Catherine Onyemelukwe

Author, Blogger, Speaker

Day Two of African Literature Association Conference

Never Look an American in the Eye

Panel members for African Literature Association Conference Day 2, with Kalu Ogaa right, Ndibe center, Masterson behind.

Panel members with Chair Kalu Ogbaa on right, Okey in center, John Masterson behind.

I went back to New Haven on Thursday for Day 2 of the African Literature Association Conference. I was part of a panel with the title “Okey Ndibe and Life-Writing: Looking Igbos in the Eye with Okey Ndibe.”

The title is a reference to Okey Ndibe’s memoir, Never Look an American in the Eye.

I got to the room a few minutes before the starting time. Okey was there with his wife Sheri.

The room was in disarray with desks every which way! Sheri and I apparently had the same thought – we began moving the desks into rows. Then I thought, why? I’m not in charge. She and I didn’t discuss it, but we both stopped moving things around. I took one desk for myself, put it next to Okey at the front of the room, and was done!

The chair was an Igbo man, a professor at Southern Connecticut State University. He began his remarks by telling the audience that “Igbo” is both singular and plural, so no “s” on Igbos (as in the panel title). Then he said he had only received his copy of Okey’s memoir from the publisher the day before. He had only read a little. Not too impressive.

The Panel Discussion

Okey Ndibe, featured panelist at African Literature Association Conference

Okey Ndibe, featured panelist at African Literature Association Conference

He asked Okey to speak first. “How did you arrive at your title?” he asked. Of course, if he’d read the memoir, he would have known! But maybe audience members didn’t.

Do you know the answer?

Okey said his uncle in Nigeria had watched many old Westerns. He couldn’t understand the words, but saw two men facing off, staring at each other, then drawing guns. His conclusion? If you look someone in the eye, you will be shot. So when Okey was leaving for America, he warned his nephew, “Don’t look an American in the eye, or he will shoot you!”

Circularity in Story Structure

John Masterson, panelist with me on Day Two of African Literature Association Conference

John Masterson, panelist with me on Day Two of African Literature Association Conference, and chair of another panel

John Masterson, professor at University of Sussex, was also one of the panel presenters. He asked Okey about the non-linear structure of the memoir. I loved Okey’s answer, which I’m paraphrasing. “Our Igbo elders tell stories in a circuitous manner. You wonder where they are going as they seem to meander, relating one recent experience and one ancient tale. Then they tie it all together to reach their conclusion.”

He also pointed out that the Igbo world contains the present, but also the ancestors and those yet to be born. So it is less constrained than our Western concept of time.

I posted my review of Okey’s memoir on Goodreads. “Lots of fun to read. And so true – the way an African first experiences race in America is completely different from the way American Blacks experience it. Okey shares his own experiences on race and other issues with humor and insight,” I said.

For my part of the panel, I read the section from my memoir about visiting the Dibia. The audience of about 15 people seemed to appreciate it. But I was unhappy that I forgot to hand out bookmarks. We got too busy taking photos at the end!

Refugee Experience

After lunch I attended a panel called, “African Texts in American Contexts.” The same John Masterson was chair of this panel. I was interested in Joya Uraizee’s comments on Dave Eggers’ What is the What? as a refugee narrative.

Joya Uraizee spoke about Eggers' novel at African Literature Association Conference Day Two

Joya Uraizee spoke about Eggers’ novel at African Literature Association Conference Day Two

Dave Eggers' novel What is the What

Dave Eggers’ novel What is the What

I was not familiar with Eggers’ 2006 novel. It is, Wikipedia tells me, “based on a Sudanese child refugee who immigrated to the United States under the Lost Boys of Sudan program. It was a finalist for the National Book Award.”

The presenter said the novel showed how the boy was isolated in the U.S. He was completely without a sense of community. Despite the horrific experience he’d had in Sudan, he longed to return.

My second book talks about this longing for community. I’d like to read Eggers’ novel for that perspective. Have you read it?

I’ll tell you about the rest of the conference next time, including my presentation about Nigerwives which was part of “Inter-Racial Encounters in Life and Fiction.”

Response to Threat Against Igbo People

Recently a group of people in northern Nigeria, the Arewa Youth, issued a threat to all Igbo people living in the north. “Leave by October 1,” they said. In response, southerners told northerners living in the southeast to leave.

At last the State Security Service has spoken out against the initial threat and those who made it. Sunday’s Premium Times had the news.

Quoting from the SSS’s public statement, the article says, “[The SSS] warns, in very clear terms, all those who are charting the course of disunity among Nigerians to desist from their divisive actions. The Service is also not oblivious of the efforts of some miscreants to ignite fear and cause ethnic tensions across the country. It strongly condemns in its entirety the call for relocation of anyone to places against their wishes.”

They conclude that such an order is illegal and against the spirit of the Constitution. I’m so happy to see the constitution held up as the framework to measure actions.

They end their statement with, “The Service wants to reassure the entire populace that it will not leave any stone unturned to ensure that those who are bent on causing a breakdown of law and order are not spared.”

Firm statement. Let’s hope the action is equally firm, and also fair.

Author: Catherine Onyemelukwe

Author, blogger, speaker. Born in New York, grew up in mid west United States, lived in Nigeria for 24 years, back in U.S. since 1986. Advocate for racial justice.


  1. Catherine — Hello. You will find much of use — and interest — in Eggers powerful book What Is The What! I’ve read it, and I held my breath for pages and pages, only many pages later, realizing that I was being held in a suspense that I alone could break. I closed the book, then began reading it again, but this time, with more awareness of how to read What Is The What. No question mark.

    • Thanks, Luvon. We’ve now added Eggers’ book to the list of “to read” for one of my book groups. If we don’t get to it soon, I’ll read it on my own. But then I’ve said that about a couple of books that I haven’t yet read! Where does the time go?