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RUDOLF OKONKWO: The longer you stay in America, the longer you’re a ghost



A columnist with Sahara Reporters and the host of the online sarcastic TV show, Dr. Damages, Rudolf Okonkwo is the author of two books, Children of a Retired God and This American Life Sef, the latter being a potpourri of essays and short stories in one volume. He holds an MFA in Creative and Professional Writing from Western Connecticut State Professional. His latest offering, This American Life Sef, which has been winning rave reviews, is a book that presents a bleak picture of life in America, especially from an immigrant black African perspective. In this interview with HENRY AKUBUIRO recently in Lagos, during a brief visit to Nigeria, the author chose not to mince words in explaining the travails of the black African community in America.

It took you quite sometime after the publication of Children of a Retired God to come up with This American Life Sef. What happened in between?

What happened in between is called life. Life happened. Apart from changing diapers, making school runs, shuttles to piano lessons, birthday parties, play recitals, karate classes, soccer game, I also went to a seminary to become a pastor. I even started a church. It was a brand new church, one that I built from the ground up. It required a lot of work. It is not like all these franchise churches that you see at every street corner, those ones they just hand you a template from the headquarters and you go to a storefront and replicate what has been done and perfected. In my own case, nobody told me what kind of wine to use for Holy Communion, what kind of gown to put on as the pastor or the kind of beard to grow. It is a tough world out there when you are on your own. To build up a congregation is not an easy task. I can tell you that I truly understand why those who made a success of that venture want to reward themselves with a private jet, big mansions all over the world and the numerous perks for being a General Overseer. In terms of the lifestyle of the likes of Bishop David Oyedepo, Pastor Enoch Adeboye and Prophet T.B. Joshua, I failed in my church venture. And I understand my failure if that is what people call it. I failed mainly because I did not want to collect offerings and tithes from my congregation. I don’t think it is fair. I think it is unethical. And as long as I have my congregation and, as long as they keep growing and keep glowing in the spirit of the knowledge that we share, I consider myself a success.

Ok, before your readers run with this story, that was just an analogy. The seminary that I went to was the Western Connecticut State University where I obtained an MFA in Creative and Professional Writing –a kind of Theology, if you ask me. Anyway, after that, I started a church called Dr. Damages Show on SaharaTV. That was what happened. But, because my first love is writing, it was inevitable that I would come back to it.

This American Life Sef has a sarcastic import. What led you to write this book on the life of African immigrants in America?

When it comes to talking to my people, the Africans, I asked myself, what is more effective? Is it to ask them to go to a mirror and count their teeth? We have tried that for a long time now but our experience showed that the object in the mirror is a virtual copy of the actual object with the right hand showing up as left. I said to myself, what about asking them to use their tongue to count their teeth? We have tried that and it has not worked very well. In fact, it has become a cliché. Moreover, the tongue has difficulty demarcating where one tooth ends and another begins. So I felt the best way to reach my people is to tell them to use their teeth to count their tongue. It makes them pause immediately they hear it. And, if you can get an African to pause, pause in the worship of their God to lift up the log of wood in front of them, pause in the worship of money, power, European soccer, then, half of your job is done. I decided to put the book together as a complementary book to a tour of the US that I embarked on with Adeola Fayehun of Keeping It Real with Adeola in December 2015. The theme of the tour was, “This America Sef Tour.” So it fitted well.

This book is a melding of essays and short stories. What’s the sense behind this fusion?

The decision to fuss essays and fiction together is to capture the complete spectrum of African life in America. Essays based on real life of people have the limitations of giving you timelines and stamps that you cannot alter. Fiction gives you greater license to invent and reach corners that real life stories may not perfectly arrange in one particular life. In a short story, you can integrate the experiences of two dozen people into one composite character. Another reason is that readers all over the world are drifting from fictiontonon-fiction. In the case of Africans,books on how to achieve prosperity are doing well –just like religious book. So we need to mash that up with fiction to bring our people back to the kind of reading culture we had in the 1970s and 80s. A writer that does not know where his readers are is like a shepherd that does not know where his flocks are.

In the preface to the book, you penned thus: “But the debt that lives in whispers/ Is the debt of return/ It’s one debt that is never forgiven”. What are you driving at?

