Okey Ndibe's newest book, Foreign Gods, Inc. is a lyrical, heavy-hitting tale that Whodunit columnist Bruce Tierney praised as "the heist novel to end all heist novels." Protagonist Ike Uzondu, a frustrated New York cab driver, has a plan to end his financial struggles—he's going to steal a god. As Ike sets off for his home village in Nigeria, his quest for Ngene—a war deity—proves a bit more challenging when he factors in his aging mother, a rather persuasive local preacher and his uncle's fierce devotion to Ngene.
In a 7 questions interview, Okey Ndibe shares his thoughts on the importance of humor, what he'd like to see in the future of African publishing and more.
Describe your book in one sentence.
Foreign Gods, Inc. is an exploration of foreignness and alienation, dramatizing a forlorn immigrant’s wacky, drink-enabled heist scheme, a clash of fates and faiths and the implacable vengefulness of a pilfered deity.
What was the initial inspiration for this novel?
The germ for this story came when a relative told me about the mysterious disappearance of the statue of a once-dreaded deity. I knew I had to probe the mystery—and to do so with a novelist’s eye.
What did you enjoy most about writing a heist story?
The greatest joy about writing a heist story—especially one in which it’s a god that’s stolen—is the boundless opportunity to leaven the narrative with dark humor. I mean, the whole idea of stealing a god is so awful and horrible as well as wacky and absurd. Writing it, you know your readers will be astonished, appalled but also bawled over. I like to call it groaning with laughter.
This book deals with many complex, heavy subjects such as the immigrant experience, greed and the value of art, yet there is so much humor woven throughout. How important is humor in your writing?
Humor is extremely important. I consider it one of my—indeed any good storyteller’s—most treasured gifts. For that matter, humor is one of humanity’s greatest bequests, on occasion essential as air and water. Without it, we’d all be bored, miserable creatures waiting our turn to drop dead. I see humor as that potent, powerful traveler, needing neither passport nor visa to cross boundaries, times, situations—to infuse narratives.
As a professor of African literature, what is your favorite book to share with students?
No question: Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. I have read it, I am confident, more than 40 times since high school. So I bring that lifetime of reading it to my classroom.
Novels by African authors have been popular in the U.S. for some time now, but it seems that Nigerian-born authors in particular are enjoying a surge in success this year. Are you excited about the growing interest?
I’m ecstatic to see the amazing interest in books by African authors. I can’t quite explain why there’s this great, buoyant curiosity about the work of African writers, but it’s an extraordinary thing. I’d like to see a boom in African publishing; I’d like publishers based on the continent to make their voices felt, to become a more vital part of this aesthetic conversation, this rich harvest of writing that’s enriching literary culture globally. And I’d like to see a culture of leisure reading take deeper root among Africans. Nothing would make me happier than to see Africans, on the continent as well as abroad, more engaged in reading African writers’ emerging works.
What are you working on now?
Two projects. I’m writing memoir essays based on my sometimes hilarious, often scary experiences in America. It’s called Going Dutch and other American (Mis)Adventures. The other project is a novel, Return Flights