows of Rain. With Madia, a country that is thinly disguised as Nigeria, being the microcosm of an African state, he speaks with such conviction: â€œI tell the story of Africa through a mad man look-alike, who portrays how power in Africa is distorted. Politicians in Africa seek power such mindless energy. I portray what might happen to us, if we keep quiet in the face of such power.â€
Although the novel is set in Nigeria, Ndibe did not commit himself to calling it so, because he did not want other Africans to distance themselves from the story.â€œ Madia reflects my reading of our African Historyâ€
â€˜A story that must be told, never forgives silenceâ€™, is a line in the book, that captures Ndibeâ€™s philosophy of life. He believes it is part of a writerâ€™s moral obligation to speak out the truth, even in the face of death. â€œKen Saro Wiwaâ€™s story lives after him. If Saro Wiwa hadnâ€™t died, the world would not have looked at him like they do today.â€
Ndibe, however, is disappointed by the Nigerian institutions that undermine culture. Heinemann UK no longer sends books to Nigeria, and so his book has not received the deserved publicity. â€œThis is because Heinemann Nigeria does not remit the sales from the books and because Nigeria has the highest piracy rate in the world.â€
Albeit, Ndibe is happy about some positive criticism that has come out of his Nigerian audience. â€œThey have expressed painful recognition that this is our story.â€ Though, Ndibe adds, â€œthere are some critics who have stated that the title of my book, is a parody of Achebeâ€™s Arrow of God. It is not close at all. Achebeâ€™s is Arrow, mine is Arrows. It is derived from a fable that describes rain as having two faces. It can give birth to life and death.â€
Ndibe may be far from living off his writing like Achebe does, or off the reputation of being writer, like Soyinka does, but his book has opened doors in a different capacity. â€œ Iâ€™m invited to give talks or readings in America or Europe and paid for it.â€ His visit to Uganda, on the invitation of Femrite, the Uganda Women Writersâ€™ association, is another such opening; a reward for a writer with a successful book. Ndibeâ€™s challenge as a writer has been to transform reality into art, because in Africa, it seems like a luxury to write fiction with so much tragedy around. Ndibe is comforted by the fact that after the craft of his creativity, what lives is Literature.
â€œWe write so that we are reminded of what happened. I wish I didnâ€™t have to write this story, but I had to. For instance, I describe how a soldier stabs a womanâ€™s vagina. It seems so gruesome, many writers cringe, but I had to tell the truth about what power can do.â€
Ndibe believes the challenge of the African writer is the devaluation of the political/economic structures. â€œThere are all kinds of prejudices for the African writer. For instance, no publisher will give you an advance to facilitate your writing. There are all kinds of enemies to creativity, which include power failure. There are no structures like literary agents to get you a publisher. Publishers wonâ€™t promote your book. So, there are great stories in Africa, but we are not writing them.â€
With a spirit so in touch with Africa, one wonders why Ndibe chose to become an American citizen. â€œThere is no country like America in terms of history. The history of slavery makes me feel part of America. There are more opportunities for Black people in America, than in England. It was not an easy decision for me to make, but I have come to believe that the American experience has a lot to teach Africa. I have not lost my Africanness though. My reflexes are about Africa.â€
Ndibeâ€™s word of advice to Ugandan writers is: â€œ Recognise the fact that the process of writing is painful, but above all, it provides enormous joy. Donâ€™t reach out for the easy metaphor. Your story could be important, but you havenâ€™t yet told it,â€ he says.
Ndibe changes reality into art