The debt of return is one that anyone who embarks on a journey owes the journey and the people he or she left behind. That is the reason for return tickets. People buy return ticket even when they do not know when they plan to return. But return they must. The demand to return is whispered into your ears by both men and spirits. Sometimes it is loud and sometimes it is a mere whisper. But it is always there. Our people say that the overall purpose of a journey is a return to where we came from. It is the ultimate challenge facing anyone who dares to leave the land of his or her birth. That question won’t leave you alone until you return –whether in life or in death. So many return when they are dead. If you mention that reality to an African in America or anywhere considered “abroad”, he or she will mutter, “Over my dead body”. The smart answer, however, is to say, “Tufiakwa”. Tufiakwa is a form of acknowledgment that it is a possibility that you do not wish for. But, in matters of life and death, there is so little currency in what we wish. If sacrifices and supplications fail again and again, of what use is mere wishes from the perimeters of our minds? Thousands of re- turn tickets go unused each year. It hunts those who made that purchase. You don’t forgive yourself for not using it. And you don’t forget it, either.

In the book, you tell us that “The African man in America is confused”. What’s the extent of this confusion?

George Bernard Shaw said that there are two tragedies in life – one is getting what you want and the other is not get- ting what you want. We are familiar with the tragedy of not getting what we want. The most difficult one is the tragedy of getting what we want. The reason it is tougher is that “get- ting what you want” entails changing who you are. Nobody is ever fully prepared for it. You cannot be fully prepared for what you do not fully understand. It is also the reason fame is more deadly than poverty and inconspicuousness. For being in America, the African man changes. He can fight the change but America wins in the end. America changes the African man to the point that he will be confused about his identity. To understand that shifting identity is the first challenge –same do, some don’t. I often quote that wise man who said that “those who are not lost in the understanding of their confusion are lost in confusion of their understanding.” After you arrive at a convenient answer as to your identity, even if you come up with nonsense like Afropolitan, you still have to deal with your destiny. Without a clearly defined destination, there can- not be a satisfactory answer to the destiny question. Some forms of confusion come from complex matters while some come from simple matters. For example, if you are not the head of the household by virtue of not being able to completely provide for the family, then what are you? If a phone call to the police can kick you out of the house you call “your house,” is that house really yours? If you are a chief in your village, but, in America you are the one assigned the task of taking out the trash and walking the dog, how relevant is that your chieftaincy title? At best, the longer you stay in America, the more you are a ghost of your former self. As you go from eating organic food to processed food, you evolve. Most African men end up like a bat –a mammal that flies but one that is not quiet an animal of the air or one of the land – a hybrid.

“Saving Mama Udoka” brings us home to the trajectory of the marriage institution. What is it about America that make African husbands in the US treat their wives like Mama Udoka? This theme echoes, too in “Before you Kill Your Wife”.

Well, it is not as if African men in Africa are doing a lot better. While Nigeria is a failed nation that works for the very people who failed it, America is a developing nation constantly swinging like a pendulum from degradation to excellence in its quest to build a more perfect union. It follows that anyone within America goes through the mood.

Marriage is the most important challenge facing the African man in America. It is in marriage that all the information hidden in the African man’s chromosomes emerge. For eight hours at work, the African man can swallow the cultural shock and navigate the cultural differences between him and America. He can compartmentalize the internalized lifestyle of his forefather for twelve hours at work. But once at home, the monsters crawl out. It is interesting how it all plays out. In their teens and 20s, you find the African man wanting to adopt, as much as possible, aspects of American cultures. In their 30s, they begin to doubt some of them that they find unpalatable. In their 40s, they begin to question most of them for being culturally incompatible. And in their 50s, they begin to resent most of them as cultural imperialism. In their 60s, the battle is over and the African man has come to terms with his defeat and will find solace in peripheral matters like western medicine, social amenities and any other convenience he could lay his hand on. At this point, the African man will swallow his indignation and raise a white flag.

The conflicts between the African man in America and his wife take place at the peak of this transformation. What is universally known is that the African woman in America has greater societal protection than the woman in Africa. Roles in families are different. In most cases, it is a reversal of what is obtainable in Africa. Usually it is all about money and the pressures associated with it. In America the African woman is in a position to make more money than most African men. In most families, it turns things upside down. The African man must adjust accordingly or else, find himself at odd with American society. Those who have the temperament to adjust survive. For those who don’t, they end up cooling off in various prisons across America.

During this trip, I visited a friend’s house and saw a microwave he bought from a trip to China. The microwave was in a box. I asked him why he has not brought it out and set it up. He said he intentionally left it in the box to avoid having his wife tell him to go and warm his own food when he returns from work. If my friend comes to America, he will be a dead man walking. In America his problem won’t be small matter like having to go and warm his food. He will find himself literally and figuratively pounding yam with pestle and mortar while carrying the baby on his back. It is that brutal, the reversal of roles. Only the flexible survive. You are not just going to be flexible with the role you play, you also have to be flexible with career, with attitude and with expectations.

