It's an American thing, this first-name form of address.
In many places, he would be Dr. Ndibe. But here, it's different, especially among his students. "They call me Okey," he said. "Now, I love it."
Officially, he's Dr. Okey Ndibe, who teaches African literature and creative writing at Brown University and Trinity College in Hartford. Author of two novels, "foreign gods" and "Arrows of Rain," he joins two other speakers at Clark University's Book and Author Dinner in Worcester April 29.
Ndibe is a guest along with two former Telegram & Gazette writer/editors with equally impressive author cred—Nicholas Basbanes and James Dempsey. Organized by the Friends of Goddard Library, this event benefits the Friends and helps support a variety of programs at Clark and in the Worcester community, said Gwen Arthur, Clark University librarian.
Ndibe bases his talk about experiences in the United States in light of an upbringing that included the horrific civil war in Biafra. Thousands died of starvation alone in that era. But expect to laugh, he warns. To Ndibe, living is a joyful experience, and humor a strength, easing the culture clashes he encountered after coming to this country. Some are harder to accept than others, but there is one underlying truth to be considered:
Here, he is safe. Each time he returns to Nigeria his freedom, and his life, are in danger.
That's because he has written openly and critically about the government there, refusing to pander or yield just to be safe. He is co-founder, with award-winning author Chinua Achebe ("Things Fall Apart"), of the journal African Commentary and as a novelist has written about Nigerian struggles, both in their homeland and as immigrants. His essay, "My African Eyes" details his childhood experience of the terror in Biafra from 1967 to 1970. "We lived in the shadow of the sudden appearance of jet fighters that began to strafe the place. We would take cover in makeshift bunkers or underneath trees," he said in a recent interview.
Estimates conclude that one to three million people died in that conflict, either from starvation or attacks. Some were his family members. His father, a civil government employee, was imprisoned for speaking out against human rights violations, and later sent the family out of the dangerous northeastern section of Nigeria into the southeast part of the country. They moved in with relatives, sometimes squeezing 10 into one room. What followed was years of deprivation, but also great family connection, in which people shared whatever they had with others.
He considers himself more enriched than diminished by his experiences. But there were costs. He grew up with the sound of bombs going off in the distance. "There was this loss of innocence, and awareness of the horror that's there," he said. "It was difficult to do the things children want to do."
"There was no food. We had to hunt lizards for meat, and would go for days without any meaningful meals. Some officials kept the relief food to themselves."
He also lost his native language after the family left northeastern Nigeria. "Nobody wanted to speak it," he said. Instead, he learned the dialects of his new home, and also English.
Yet there were positives, in the way people cared for each other, even during war, he said. "People took in refugees, gave a room to our family. There was a magical feeling of generosity from people, who had very little really. It moved and shaped me."
Upon reaching adulthood, he earned a business degree in Nigeria and worked as a journalist and magazine editor. He came to this country at 28, invited by Achebe. He earned a master's of fine arts and a doctorate at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst while continuing to write for magazines and newspapers in this country. His essay, "Eyes to the Ground: The Perils of the Black Student," won a 2001 Association of Opinion Page Editors award.
As a teacher, much of his time is taken up with students and classes, but writing remains his focus: "It's important; when something is important, we find a way to do it," he said. "We're all 'officially' busy, but you can always do more and more. I'm passionate about writing, so I don't get as much sleep as other people—including my wife—would want me to get. I'm passionate about reading as well. I have to turn down some invitations because I have to do that. "
His fellow speakers, James Dempsey and Nicholas Basbanes, are strongly rooted in journalism and both are prolific writers.
Dempsey was a metro columnist for the Telegram & Gazette for many years and was a writing coach at the paper. He has published fiction, poetry and academic papers, and is teaching writing at Worcester Polytechnical Institute (WPI) as administrator of Literary Studies. He has a master's degree from Clark University.
Dempsey says he enjoys discovering and nurturing students toward their writing potential. Author of two novels, he remains interested in academic, journalistic and creative writing. He has written a biography of Scofield Thayer, editor of a literary journal, "The Dial," during the 1920s.
Basbanes, of North Grafton, is former literary editor of the Worcester Sunday Telegram and a writer whose passion for literature has spawned a number of books.
He has written both a column about books and authors ("Gently Mad") for Fine Books and Collections magazine, and a nationally syndicated monthly review of children's books for Literary Features Syndicate, co-written with his wife, Constance Basbanes. He has been described as "the leading authority of books about books," by the noted biographer and historian David McCullough, and has written several books, among them: "A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books," a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. He also wrote "Patience & Fortitude: A Roving Chronicle of Book People, Book Places, and Book Culture" and "Every Book Has Its Reader: The Power of the Printed Word to Stir the World."
Basbanes received a National Endowment fellowship last year for his work in progress, about paper and papermaking. "On Paper: The Everything of its Two Thousand History" has been short-listed for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction. It's also been named a best book of the year by Kirkus Reviews, Booklist, Bloomberg News, Mother Jones, the National Post (Canada) and the American Library Association.
He is a frequent contributor to newspapers and writing journals.