By Damiete Braide
The sixth edition of Literary Crossroads was, indeed, an exciting and educative one as Nigeria’s Okey Ndibe and Congolese J.J Bola took book lovers and art critics in their literary adventures at Goethe-Institut, Lagos Island.
Okey Ndibe, who is based in United State of America (USA), read excerpts from his books, Never Look an American in the Eye and Foreign Gods, Inc, while J.J. Bola, based in United Kingdom (UK) read his debut novel, No Place like Home, in a session moderated by Safurat Balogun.
The Literary Crossroads is organised by Goethe-Institut and seeks to bring together African writers on the continent and from the Diaspora to discuss contemporary trends and themes in Literature. The session usually brings a Nigerian writer and another African writer to have a conversation with their audience while they tell their readers what is going on in the African society, literature and books.
First to read was Okey Ndibe, from his novel, Arrows of Rain (page 10); while JJ Bola told the gathering that he was happy to be in Nigeria, after which he read the epilogue of his book, No Place like Home. He recalled that he had read some of Ndibe’s works a decade ago, and never imagined that he would meet him in person.
The moderator asked both writers their fascination with immigrants as it entailed the stories of exile.
In response, Bola said it could be very complicated stories to tell, “Oftentimes when we write stories like these, the anticipation is: Is going to be someone who leaves home and feels hurt with their culture and comes back and feels hurt with their people and culture, and they don’t really connect. It is much more than just that. It is so much more complicated, we all have a story of leaving, and I think the first place that you leave is obviously when you are born into the world and when you leave your parents’ house, and you might leave the town or city; but when you move from one country to another, it is such a political issue, particularly in the power dynamics of being part of the African Diaspora.
“It becomes almost like a single resentment, and I didn’t want to present this book in that way that shows almost like a negative life. When I first wrote this book, all the early editors who read it said, ‘You are writing about Congo, but it doesn’t sound like you are writing about Congo’. And I said, ‘That’s because you are expecting to read about war, conflict and all the negative things, but this book is not like that’.
“For me, these stories are important, because they are human stories. Humans have migrated all over the world since the beginning of time. I think the more we understand the newer experience of what it is be somewhere and to go somewhere, from place to place, the more we understand ourselves as well as people. That is what I am really trying to get at. I won’t call it an immigrant story, but a story of people understanding themselves.”
Corroborating what Bola had said earlier, Ndibe echoed, “The narrative of travel is so intrinsic to what makes us human; it is that narrative that we began to hear as children when we heard folktales about tortoise and animals. What will happen? Tortoise will leave the land of animals and sometimes go into the space of human beings for his adventures.
“Or, there will be a crisis in the world, and tortoise will trick the birds to take him on a trip to the sky. So, the idea of drama is intrinsically linked with the idea of displacement. When you move from one place to a different place, it’s a displacement, and there is great drama there. When you travel to a different culture, you begin to experience something that is interesting and dramatic, and, as a writer, you want to explore that and that is why the story is important to me.”
Responding to question on the motivation for his work, the Congolese said it was influenced by what he witnessed in his community as a child growing up as people recounted their stories at, adding, “So, I was just trying to carry on that tradition by sharing what I experienced around me. It was really a fluid process; it was not one that I was trying to create something political or respond to a situation; it was really what existed in my community. For me, I found one medium in which I was able to transform the story from inside my community to outside my community.”
Responding on his concept of home since he was living in the US, Ndibe said: “In a lot of ways, wherever I am, I find some sense and semblance of home. Home for me, ideally, should be a place of great tranquility and happiness; but it may not be so. There are so many people who come from homes that are in convulsion, chaotic, so I feel all of that. I have lived in America partly little more that I have lived in Nigeria, yet, emotionally, I am very invested in Nigeria.
“I still take seriously, this idea of being an American; I took American citizenship, and I married there; I have children who see themselves as half-Americans. I think of my home town and, whenever I visit there, with that palm wine or food that I grew up with, I feel at home when I eat those food, and that is why I cook them in America, because I have to eat the food