Contrary to what we think at home, this book has shown us that living in America has many downturns. The hyphenated Nigerian child you mentioned is one disturbing example. Can you explain more?

When it is all said and done, the lasting contribution of the African man or woman’s journey to America is to add to the gene pool of America. Majority of the African child born in America will not go back to Africa to live. It doesn’t matter how many times African parents took them home for a visit. They are gone. It is the most difficult reality for many Africans in America to swallow. It doesn’t matter what mansion you build in your country of origin. For most of them the journey back home ends when they come to bury their parents. This is another discussion that brings about tufiakwa from Africans in America. Those deep in church will exclaim, “It is not my portion.” But it was the portion of Italian, English, German, Irish, Russian and Jewish migrants who came before the Africans. That of Africans would not be different. An African child born in America is, for all intents and purposes, an American child. It is not just on paper, it is in fact.As long as he or she grew up in America, America will ooze out of the child. Unfortunately, there is nothing that African parents will have in Africa that will be more inviting than the aura of America. The way you have the lost children of Sudan is the way the African children being born in America today will become the lost children of Africa. As for the parents, when their family trees are drawn in Africa, after their names, a line will be drawn that will end there, indicating that nothing is known of his or her offspring. It is like the proverb that talked about washing ones hands to crack a kernel for a fowl.

The short story “A Kernel for a Fowl” is a story about unrequited love. What exactly spurred you to write it?

“A Kernel for a Fowl” builds on that challenge around finding love. It is not that there are not many African people in America for single Africans to choose from. It is that the spread of Africans due to the wideness of America makes it hard for people to meet people. Life in America can be isolating in nature. When you add that to the fact that America reshuffles class and status, it complicates what is usually a difficult task of finding a life partner. Add that to the prejudice that Africans in America already carry in their minds the way a snail carries a shell on its back and you begin to understand how tremendously challenging that act could be. Unrequited love can be the most painful experience anyone would go through. It can happen anywhere and to anybody. But if it happens to someone who has limited options, it is more devastating.

Even though America is thousands of miles away from Africa, the influence of family members on decisions like marriage is still big. The prospective mother in-law is still a major player in the whole drama. The character in “A kernel for a fowl” found that out in a hard way.

To what extent has the Nigerian writer broken into mainstream American book industry?

That’s a good question. It is similar to the question of what extent the Nigerian musician has broken into the American music industry? We have the Davidos and the Wizkids of Nigerian literature. When Davido or Wizkid sign a deal with Jay-Z or P-Diddy, it is a big deal to be celebrated. And when writers sign a deal with the promoters of American literature, we celebrate, too. But it is often far and in-between. And unlike what we see in the music scene, in writing we have a different phenomenon where there are groups of writers who reside in America and those who reside at home. While the Nigerian musicians who primarily live in America are not making the cuts to the disadvantage of those in Nigeria, the Nigerian writers in America are, to a large extent, more prominent and pronounced within the world literary scene than those at home.

Having said it, only a select few are making the mark. If this were to be music, you can say that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is the Beyoncé of our literature. And there is Teju Cole as the Bob Dylan. Nnedi Okorafor is the Erykah Badu while Sefi Atta is the Lauryn Hill. Niyi Osundare is the Bruce Springsteen while Okey Ndibe is the Bono. Ben Okri is the Carlos Santana while Chris Abani is the Kanye West. Helen Oyeyemi is the Lady Gaga while Chika Unigwe is the Alicia Keys… and so on and so forth. Over time, those who anoint our literary stars get tired of the stars they anointed. After a while they pick a new star. That is how you find Chine- lo Okparanta positioning herself to be the Rihanna, Chigozie Obioma positioning himself to be Drake. Until we publish our own writers, we are a pawn in the chess game that is world literature. If literature were not so important for the cultural grounding of a people, it would have been a funny thing.

Do you make more friends or enemies as Dr. Damages?

Oh, I make both. But the good thing is that they swap places seamlessly. Most people are my friends when they or their friends and associates are not subjects of the jabs. But the moment they are, they become enemies. The good thing is that if they survive the week, in just another week, someone else will become the subject of the caricature and most of those hurting for Dr. Damages’ exposure will laugh it off. Because that is just what Dr. Damages does – expose the follies of newsmakers. Dr. Damages does not make the news. He does not tell newsmakers what to say.